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Mike Otieno, Kenya: Scientists should pursue leadership roles in decision-making

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Civil engineer Mike Otieno, 29, is a 2010 winner of the International Green Talents Competition , funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and supported by the United Nations University, Bonn . Having earned his First Class Honours Bachelor’s degree at the University of Nairobi in his native Kenya and Master of Science in engineering degree at the University of Cape Town , South Africa, he is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of Cape Town. Mike’s research focuses on the development of a corrosion rate prediction model for steel in reinforced concrete structures. With such a model in place, the overall goal for sustainable concrete structures can be partly realized.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I have always aspired to find alternative and easier ways to solve the day-to-day problems we encounter in the society. Being a scientist equips me with the knowledge to achieve this goal, hence my quest to be a scientist.
Where does your interest in sustainable development come from? 
I gained interest in sustainability and sustainable development while at university. I also got the impetus from day-to-day engagement in anti-global-warming activities, such as tree planting and deforestation. It is my view that sustainable development is the only amicable way to a country’s holistic development – social, economic and environmental.
What motivates you to do your research?
My research is in the field of steel-reinforced concrete structures; focusing on the prediction of their service life. My motivation emanates from the fact that all over the world, a large part of infrastructure is made using concrete whose manufacture hugely contributes to global warming. We should therefore find better and sustainable ways to revamp its manufacture or find alternatives to cement, and develop effective and efficient ways to manage the new and existing concrete structures.
How does your research contribute to sustainability?
My research has the objective to develop a model to predict the durability performance of steel-reinforced concrete structures that are prone to corrosion of the reinforcing steel; which can lead to failure. Having such knowledge a priori will enable engineers and asset managers to develop proactive maintenance and repair strategies for the structures and hence ensure their long life.
What are the opportunities for young scientists in Kenya?
There are scarce opportunities, and sometimes none (in their fields of interest) for young scientists - most end up leaving the country to search for greener pastures in developed countries. The immediate consequence of this trend is the loss of the much needed human resource. However, young scientists should now stop looking forward to being employed. They should aspire to be self-employed.
What do you think should be the role of scientists today?
Scientists should actively participate in leadership and decision-making roles.
What are the biggest challenges that science can help solve in your country?
The biggest ones are food and water shortages. These are very prevalent because we insist in using obsolete techniques to harvest water and grow food crops. With the engagement of scientists, this can be changed.
Are scientific results properly taken into account by decision makers?
In most cases, they are not. Most decisions are politically biased. To avert this, scientists should also aspire to hold key leadership positions in government so that they can participate in both policy formulation and decision-making.
What role does international cooperation play?
The world today has become a small global village, and problems can no longer be limited to a country’s borders. Therefore, international co-operation is vital in solving humanity’s problems, such as global warming. It also allows scientists to learn from one another and hence foster international development. It also eliminates duplication of research efforts by countries. Research findings in one country can be tuned and applied in another country with similar problems.
What conditions are essential for international research cooperation?
The most important condition is the creation of mutual agreements between governments to enhance research, enable the free movement of human resource (researchers), and the exchange of ideas and research findings.

Read the full interview and share your thoughts in the comments section.

Interview: Oksana Buranbaeva, UNU-ViE

Jessica Rosenfeld, UNU-ViE, contributed to this article.