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Our own special science park: Going beyond Jurassic Park!


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When Michael Crichton scripted ‘Jurassic Park,’ Steven Spielberg was interested in making it into a film even before the book hit the stands. The film was an epic and till ‘Titanic’ came along, held the highest grossing film status. Its production introduced the power of computer-generated imagery and led to the emergence of new technology uses in media and films.

The story was about bringing dinosaurs back into life with the aid of genetic engineering (the famous line in that film for me is ‘God help us; we are in the hands of engineers!’) and was biotechnology in action laced with a healthy dose of imagination.

However it was still about recreating a bygone era (the age of reptiles which is about 200 million years ago) and as such the practical the use is questionable though T-Rexes and Co. have always excited generations.

Recreating dinosaurs may not exactly be a wise goal considering the number of issues that we have minus them however in science it is the ability to do so which is useful and be considered as groundbreaking.

Nanotechnology

Michael was of course scripting in man’s greed too and in the park that was Jurassic all mayhem ensued with interruptions to power when the security system was hacked. Michael then went on to write ‘The Prey’ and that was about the emerging technology, nanotechnology.

Of course he gravitates to pen a possible dark side of nanotechnology and writes about marauding nanobots across the Nevada Desert in the USA. The world is all excited about nanotechnology and appears to be less concerned about nanobots and roaming small soldiers.

In public minds there is this favourable disposition towards nanotechnology and nanotechnologists and policy makers had from inception had tried to address all issues of concerns which biotechnology did not do.

In Sri Lanka too ‘Jurassic Park’ was well received. We will queue in to watch, but what about actually engaging in some creative action? We have now found a fantastic fossil – a complete skeleton of a young Sri Lankan and we wait anxiously till someone helps us in dating.

It was known for some time with the ‘Balangoda Man’ that we have been here for quite some time and we have been productive too. The present however had been a case study of constant undermining of our internal abilities while we engage in planning discussing and again planning.

It is high time that we recognise what bureaucracy does and I agree 100% with the author who penned the following: “Know bureaucracy as your worst enemy, because it poisons the mind, stifles the spirits, pollutes self motivation and finally kills the individual.”

It is important for us at this juncture to understand this, as otherwise we will be all planning, discussing and seeking endless approvals with no execution. The Pahiyangala girl will have to wait patiently for someone to tell her true age as we have failed to develop scientific and industrial support structures within.

Science park

Going beyond the Jurassic Park is getting our own science park for advanced technologies and especially for nanotechnology. The foundation laying ceremony for phase 1 that happened on 28 June at Pitipana, Homagama, perhaps was a culmination of a movement that started around August 2005.

What is known is the President’s Cabinet submission to initiate the National Nanotechnology Initiative – a landmark event on its own. In that the Nano Park was to be the first stage. However as the public-private-partnership unravelled, heralding the birth of the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, a more urgent validation stage came into being.

There was the requirement to prove nanotech possibilities in a local context and that too within a three-year time period. Prof. Mashelkar who visited the project stated in his report to the World Bank that SLINTEC was a unique PPP venture.

It is interesting that when the foundation stone was laid at Homagama, not only SLINTEC has proven but the State equity on SLINTEC has been recovered as one of the intellectual properties developed at SLINTEC had brought in Indian investors considering Sri Lanka as their research destination.

The action of four scientists bringing US$ 3.1 million tells the monetary side of the story. This demonstration is a case study from which much can be learnt if one takes sufficient time and trouble to study – hope someone from the MBA circle would do so. The effort will certainly will not be in vain.

With the proven track record and some developments yet to be seen by the outside world, the Sri Lankan Nano Park is coming up in front of a more mature audience. The need is to complete the Phase 1 and in the words of Dr. Mahesh Amalean, on time and within budget and still delivering a world class facility with eco-friendly credentials. That day is only a year away! It is not simply a building but an eco-system that is coming up.

Spirit of innovation

Sri Lanka must understand the value of this investment on the park which the State has gracefully undertaken. In the developed world as well as in tiger economies, the use of technology parks is well known.

The model that will be emulated will be the Triple Helix Model of Innovation, which in simpler terms is bringing together state, industry and the universities. Hopefully the crucial role that should be played by universities in this eco-system will be understood by the time that the central building comes up.

The understanding that universities’ primary task is sending graduates to jobs as a main idea must come to a closure. Universities thrive and contribute to economies by having a vibrant research culture and through the presence of this, the graduate develops differently. Even if one decides to leave for a job after graduation, the graduate is different.

Today inside the university what the undergraduate perhaps see is over emphasis of a curricula and constant haggling on soft skills. He or she is not witnessing ideas in motion but sensing meetings taking place in multiple committee sittings and lectures on other times. The spirit of innovation is missing.

However all is still not lost as we see the graduates moving on to a university with an innovation eco-system still trumping and that is somewhat reassuring meaning if we correct ourselves even at this late hour results are possible.

The Nano Park will embrace the Triple Helix strategy and hopefully the procedures will be there to benefit multidisciplinary team work and for spirited engagements to happen. I am sure we are looking at a completely a different set of procedures to what we have today anywhere but that is what should happen if the return on this visionary investment is to bear fruit.

The possibilities have already been shown and the scale will be many folds at Homagama, given the right encouragement. We have always shown that in the Nano World Sri Lanka is a treasure island.

During the opening ceremony at Homagama after the event a Sri Lankan scientist who resides overseas but with his heart very much in Sri Lanka expressed that he sensed from those who were present signs of wanting to be part of the new development. He was comparing what he was observing to what he sensed may be about four years back when the looks were more cautious, if not positively sceptical.

Today in many projects at SLINTEC, proof of concept had been shown. Some are in proof of scalability and the team within understand the difficulties which lie ahead but also understand well the opportunities that lie ahead. It is the transmission of this spirit to the outside community that is very important as at Homagama it is about a broad cross-section of scientists, engineers and others working together.

At ‘Jurassic Park’ it was the cloning from DNA to bring back the lost world. At Homagama it will be energising the innovators’ DNA to bring us to the future that we really want to be in and be part of.

Add value

With an economy that is showing signs of expansion, and all have been quite clear on this event taking place, there comes a time when the same old methods grind to a halt in delivering new growth opportunities.

More tea and more tourists can support some cash flow, but should not be the main mantra for growth. It is time at least economists start believing what the economists themselves wrote if they have an issue understanding scientists and engineers.

Robert Solow’s statement of how much technical growth had contributed to USA’s growth is all important to understand. It has been clearly identified that there is a time in any national development process to stop and adjust the modus operandi.

If one is to continue on a growth strategy with what you produce and service, one needs to add the element of design with a healthy dose of innovative thinking and the ability for internal manufacture.

Purely bringing down all technologies and related machineries to meet the demand will not do. That is what the Nano Science Park expects to do – add value from the design stage itself and continue to add abilities all the way up the value chain through innovative practices.

(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 on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)


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