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Be visible and stand tall


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Help in the change that we all want to be!

This is not about personalities getting onto the stage to be visible. Today stages are a plenty, propelling many to stardom. The emphasis is about making national institutions productive and then making a meaningful input and thereby a lasting impact by getting onto the global stage with results under the belt.

Institutions or organisations considered in an anthropomorphic way needs be valued entities and only those will command any respect. Organisations that live by the circular or with a set of antiquated rules will die by the budget deficit and will not be causing any talk in the town! This is a crying need of the hour in Sri Lanka as institutes stagnate and personnel develop with visions for any mission elsewhere.

The institutions under consideration are universities and research institutes – shown and have potential yet not perceived as such. The latter group carries the purpose of existence in the category description but in the former the research is hidden and not seriously recognised. In the current state of turmoil that there is also a strategic policy demand and an acceptance for a minimum of 1% of GDP for R&D, must not be forgotten. This offers another way to entertain a composite 6% GDP with a time plan. Setting appropriate foundations for success has to be a State responsibility.

Productivity

There are lots of allegations and remarks with regard to productivity of the current institutes and with the present climate of demands and negotiations the media is filled with discussions. However, some of the discussions display significant lack of depth and understanding and only demonstrate contempt for each other; not something a serious public would demand nor entertain.

With universities, global rankings are usually displayed to deliver killer punches to demonstrate absolute ineptness of ‘academics therein’. However there is hardly an understanding of the various systems in use for evaluations and how these rankings are carried out. While stating the usefulness of these data, it is important to understand the basis and the context. Applied erroneously you will only bring yourself down.

That resource starvation as well as poor institutional and work ethics are responsible for the current situation also need to be understood and kept in mind. This type of situations does not develop overnight and are crafted through years of action or neglect. The contribution of brain drain over the years to this situation within institutions hardly factored in.

 

webometrics

As an example webometrics data (www.webometrcs.info) are used by some. Out of 20,000 institutes Sri Lanka has about 30 institutes listed and taking the top two listings, Universities of Colombo and Moratuwa, one sees that they are ranked 1,681 and 2,010 respectively. With 20,723 entities evaluated this places both universities within the global top 10%.

It is interesting how percentages transform the statement and in that context the two universities may be just outside the knowledge hub status perhaps as when you are in top 10% that must mean something and no one should be putting you down. However webometrics simply looks at the quantity of information and its completeness plus the availability of such in English pertaining to the institute in the web. It is a reflection of the amount of content and no way differentiate on the quality of the content seriously.

The publications are taken from the open citation bibliographic database – Google scholar – and that is in no way reflects the complete publication records as well as international collaborative efforts of university academics. Yes it has value but to castigate a system based on such data only demonstrates poor contextual understanding.

We should also not be claiming success of our investment based on this ranking as it may just be the search engine volatility that is responsible for an upward swing. Some content management activities too may boost the rankings.

As an example, Harvard Business School having a different web domain is currently ranked 1385. Nobody will take Harvard Business School to task perhaps and if I am to take the relative ranking of the top two universities from this position as the datum, the positions are globally much more interesting. This only indicates the webometrics data should be considered only in the way what it intends to communicate. It is definitely of use to ICTA and the e-governance policies.

Some quite simple systems only looks at how many Nobel laureates are in the faculty of an university and this is will be hard to swallow for us at this stage. Let us admit that we need to understand true challenges and not cling to less than meaningful data and spoil moving forward. The potential is still there and it is never too late to resurrect this deteriorating situation.

Visibility

On the other hand, all what one does may not reach the web and certainly lot of activities may not be seen by the public. This is a deficiency that needs to be corrected as time marches on if you are not visible you do not exist! You still need some human assistance to get data to the web as the cloud data mining virtually with any serious quality is still an abstract concept. Our organisation cadre provisions still do not understand this equation well.

The critics question publications and say boldly about lack of publications in the research space by Sri Lankan universities. With continuous bombardment innocent public may actually perceive this to be the truth. Doing such bibliometric and scientometric studies are not well executed in the country. This is important but a missing element by planners. They will not know what exactly is happening and where and will fail to factor in useful developments to national planning.

The quick remedy to an issue is outsourcing a report or a consultancy at cost. However an interesting compilation was presented by the Senior Manager of Elsevier from India during the Global Forum of Sri Lankan scientists in 2011. Her exercise was what one wants to be continuously doing. Her summary data sheet for the Asia Pacific region is presented and I request the reader to spend some minutes pondering over it. The results are illuminating.

The Sri Lankan academic is present in the research space and has displayed a decent growth rate. It is true that Sri Lanka languishes at the 16th position among 21 nations. However 100% of the national contribution has come from the academic category. Yes the publications lack in state-of-the-art rating and easy to understand that and that is where the resource starvation kicks in. It is not the fault of the academic within but only demonstrates that facilities are far from state-of-the-art. Don’t we know that?!

 

Indian example

Consider the following scenario developing today in India. With significant State investments in nanotechnology, India – identified as nano mission – has resulted in significant number of publications from India. This data comes from a presentation made by Dr. Rao Aiyagari formerly of GOI last week in Colombo. The value of the investment had been measured with this as the target. A non monetary format and has been accepted by the Planning Commission in India. The investments were to make India a scientific heavy weight in the area of nanotechnology and subsequently to reap economic benefits.

University academics too should be aware that they are measured and data are also out there. The absence of data pertaining to an individual only reflects that the individual is not visible in the global research landscape. Cross sectional analysis of h-index may be used for an individual. Yes, in times of stress and resource starvation, the improvements to your h-index (this introduced by Hirsch, attempts to measure both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scholar) may not be the primary concern as Maslow hypothesised long time back. Yet, global measurement yardsticks are out there and organisations thrive when the people within contribute. To bring that contribution to the table, powers within and outside must unite for that common goal as what is relevant within is nationally important. It is this disconnect that is hampering the discussions and stalling our way forward.

 

(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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