As another year dawns, in addition to the hype of global warming effects, thanks to the activities of political machineries, Citizen Sri Lankan is really feeling the heat of politics. Even the weather appears to have created a low pressure zone over our land, perhaps to compensate for the high pressures generated in most of our arteries.
The newest ingredient in this year’s election episode is crossovers sans policy but with lots of altruistic reasons and citizens may find the continuing saga bit dizzying.
The prevailing weather should offer many discussion points. Why this inclement weather and the havoc that it is causing? – File Photo
Absence of substance in dialogue
Manifestoes are out and each group vies for supremacy based on policy statements. Most of the times the idea is to galvanise the mind to switch allegiance via an offering for the next few years. I believe all of us are much less wiser on details of these exercises and excesses.
As a lot is at stake including the nation and these promises if broken lend themselves to the other party for the next time around as ammunition, it is interesting to understand the logic and the basis for these statements and understand the viability and the feasibility of implementation.
Examined in detail, possible total financial outlays will be known and possible due returns could also be assessed. Medium and long term feasibility of such proposals based on scientific analysis with open data sets is simply missing. Such an understanding enables one to consider the offerings with accuracy.
When seeing similar pledges, and most with the possibility of increasing the trade deficit, an analysis can only confuse an already-confused mind. Our politics in most times lead us to moral conflicts in the absence of substance in dialogue. Crossovers complete with lengthy explanations why such decisions are in the best interest of the nation only add up to the complexity of these moral conflicts.
Lack of scientific acumen and rigour
In my mind this looseness of behaviour and argument means lack of scientific acumen and rigour. Heinz Pagels in the book ‘The Dreams of Reason’ comments: “Science cannot resolve moral conflicts, but it can help to more accurately frame the debates about those conflicts.” This simply implies that the scientific method can help in many a situation.
21st century Sri Lanka needs to bring in science in a big way to steady the ship and to me the perfect crossover is to crossover to embrace science in decision making and politics of Sri Lanka can do with some exactness. An example is fuel pricing, which is also one carrot on offer. We still appear to miss the analysis while we play with a transient figure and hope to ride on the low price wave to success. We forget that though the prices are changing, our dependence has not.
Russia’s suffering due to low crude prices is harming Sri Lankan tea and the consequences are difficult to understand. Once Bill Gates is reputed to have stated: “When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.” This was with regard to US education.
Education in Sri Lanka is an important area that should be given highest priority. Today Sri Lanka achieving for the fourth consecutive time the Google search top position for ‘sex,’ can we claim that our device literacy is the highest and as such we are well-developed in ICT? Simple economics of investment in education should not be the way we understand and applaud the progress of Sri Lankan education. That too is scientific analysis.
We do not promise equipping the nation to be ready and agile in the emerging situation of depleted availability of fuels. We do not understand the importance of making use of lower prices to create a window of opportunity to pump in money to prepare for the change that inevitably should come one day.
It is indeed quite interesting to hear the arguments and to check the strength of the argument with a scientific analysis. This latter picture is hardly available to the decision maker as well as to the citizen voter in our country due to the dialogues never reaching this state of depth. We have witnessed antiscientific governance for too long and that is not the primary fault of the politician. It is the fault of the establishment. However, the correction has to come from the leadership.
Building national resilience
The prevailing weather should offer many discussion points. Why this inclement weather and the havoc that it is causing? We have a graphic capture of a two storey house collapsing at Digana and many more incidents on record. How do we address this: Should we adapt or mitigate or both?
A couple of months back we were shipping water from Colombo to Anuradhapura and today the place is flooded. What is in store for us in time to come? Our preparedness in these directions hardly ever surfaces in political discussions. When it comes to this type of situation, we are quite stuck in ‘sahana yatra’ concepts only.
Building national resilience should be the order of the day and that is through seriously embedding science and technology. In that endeavour we need a complete different set of meetings and discussions than what we are used to.
It is an imperative to have a goal of a government in which scientific expertise factors into planning and decision making at all levels. Such a situation opens up the economy in many ways and the young will find working much more attractive. Science can not only broaden a discussion but can change the whole way of the conversation.
The Colombo Statement
This is the basis of the Colombo Statement which was released after the UNESCAP event that was conducted as a side event to the main Asia Pacific Business Forum held in Colombo in November. The UNESCAP event was titled ‘Evidence-based STI Approaches to Achieve Sustainable Development Goals’.
The meeting of the senior policy makers from the Asia-Pacific Region was co-managed by UNESCAP and COSTI as the Sri Lankan counterpart organisation; 13 senior policy makers from Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Republic of Korea, Philippines and Sri Lanka, two experts from World Food Program and Asian Development Bank, 22 experts from various ministries, departments and institutes in Sri Lanka and APCTT (total: 38) participated in this workshop.
The workshop deliberated on the current STI-based approaches of the Asia-Pacific countries to achieve national development agendas and in identifying the need and gaps in strengthening evidence (facts and figures)-based STI policy development, governance and evaluation in the context of achieving the SDGs. That MDGs are now being replaced by SDGs is something that we should be mindful of.
Economics rules decision making
In politics, while offering enticing offers in titillating the mind, it is simple economics that rules decision making. After the elections we again use simple economics most times and monetary and fiscal policies and those who are entrusted with those stay quite true to old lecture material.
It is instructive to view the message of Michael J. Sandel in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’: “We are in the grip of a way of looking at the world and social life and even personal relations that is dominated by economic way of thinking. That is an impoverished way of looking at the world.”
What money can’t buy perhaps is an important read perhaps in today’s era of crossovers and reversals. The pathways to power today are being measured with the number and the quality of crossovers. Quality in this instance is the vote bank that a person may command and nothing else. The message is certainly important.
When can we bring in addition innovation policy too in addition to fiscal and monetary policies? With China and India becoming innovation hot spots, are we to merely plan our growth based on spillovers and handouts? The Colombo Statement offers an important message for a different blueprint.
Spirit of science must enter politics
It can quite comfortably stated that if more scientific management is brought in, we can create extra speed in growth with sustainability. An open invitation is for all those who vie for power is to understand and make that more meaningful ‘perfect crossover’ in their minds and attitude.
The verbal diatribe that we are enduring is not loaded with roadmaps of any significance. The media too is missing this analytical reporting. This is because our understanding of what a person wants to listen to. We do not serve with the intention of elevating the recipients to a new level but do so with meeting basic perceived needs.
Hence the change necessary is not really in politics, but with the subjects. We ourselves must make a conscience effort in redefining our goals. We need to develop a mindset for learning. Let us hope that spirit of science enter into politics too.
The chance of a brand new 365 days offers an opportunity and we are quite used to making New Year resolutions. The difference is that we must ensure that the resolutions stick. Then the future towards which we are careening at speed can be less threatening and more understandable than at present.
[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.]