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A tale of two systems

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 23 May 2013 00:00


With the same inputs but with different systems of management, you will derive different answers as it should be. ‘Garbage in is garbage out’ as well known to information process system designers and software architects, but this is not so common knowledge in management practices as the latter is a fine art of the impossible at times.

Even fine inputs can be destroyed in terms of productivity and asset formation when the operational systems differ and are not up to mark. This is a tale of two systems to emphasise this finer point with the expectation that we at least learn the art of doing things right even at this late hour. We must get the best out of our human capital!


A beetle, coconut, a scientist and State regulations

The first story I take it from the S. R Kottegoda Memorial meeting held in 1997 by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS). As this is a seminar commemorating an eminent medical practitioner who espoused ethics in medical and science practice, I would take the contents stated by the writer without another validation!

The story is about a beetle, coconut, a scientist and State regulations. In the early ’70s Sri Lanka witnessed a beetle attack on coconut plantations – Promecotheca cumingi, which effectively kill the plant through its action. The scientist had been P.B. Karunaratne – Karu – who has worked as an assistant in natural history in the Jaffna branch of the Colombo Museum before moving to Colombo upon closure of the branch.

When the coconut trees were threatened by the pest, the plantation sector had seriously become worried knowing the economic value of nuts! Karu had collected and studied the beetles out of interest. The identification of the species had been entrusted to the Commonwealth Institute of Entomology in London. They had in turn advised the Ministry of Plantation Industries of the possibility of biological control of the beetle with a wasp which is knowledge derived from a similar action in Fiji and also a contact in Singapore where this could be sourced.

As Karunaratne had been known to the Ministry for his study on the beetles, the Ministry had searched for him and had requested him to return to Colombo from his field trips and had been assigned to travel to Singapore. Visas, permission and passports arranged expeditiously, he has been driven to the airport in a State car and then upon arrival in Singapore had been met by the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka.

He has quickly identified that the per diem he had been given was not at all adequate for stay in any hotel and after a stint at the YMCA had moved in with a Sri Lankan that he had met in Singapore. Paddy Murphy, the entomologist in Singapore, had been quite helpful and had given Karu lab space and material to start breeding the parasites to take on the beetle back in Sri Lanka.

Karu had diligently carried out his task and had sent live wasp parasites to Sri Lanka and had also enabled the start of a breeding program back in Sri Lanka. Within a short time of a few months, the pest outbreak had been controlled by the wasp as had been done in Fiji earlier. This had effectively spared the process of spraying chemicals over plantations with significant potential impacts.

With the task over and having saved and served Sri Lankan industry as well as the economy – a scientific story worth knowing more – he has decided to use few dollars saved to see Malaysia prior to returning. He had returned to Singapore after the short visit and had met with two State bureaucrats from Sri Lanka. They had quizzed Karu on his work in Singapore and had inquired up to where he had stayed. He had told them that he had stayed most of the time with a friend, upon which the duo had asked him to return part of his per diem and had confiscated it. The bureaucrats had stayed in fine style and had also indulged in some extended shopping. To add insult to the injury they have asked Karu to carry some of the extra baggage back to Sri Lanka for them.

Karu had to borrow money from friends at this stage to pay debts and return to Sri Lanka. On his arrival, though he had notified his office, he had not been met at the airport and had taken a taxi home. Some recognition had finally come his way when the President of Sri Lanka bestowed on him a medal for meritorious service in science. Unbelievable, yet this is the story in a nutshell!

Dr. C.H. Fernando, then working at the University of Waterloo, has authoritatively presented this on this event under the title of ‘Coconuts, People, Science and Politics’. He had been the one that Karu had approached when pressed for some money to settle debts prior to departing to Sri Lanka from Singapore.


Watson’s story

I take the second story from USA and UK from a scientist named James D. Watson. Watson’s story is taken from his autobiography, ‘The Double Helix’. Science in USA was in ascendency and US scientists were crossing the Atlantic to gain experience and knowledge. Watson was one with a post doctoral fellowship from Washington to learn biochemistry of DNA.

Watson is on record saying when Indiana University biochemists encouraged him to learn organic chemistry, the lab practice of him using a Bunsen burner to warm up benzene had meant that they had gone weary of him with practicals and had shown him a different place to study.

Watson’s PhD supervisor Salvador Luria had felt the need to consider the chemical structure of a virus as important and had sent Watson to a biochemist in Denmark to start working in this area. It was a hope that combined techniques of chemistry and genetics may solve the DNA puzzle. Watson had been sent to Europe with a fellowship award from Washington.

When participating in a small scientific meeting discussing the structure of the large molecules found in living cells, an interaction with another scientist had sparked Watson’s interest on X-ray work on DNA. His Naples visit had been sanctioned by Washington with an additional grant of two hundred dollars as travel expenses – sent in response to the request for permission and not as per a special request for funding!

The presentation by the English scientist Maurice from London’s King’s College lab with an x-ray picture of DNA sparked Watson’s interest and led him to learn chemistry more. As there was no interest to take Watson to King’s, Watson had to search for places where x-ray work is carried out and he had identified Cambridge UK. However, when one is on Fellowship award there are conditions and freedom of moving around; changing subjects from virus studies to x-ray crystallography is not on offer.

Washington was informed by Watson that he is moving on to Cambridge as he found his experiments are proving to be unproductive and that he is going to learn a new technique. He moved to UK from Denmark without waiting for any reply from Washington and determined to work on from his savings. Then at Cambridge Cavendish lab Watson came across Crick and history was in the making. Finally the letter from Washington arrived to his new address in UK. He had been sacked – the letter revealed and with an explanation of why – by quoting the section of fellowship award stating that the fellowship was valid only for work in the designated institution. Watson’s violation of this provision had given them no choice but to revoke the award.

If the story ended there for Watson, life would have been difficult even though his personal interest was high. His letter from Washington had another paragraph. The second paragraph gave him the news that he had been awarded a completely new fellowship! Obviously there is no section of the regulations to be included for a decision of this nature and we can only guess what the auditors audited.

Of course today we know that history was made and the world as we know it changed when the Watson and Crick combination went on to identify the structure of DNA. One of the greatest scientific feats in the last century unfolded in a not-so-planned manner but due to interest, dedication and support.


Experts on procedures

As per Sri Lanka, Karu’s story stopped there and in the recent past we again had to contemplate destroying coconut trees to stop the spread of another disease. Have we become experts on biological control learning from one experience? The answer is a simple ‘no’. Have we become experts on procedures? The answer to that is an emphatic ‘yes!’ With books full of procedures of not so much of use at the end of the day we are going places only in meetings.

I hope you my dear reader can understand what I meant by ‘tale of two systems’ and how inputs such as Karu and Watson are affected by the systems to which they subject themselves!

(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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