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Blue Green and scientific! Do we care, are we aware?


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 17 November 2017 00:05


I see many comments on and summaries of the most recent Budget of the State. It is interesting to note that almost all the summaries ignore the provisions for science and technology made by the Budget. It is always interesting in this country how little attention science gets and yet we speak of moving into a knowledge-based economy. 

More than a little bit of science awareness is becoming a requirement for daily living every day, yet we look forward to a future and discusses contents of an important statement of the Government sans the aspects on science and technology. I consider the agile ability to use a mobile to be in the category of street smart than scientifically savvy. The majority of the discussions on the floor of the House are made with the same spirit. 

One aspect is certain – a price reduction on vehicles is of major importance and quite easily carries the day. Also a can of beer may elicit tons of response. One day we may witness we will drive our way into disaster. A little solace from this possibility is given by the Budget dubbed Blue Green Budget. It clearly indicates the move towards an electrified transport and even the electric tuk-tuk! 

If the electricity is to come from many more Norochcholai equivalents or via the burning of liquid fossil fuels, then our journey is surly a one of electrocution! Fortunately that too had been addressed by bringing in the sun! One may go green with envy, as some finer environmental points have been identified as the way to go by the Budget. 

The interest in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, where still much fish find the option of a natural death more feasible, completes the Blue part of the Budget. The fact that we never had any major plans for the Indian Ocean is no secret and we wanted to develop firmly with our feet on terra firma. 

The National Physical Planning process really did not touch the ocean and the 20 times more expanse the ocean offered us. We may have built ships for other countries but we never modified our fishing fleet. We have never moved into develop a sea-based industrial platform starting with salt and caustic soda.

Yes the Budget does speak about the Blue aspects but stops well short of the industry aspect. However, there is no problem or an impediment to bring that in considering the fact that there is an open admission of the desire to blue green the economy.

Contributions to science and technology

As not many have summarised and placed all the significant contributions to the domain of science and technology, I am taking the opportunity as a columnist to list many of the important ones and perhaps the clustering may open up the eyes of the many who were only looking at tariff, tax and hand-outs. 

The usual headlines of the type “value of sprats have come down,” “Rs. 2,000 pay hike” were perhaps not observed with this Budget. Yes that the tax may have come down by one million for an electric vehicle of course cannot excite many either considering the prevailing income disparities. It is really a challenge to charter a course for the future and not disappoint the ground level expectations. Yes, one may then have to feel really bad by the imposed tax on telecom towers, as the logic behind the imposition will be lost to many. The question is, how do we ensure the logic of our statements and intended actions with all due transparency?

We live in a country where all actions usually generate two types of responses – there either may have a conspiracy theory or a commission hypothesis. One event or a situation almost always finds torn between these two camps and the society becomes polarised. This usually comes from poor communications and lack of transparency. Can a forward-looking Budget be concise under these circumstances – may be lots of footnotes are in order! 

Making the sun 

truly shine

What are the major budget thrusts in Science and Technology? This may not be intentional but the Blue and Green aspects to be truly realised there had to be a significant forward march in science and technology in the country. Simple tax benefits on solar trackers may the pave way to a lowering of the capital cost, but it is much better if one incentivises the degree of local innovation. Then the sun will truly shine and deliver from our own efforts. 

The argument can similarly be extended to batteries too where we really should have a National Battery Roadmap and a National Bioplastic Roadmap too. The use of national should not be taken to mean a reclusive attitude but a society must be resilient and building resilience is through embedding competence. Within such roadmaps one could embed tax concessions, etc. to fast-track renewable energy switching. 

We must understand that countries with much less sunshine are holding world records while we have nothing much as yet to crow about. Hope the Virtual Institute for Blue Green Economy will compile and coordinate a cluster of programs that can really change the tide. That may involve placing our sea salt into a high-end product status to start. 

The starting point may be to list 100 Blue Green Projects for Change and seek champions. The Budget does mention the emergence of NASTICA as a transformation of COSTI with the specific objective of research into rupees. In Sri Lanka in a typical year there are about 20,000 projects of various kinds that takes place and ends up as bound thesis. In the case of almost all of these, the impact is the weight made on someone’s shelf, which is not what the economy needs and change is a dire necessity. Hope the spirit of enterprise so eloquently made in the Budget combines with research and innovations to truly bring in a new era which is entirely possible. 

MEDI and CERA

Mechatronic-enabled Economic Development Initiative (MEDI) finds a small chunk of money allocated. Really hope the concept is mastered and this gets executed this year. The proponents may not see the challenges that one has to overcome to drive an initiative of this nature but considering the opportunity space with mechatronics this must get off the ground this year. 

Similarly CERA – the Centre of Excellence in Robotics – has been supported. Hopefully the Public Innovation Spaces, which too are supported, will materialise in close proximity for better synergy. Home to CERA today is IDB and the region has a thriving timber industry. The issue however is that many are worried over their future. The way out is be becoming much more creative and innovative and the proposed centre for design serving this sector can proved to be the disruptive input the industry needs. Considering the scaling challenges for Sri Lanka the concept of design in Sri Lanka can be a quite powerful for the way forward. 

The commitment to upgrade the national quality infrastructure to international level is important, as one must have this access within the country. Those who make enormous payments for simple certifications outside the country for each iteration understand well the pain and this commitment is excellent. 

Intellectual 

Property space

The need for upgrading the Intellectual Property space and the freeing the public universities from the dependency culture are welcome Budget proposals. Yes for the latter more enactments are necessary but this time the much-needed change had been articulated. It is a pity that 300% tax rebate on research has been slashed to 200% but the story that was spreading earlier was that all is gone and now we see that all is not lost! Surely that is a relief for private sector partnerships. 

The intended High-Tech Innovation Park at Pitipana, Homagama will be a unique eco system as the industry will straddle high-end research institutes (Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute, Sri Lanka Biotechnology Institute, Laboratory for Legal Metrology, Defence Research Establishment), incubators and university outreach points of three universities (Moratuwa, Colombo and Sri Jayawardenepura). What is needed to energise this area is the planned four-lane access road from the highway and this will surely change the dynamics. 

The Innovators to Industry (I2I) proposal is important. We have had many an inventions slipping through our fingers and finding their way into other economies and the sad fact is we are quite unaware all these losses taking place. We have asteroids named after our student inventors but today their inventions are not known here. 

All of us may know the story of the Land Master of our late Ray Wijewardene; did we ever stop to learn a lesson and correct the system? Hope I2I can do something as the private sector is incentivised to seek and support. You may agree that none of these have been cited in the Budget summaries and ask yourself why these do not deserve any mention.

Critical investment 

for success

One must highlight the significant commitment and the declared intent on upliftment of the STEM education along with the intention to utilise PISA scheme for student assessment. The switch that is required in education with STEM is significant and appears almost insurmountable. The challenge is to change from a 30% engagement in STEM to a one with 60% engagement in student numbers. 

This is one change that needs to happen and one that is not negotiable. However as this deals with more with mind than matter, how one changes teaching, the environment, market, etc., in a short period of time is critical. Time will tell as this is one investment that is critical to be successful if all the others made before to succeed! Fortunately both had been addressed in this Blue Green statement. However, one has to watch how the walk unfolds!


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