In the 2014 Budget speech, one paragraph stands out from a scientific perspective.
To quote the President: “Honourable Speaker, it has been recognised that the establishment of a National Science Centre is essential to promote the scientific knowledge required for the advancement of our society. The setting up of this centre will enable Sri Lanka advance science organisation, education ministries, universities and the national science foundation to enhance science and technology knowhow among our people and also to motivate our youth to pursue studies in related streams.”
This section, Section 37.1 to be precise of the Government Budget speech of 2014, may have received very little attention during the multitude of analysis of the 2014 Budget that has taken place across many a salubrious setting.
This is a statement that for the moment is neither generating revenue nor creating an expense and if funds are not available may not happen at all as the Budget did not explicitly identify an allocation. The last line “I propose to seek foreign assistance for this venture since it should be done according to international standards” makes it clear that this as a project will seek external funding and as such would depend on foreign donor interest.
It also clearly indicates that the State is keen on a world class setup. As such it is unlikely to create an interest among many communities that analysed the document from top to bottom and perhaps across too from the ‘what is in it for me?’ perspective!
I am sure that depending on what side one would like to take, duty reductions on pet food imports, and enhanced focus on skill development, to increases in cost of living allowances would receive critical attention.
The discussions are more on matters of either financial or hedonistic statements – those directly or indirectly touching the cost of living. It is however to be appreciated in the last three to four budgets that science, technology and innovation were specifically mentioned in the speech (i.e. tax deductions, etc.) with some action points.
However, it is well worth to highlight this statement and also to strongly urge the decision makers to go for it and move towards the execution of the stated concept, irrespective of donor assistance. It is because a national science centre can be a beacon in stimulating interest and allowing catching them young.
This is perhaps a crying need of the hour as the younger generation in Sri Lanka though showing gadget friendliness is losing interest in experimental science. Family outings to a cricket match or a paduru party are unlikely to inculcate substantive inputs that a growing mind needs and we at this juncture have too many of these type of outings.
In the process of education, the ‘hands-on’ is quite missing and in that context the learning is becoming quite boring to the young mind, which takes them in a different direction whenever a more appealing option is provided.
Someone who is cramming how to carry out a scientific experiment only for the sake of answering a question as it is happening in many a tuition class is not going to emerge as scientific talent. They will most likely manage events such as examinations to suit their desired end goal of completion. These ‘costly’ situations continue unabated as we really do not understand the true cost.
Developing a science culture
A deeper look indicates that Sri Lanka is indeed a loner when it compares with other regional neighbours and internationally important economies on the presence of a national science centre.
Our neighbour India has many centres, having started establishing science museums with the first in Calcutta in 1959. Such units in India belong to a National Council of Science Museums, which is an autonomous body under the Indian Ministry of Culture. Note the line ministry under which the centres have come up – a lesson in thinking differently and positioning at the outset in line with the objective of developing a highly scientific literate society, a science culture.
The first Prime Minister of post-independent India Jawaharlal Nehru demonstrated strongly his belief in science to make the change in his society and he supported science from the very beginning. This early emphasis on science has paid dividends handsomely for India. There are more than 25 science museums across India, inspiring the young and the adults alike. It must be understood that the intention of a science centre is not only to inspire the young; they are to shape the minds of the adults too. That is what happens with a family outing to a science centre.
Countries across Asia have these centres, including Nepal. In Singapore, which has a well developed centre, it is under the wings of the Ministry of Education. Science museums have been the traditional way forward, styled perhaps from the London Science Museum.
Changing the way the world learns
The advent of the Exploratorium in the USA has changed the scene dramatically and today the word museum is dropped and the term ‘centre’ is preferred as new ventures are styled more along the Exploratorium concept. Costly yes, but functionally more attractive and serves the purpose very much better. When in USA the Exploratorium came in, the stated mission was to change the way the world learns! The Exploratorium – which is more than a museum – was prompted as a 21st century learning laboratory.
In building these centres as landmark institutes, it may be instructive to consider the life story of Frank Oppenheimer who created the Exploratorium in San Francisco, United States. Creating a network of individuals and institutes that breathe life into the making of a centre may be much more fulfilling and impactful than purely developing a centre as a single transaction or thinking in transactional style.
Developing galleries which house exhibits, creating within the space for model making and co-locating teacher training facilities, a national science centre can become a central facility of excellence for science. In line with current needs, the centre is well advised to be designed with sustainability focused. That itself is another experience suited to the emerging trend of the 21st century.
The story of a National Science Centre for Sri Lanka is a long one. Starting with the National Academy of Sciences and the Sri Lankan Society for advancement of science (SLAAS) since the 1970s there have been calls for the establishment of a science museum for supporting popularisation of science. Unfortunately, the voices had not been heard.
Then the National Science Foundation moved in earnest in pushing for an establishment with a proposal and with many discussions with the UDA. The current proposal to the National Planning was made by COSTI, with its mandate to implement the national STI strategy (the establishment of a science centre is one of the stated goals) and the acceptance by the President in his capacity as Minister of Finance and Planning is heartening.
Many minds have spoken over the years for this moment and many more would have to toil in moving the concept to reality but a significant step forward indeed had been made.
Science centres are informal education centres and they combine fun, exploration and experiential learning. As elements of recreation and enjoyment are always factored into design, it is learning with pleasure. The drab repetitive tuition environments and classrooms that support rote learning that have created such misery in our education as well as mockery of learning can be changed by the offer of a really stimulating environment.
A science centre is not an alternative to formal learning environments and would never be so. However, their presence can really complement the process. Who else but all of us can benefit from nurturing some young minds devoted to a lifelong mission in science and then taking society forward? Then the centre has fulfilled its mission.
This is not an activity that is not beyond us, including financing. What one should drive is creating the need and the value within those minds that certainly can support. This is also not an activity for one organisation, but calls for combined action. Let us hope the image created by the young architect as his vision for the National Science Centre, featured in the pictures, will someday be a reality.
[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 the Project Director of COSTI
(Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.]