Ignorance is bliss; unless you are in charge

Thursday, 9 April 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

[caption id="attachment_405311" align="alignnone" width="600"] Even though we are a middle income country, a price of a hopper coming down or the lowering of the cost of a cup of tea makes near headline news. Electronic media goes on to seek community response to the new prices in town. Mind you, we are a leader in global tea exports! Such views and news occupying peak time broadcast means expensive electricity being invested on non-productive information sharing[/caption] Time, that important commodity that we all have access in equal amounts to without any race, religion or creed, is really a misspent commodity in our beautiful land. It is interesting how in Sri Lanka time passes but nothing much happens. Of course it depends on the way this is looked at as definitely some may say things are happening too fast for them to cover or understand. I am however referring to identifying technological advances taking place or elements of economy moving forward with science and technology integration. An exception I hasten to identify is the telecommunication sector though much of it is buy, deploy and use where much money is flowing outwards. Non-productive information sharing Even though we are a middle income country, a price of a hopper coming down or the lowering of the cost of a cup of tea makes near headline news. Electronic media goes on to seek community response to the new prices in town. Mind you, we are a leader in global tea exports! Such views and news occupying peak time broadcast means expensive electricity being invested on non-productive information sharing. Newsworthiness of such an event implicitly indicates the situation of the society at large. Try to find a slot for some technology news and sponsorship to air some science program and you hit a solid brick wall. Yet we muse on becoming the hub of everything. Our dreaming appears to continue from night to daytime and night again. The good thing is still our smile appears to captivate and warm up the hearts of the world – a factor that our tourism is eternally and desperately banking on. It is also interesting to note that some visitors of developed economies do like and enjoy our laidback style as they feel that they have to do so much just to keep up a certain way of living and this stressful living they abhor. There is a lesson to us from that too. When we seek progress we should seek a balanced way of hi-tech growth encompassing the humane elements of care, compassion, empathy, etc. and these we do not lack. This is written with a view to suggest and plead – if that is what is necessary – that while politics, music, arts, sports, games, drama, etc., are going on merrily with no limitations in access to finances, support and sponsorships, please do not allow science and technology to suffer – not for the sake of science but for the sake of Sri Lanka. Support the sciences! Look around you; we will not have what we have today if the sciences had stayed still. A creative few had brought in so much change and at times with huge cost to themselves. Marie Curie in finding solutions that benefit the masses today gave up her life in the process and there are many such instances. While we cruise on all types of motor cars, the tyre that enables us to ride over both rough and the smooth, we forget the real hard life with so many sacrifices spent by Charles Goodyear on trying to identify the process of vulcanisation. Science is a differentiating subject to nurture an economy and scientists do have the task of breathing life to that process. No amount of wishful planning will deliver however brilliant the constitution is, if the scientific depth and integration is missing in an economy. The United Kingdom from where our parliamentary system emerged, and with which so much of amendments being talked about today in our country, is not governed with a single constitutional document in place. Much of the British Constitution is in written documents, within statutes, court judgments, works of authority and treaties. A passing of an Act in UK can amount to a change in the Constitution. So much for its importance. Just think please, even if you are idling waiting for someone to turn up to an already late meeting. We have entangled ourselves on the not-so-important, while the important issues receive scant attention. Singapore, Israel, Switzerland We have seen Singapore changing in 30 years. The great statesman Lee Kuan Yew, who made it happen, was laid to rest recently and the testimonials from many a world leader at the university performance hall where the State funeral service was held said it all. Israel today is known for its agriculture as well as for its industry. How many breakthroughs in ICT have come from research groups operating in Tel Aviv? Israel in its infancy requested first Albert Einstein and then Chaim Weizmann – a biochemist with a solid reputation whose innovation helped Britain significantly in World War I – to lead the country. It was the execution of science and technology that enabled Israel to become what it is today plus of course with the grit of the populace. In Switzerland – a small country which in the last four years has occupied the top spot in the Global Innovation Index – the great experiment Large Hadron Collider, the largest single machine on earth, is just starting again with a new burst of energy and what that may unravel is interesting to watch. Many a country is collaborating in Geneva in this grand experiment. Knowledge coming out of CERN in Geneva and in particular from theoretical physics is supposed to account for 25-30 % of current global economy. How two colliding proton beams are going to influence economic progress is interesting to contemplate but for some with farsightedness this is seriously relevant. Even though we at this stage do not advocate plunging into theoretical physics with all our assets, we must improve on our investment in science from the paltry 0.13% of GDP to stand a chance of staking a claim in serving humanity and ourselves too in a worthwhile manner. Ignorance is not bliss Ignorance in science and technology among the decision makers can affect us in many ways. Not understanding the direction in which the world is moving may mean inappropriate decision making. It is not complete understanding at all times; what matters it is the interest in learning, knowing the importance and following through diligently. It is also ensuring that you stay on top with issues that matter. If we believe that we can isolate ourselves from the outside and charter a growth path independently purely based on economic policies sans innovation, we stand to pay a high price. Ignorance is bliss at lower levels but at higher leadership levels this is not applicable. India and ICT It is interesting to note a comment made by an Indian delegate in the recent Indo-European conference on ICT-related patents held in Munich (November, 2014). Today the Indian ICT sector is a global success story. The delegate had stated that India has come a long way from the time when the Ministry thought the internet ought to belong to the Department of Fisheries, not to mention the time when, whilst arguing about a Yahoo case decision, when his company offered to setup the internet in the judge’s private room and the judge has asked how they could bring the internet into a room! Ignorance at these levels is certainly not bliss! The situation is different in India today with ‘Digital India’ being a State slogan. Today you can see ICT deployed in remotest corners of India serving individual needs. We can come forward with our own share of horror stories. When a country or an economy is marching forward with the deployment of best science and technology, it is impossible to catch up let alone become competitive unless you yourself start integrating the basic STI elements. Growth constraints Today we have to charter our economic growth under additional constraints. In 2011 the world experienced the highest carbon dioxide concentration recorded on earth after millions of year. That would have been a watershed event for action. Recently the Antarctica showed the highest temperature recorded. These climatic events are not to be taken lightly. These days with the sun right overhead we are also feeling some extra heat and how are we to compare trends from year to year unless we seriously engaged in some studies and recordings? Climate change is serious as it impacts us in many ways. Planning insurance and getaways is not what is important. We know what we should be doing but it is a pity that we lack guts in execution. It is these developments that had led to the acceptance of concept of sustainable development instead of development, sustainable consumption instead of simply consumption. Overall the linear economy concept has to be replaced by the circular economy and achieving this circularity is through innovation. Sustainability is key The direction proposed is not to become fast-paced adrenaline junkies. Having a slower pace, we can blend in sustainability elements without going through the linear economic pitfalls. We can understand and develop greener ways of living with appropriate technology in place. It is interesting to contemplate the green energy systems, green products and processes, green factories, green buildings, etc., and thus a green society in harmony with nature. Many a scientific advancement available today can be brought into develop these elements from bottom up. Leadership is required for the transition and the leadership has to know the importance of transition – the why and also the mechanics of transition – the how. This implies being aware of the scientific basis for a circular economy. Sri Lanka needs to place its faith in science and not in endless chatter which at this stage only illuminates widespread ignorance. [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 [email protected]]

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