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Prof. Turner Isoun: Tribute to a trail blazer at 80

Professor Turner Timinipre Isoun is a gentleman and a distinguished scholar who thinks that most of the solutions to the challenges of development are ‘outside the box’ – and that, as a country, Nigeria cannot continue to do things the same way and expect different results.  

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Isoun, who turns 80 tomorrow, September 2, is a firm believer in the ability of carefully considered science and technology to turn any situation around for good.

He was appointed the Honourable Minister of Science and Technology by the President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, at a time when the nation lacked direction and focus regarding science, technology, and innovation as drivers for development. 

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Prior to his arrival as minister, the federal government did not have a clear vision with respect to the purpose of the Ministry of Science and Technology. But President Olusegun Obasanjo, had a clear vision for using science, technology and innovation to invigorate the Nigerian economy and gave the Ministry a central role in implementing his vision.  

In his wisdom, he appointed Prof. Isoun to head the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under Isoun’s guidance, the Ministry of Science and Technology was one of the few ministries that used its own staff and local expertise to formulate its policies and plans for re-vitalization of the Ministry, its agencies and its parastatals. 

Prof. Isoun is a silent achiever but when he appeared on the national scene as the nation’s Minister of Science and Technology in 2000, there was no holding Nigeria back in the comity of science-driven nations. Nigeria treaded paths reserved exclusively for the advanced nations as it launched what was then termed an ambitious scientific road map. This was to, among others, see the launch of geospatial and communication satellites, installation of a 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant and the launch of the ICT backbone infrastructure which is responsible for the digital economy, including e-banking and other e-products that Nigerians are enjoying. Other longer term benefits in the roadmap include the prospect of sending a Nigerian to the moon as well as the design, building and launch of a satellite by Nigerian engineers.

Such lofty and ambitious plans required a man of astute intellectual wisdom and level-headedness to implement and he left no stone unturned in the quest to sustain a focus on the roadmap.

The seeds of investment he supervised on behalf of the nation have started bearing fruits. The services of the Nigerian Communications Satellite NigcomSat-1R are in great demand all over the globe. Educational institutions can access internet services courtesy of the satellite which are also playing an important role in the fight against insurgency and oil bunkering.  

In biotechnology, the foundation Isoun laid decades ago have earned Nigeria a remarkable place in history as the first country to commercialise a biotech crop in the West African region.

The nation’s nuclear programme which he also instituted has made tremendous progress in developing the needed human capacity for the country. 

Every institution he established as minister of science and technology has stood the test of time and they are already contributing to the sustainable economic development of the nation. Perhaps most impactful is his role as a champion of the space and ICT revolution which the country is currently enjoying with a magic touch that, even two decades after leaving office, remains unmatched

Prof. Isoun, a widely published academic research scientist and administrator, became a Professor of Veterinary Pathology at the University of Ibadan, in 1975. He then served as Special Advisor on Science to the Rivers State Government, and in 1980, became Vice Chancellor, Rivers State University of Science & Technology, Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

He is a former Editor and Board Member, African Academy of Sciences, based in Kenya; and Chairman, Board of Trustees, Niger Delta Wetlands Centre, Yenagoa, Nigeria. He was a Visiting Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA (USA), and the Bernard Nocht Institute of Tropical Medicine, Germany.

He spent most of his professional academic life teaching, producing a crop of graduates that are leading the nation to greater heights. His passion for education-for-all is not hidden. It is no wonder he wants more universities for the country, noting that, of the 1.5 million qualified applicants that take JAMB yearly, only a third get admitted. 

Isoun has cumulative experience spanning over 50 years of immersion in the sciences as a university professor, special adviser, vice chancellor, minister and, also as the first editor of Africa’s prestigious journal, ‘Discovery and Innovation.’

He is also an avid reader and according to the adage – you have to be a reader to be able to lead – a strong advocate of the need to redefine what university education is all about – in order to establish high quality tertiary education that can create jobs and improve lives.

He not only provided policy guidelines in the administration of science and technology and mentored research and production activities in the country while minister, but actually documented his stewardship in his fascinating book titled: ‘Why Run Before Learning to Walk?’ The book, which illustrates in a classical way, Nigeria’s journey with science and technology, is a must-read and should serve as a handbook for all ministers in Nigeria and indeed other African nations and beyond. 

Isoun was born in Odi, in Bayelsa State, Nigeria to Mark Ebidi and Dali Amgbapu Isoun. He attended Okrika Grammar School and Hope Waddel Training Institute.  He went on to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University in 1963, the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Michigan State University in 1965, and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) at Michigan State University in 1970.

As far back as 1983, Prof. Isoun was a recipient of the Distinguished Faculty Award, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 1983.  In 1991, Isoun was awarded the Doctor of Science (Honoris Causa) from the Rivers State University of Science & Technology, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. He was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award of Michigan State University in 2005. 

As we celebrate this great man, renowned in scientific research, education, and administration, and in science and technology policy creation and implementation, Nigeria must acknowledge his outstanding contributions to our national development. 

Turner Isoun has served his fatherland well and deserves our accolades.  Happy Birthday to an icon of hope, Professor Turner Timinipre Isoun, as you turn 80! 

Abutu wrote in from Abuja.


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