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The day after yesterday: What tomorrow brings

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 16 January 2015 00:02


In economic terms perhaps we witnessed a nonlinearity on 8 January. The combined action of many, through decisions taken individually created the nonlinearity. The nonlinearity only indicates that conditions related to a particular path did change and does not classify the change qualitatively. It would indeed be interesting to observe what happens tomorrow. I am however referring to much more than politics as I view tomorrow. The future just not happens. It is created literally through our action or inaction today. What you do today is quite important. The big picture of the world is important and this enables perhaps one to determine one’s own place within it. How will our politicians obtain a glimpse of the macro environment – the big changes coming up? What position they plan, and the vision they have for Sri Lanka in the world scene. As the change occurs along with the dawn of a new year, it gives us an opportunity to consider tomorrow in a broader manner as there are lots of predictions for the incoming 2015.   Astrology and decision making One important caveat from the elections is the role played by astrology even perhaps the very decision to hold the election ahead of time. As a society we appear to pay more attention to pseudo-sciences than sciences. In scientific terms one usually follows the scientific method for analysis and also for decision making. Scientific method is a step-by-step approach. The steps are identifying and defining a problem, accumulating relevant and related data, formulating a hypothesis, experimenting on testing the hypothesis, interpretation of results, repeating the steps until an acceptable solution is identified. This methodology, applied to the investigation of relationships among natural phenomena, or to solve a problem in a domain, is termed research. One could again study the situation of astrology in decision making – the positive or the negative correlations this practice has for the growth of this economy. The event led to a significant number of publications and planetary influences on us were discussed at length by those who are well versed on the subject. Thus lots of meta data are lying about and if someone takes up the study there could be more clarity three months down the line. As astrology figures in almost everything in Sri Lanka, much good can come and a lot of time and print and electronic media space saved from a serious study of the subject. I believe for sake of sanity such an exercise is important. Who would take-up the challenge to bell the cat?   Science, technology and innovation Science, technology and innovations did figure in the manifestoes. As per the subject during discussions, I am sure we did not hear much from many. The role of science technology and innovation for a developing nation such as ours continues to receive a lot less attention. We for the moment belong to the world of the have-nots. Our decisions should not be made on the possibilities of hand-outs nor based on the hand-outs received. More substantive discourses are needed to come through our airwaves.   Global science and technology It is quite illuminating if one takes a look at global science and technology. Arif Jinha at the University of Ottawa has recently estimated that the number of journal articles published since time began is about 50 million. For Sri Lanka, a recent COSTI study has shown that the global share of publications from Sri Lanka is a mere 0.04% of the world’s output by 2012. Countries of the EU lead, with the United States following, as major contributors to scientific literature of today. Next are Asia Pacific nations and today China contributes significantly. These same countries are there occupying the top spots in the economic league. The strong correlation between the advanced state of S&T and the advanced state of the nation has been made quite clear by many studies. The increased position of the Asian Pacific countries too can be correlated to their recent spurt in scientific outputs. Similarly, other correlations of socioeconomic indicators such as health status, life expectancy to science education can be shown. Hence politicians and economists should understand and value the significance of investments in STI. It has been stated that definitely more money will be ploughed into education and the much-discussed 6% of GDP has been placed in the manifesto of the new presidency, which is most welcome.   Ahmed Zewail I would like to take the publishing of a Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail, who had his beginning in Egypt and subsequently ended up in USA as per the importance of a science base for a nation. He is considered the ‘father of femtochemistry’ and is the first Egyptian scientist to win the Nobel Prize in a scientific field. It is an extended extract from his presentation to the Malaysian Academy of Sciences as part of their ASM Lecture series – Science and Technology in the 21st Century. I believe this bit of wisdom to be quite important, and needs to be addressed in our national policy, as we move pass this non-linearity to a new era. As per Zewail, the lack of a solid science and technology base is not always a result of poor capital or human resources. It sometimes stems from a lack of appreciation of the critical role of S&T in development, an incoherent methodology for establishing such a base, and an absence of a coherent policy addressing national needs, and human and capital resources. Some countries consider scientific progress to be a luxury, as measured against other demanding concerns. Others believe that the base can be built by buying technology from developed countries. These beliefs translate into poor or, at most, modest advances that are based on the efforts of individuals, not institutional teamwork.   Essential ingredients for progress He goes on to state that these issues point to three essential ingredients for progress. First is the building of human resources by eliminating illiteracy, ensuring active participation of women in society, and reforming education. Second is to rethink national constitutions, allowing for freedom of thought, minimising bureaucracy, developing a merit system, and creating a credible – and enforceable – legal code. Third is the building of a science base. In retrospect we may think that of the three we had been quite well advanced in the first two and most certainly in the first. We may have been taking few steps backwards for sure in these areas. While making an effort to rectify in the first two areas, the third needs special attention. Remember, growth is not possible without the development of the triad.   Building of a science base Zewail has elaborated on the third ingredient in some detail. The foundations of a science base are investment in special education for the gifted, the establishment of centres of excellence, and the chance to apply knowledge in the industrial and economic markets of the country, and eventually, the world. This must go hand-in-hand with a plan for general education at state schools and universities. With such a vision, a scientific culture will emerge that enhances a country’s ability to follow and discuss complex problems, rationally and collectively. Scientific thinking becomes essential to the fabric of the society. Developing countries need centres of excellence, not only for research and development, but also for training experts in advancing technologies and so reducing the brain drain experienced by many such countries. It is important that these centres are not just exercises in public relations: They should be limited to a few areas of research in order to build confidence and recognition. In the coming fifty years, knowledge based and skill based societies will have the lion’s share of the world market and high status. He questions – and rightly so – without S&T, how can the have-nots participate in current world issues such as stem-cell research, cloning, human genome sequencing, artificial intelligence, manipulation of matter, molecular medicine and cosmology? Without S&T, how can they actively contribute to the world market in technologies such as microelectronics, information and communication, new materials, and the revolutionary biotechnologies? He advocates that there is the need for serious engagement with frontier technologies too – where the world is going to be, in taking out a country to a position of importance. This lengthy extract is to emphasise the need for serious thinking and commitment in this area. As I write, in Sri Lanka today scientific infrastructure is without a position in the political establishment as the portfolio is not mentioned. Sri Lanka should show more passion in this area rather than mere passing references. The need is less understood as otherwise continuous harping on the same basic concept is not needed. At this juncture, when alternate plans are being drawn and new directions are being planned, penning again the obvious is important. The tomorrow that we all should aspire is not possible unless this principle is embedded.   [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 ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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