COSTI may be found in Western pharmacopeia but the acronym embedded in the title stands for the Coordination Secretariat for Science Technology and Innovation. As the name implies, the primary purpose of the establishment is to nurture science technology and innovation in the country via coordination and monitoring – an active facilitation role.
COSTI is a new State project office established under the Senior Minister for Scientific Affairs Prof. Tissa Vitarana. COSTI, established under Cabinet approval, carries the State’s seal of approval to work in this area. A call for this type of office is not new. A body for coordination of science, technology and value had been debated for some time and records show that this was a recommendation made to the State as far back as 2004, when the National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC) had its first BICOST meeting. However, it had taken some time for it to be realised and that too, in a completely different way.
Innovation driven economies
Economies maybe classified as factor driven, efficiency driven or innovation driven. Sri Lanka hopes for not only a per capita income upliftment but a different economic status too. An innovation driven economy implies internal innovativeness and an excellent national competitiveness in a global marketplace.
Science and technology play a significant role in this transition. Having mere expectations with any type of activity will not deliver this situation. It is not easy to be an innovative economy. The most recent Global Innovation Index places Sri Lanka at 94 among 141 countries. The Global Competitive Index, which is widely used to evaluate innovation, places Sri Lanka in the capacity for innovation in the 93rd position among 144 countries.
However, there is a need to understand or be more responsible with primary data. When comparing two recent assessments (in this case with the global competitive index), unreasonable changes appeared to have occurred, an example being the same indicator in the earlier year with the value of 50. This is a drastic change and a big difference.
When a document of this nature is put out by an international group, few doubt its ratings and the country tends to get identified accordingly. Even in the FDI arena, these ratings can play a significant role in directing investment decisions. Considering the role and the impact that this type of document carries, there is certainly a case for being on top of national datasets. This begs perhaps an internal assessment of these figures and using some of these indicators as internal performance KPIs – a strong case for generating our own innovation index.
The example of Korea
Proper utilisation of science and technology is important and paves the way for economic development – this is the basis for Robert Solow’s Nobel Prize winning economic thesis. An economically backward nation at one time and perhaps the butt-end of jokes, Korea today is a different nation. It certainly was not subsidies and sports that did the trick for Korea but the focused attention given to science and technology.
People within the country understood the importance of education. It is even said that if there is a school near an airport, during examinations, the airport stops functioning to allow the students to sit for the examination without any disturbances. Now that really is working in partnership with the present and the future.
Investments in R&D are thus vital. The percentage of expenditure from GDP on R&D is invariably a parameter that is measured in both the indices mentioned above. We don’t appear to see the importance of long-term investments. It is difficult to see research units in organisations and is a rarity in most of our private sector institutions.
Though the State has given excellent incentives such as triple tax benefits and lump sum depreciation opportunities for investments in labs, not much is heard about utilisation. Research is a term that has been defined quite broadly and is not confined to only mainstream science and technology.
Units and institutes for research are more likely to be found in the public sector of Sri Lanka. It is also known that more researchers operate in the public sector. Yet, we expect the private sector to play a major role in contributing to the economy. In that context, are we merely cementing a factor driven economy than moving towards an innovation economy?
Turning knowledge into money
As vital ingredients are missing, the current setup will be unable to deliver the expected results to our economy. To quote from the thinking of 3M, an innovative company, research means turning money into knowledge. Development, according to their view, is turning knowledge into money. When this process is carried out properly, more money is realised at a higher value than what was initially put in. That is the language that businesses can understand as a reason to conduct more research and development.
COSTI is expected to consider the whole process. Considering only research will not be sufficient. The process of research into business needs to be nurtured. With the primary goal of coordination and monitoring set, more details need to be known and much more understanding of the current disconnected space is necessary.
We do not have a national research and development system yet. A few funding agencies are given amounts of money which then get disbursed by some competitive review process. The objectives for research come from the interests of the researcher and the reviewer only considers the soundness of the argument and methodology. The broader connectivity to national needs gets only a fleeting mention as an answer to a question and usually stops at that.
Koreans in their transformational journey demonstrated the effectiveness of a national research and development scheme and the importance of matching projects to national goals. In some cases, the state supported projects for as long as 30 years. This is a strong
lesson for us.
A simple analysis has shown that there are around 59 research units, clusters and institutes established under 19 line ministries in Sri Lanka. Some of these research institutes are pioneers with long established histories, for example, medical research institutes and plantation sector institutes. Some institutes have been established only to disappear quite quickly. These were noted but not counted in the number stated.
Many institutional acts carry out the provisions for engaging in research and development though this is not exercised upon. Some have queried the fact that there are a plethora of research institutes but this has had no effect. As State funds continue to channel into these existing institutes, some work is always ongoing.
It will be interesting if we all get to know what these places are doing and make use of the knowledge generated. One quick conclusion is that scientists indeed are poor marketers. It is in these institutes and university faculties that researchers stay. Connected and focused, their numbers can be quite meaningful.
The birth of COSTI
Again to borrow from a Korean situation, it appears that at the end of World War II, they had only around 40 people trained in science and technology. From such humble beginnings, they have marched onto a globally dominant position. Sri Lanka definitely had more than this number at the time but we squandered opportunity after opportunity by forgetting that education needs to be connected to an ecosystem of innovation and not an ecosystem of circulars and directives. The consequences of that has been brain drain! Our losses have indeed been the gain of many others.
COSTI has articulated coordination in a broad sense. COSTI will have to connect the researcher to the planning level and across the whole spectrum. The concept followed is that one has to coordinate thinking and not work blindly. Knowing our difficulties, internal and external, monitoring too needs to be carried out with empathy. An innovative mechanism based on a virtual platform had been debated and is slowly being put in place.
COSTI was born as a result of planning diligently for some time and finally from a decision taken on 9 September 2011 and we really hope that the 9/11 in our context is only going to be constructive and that it will be a day to remember as a very positive step for the STI landscape and the Sri Lankan researcher!
(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org)