R&D factor in industrial development

Thursday, 18 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

University teacher unions (FUTA and others) have long argued that the Government must at least contribute 6% of the GDP for higher education. It is indeed an important factor that has a direct bearing on long-term economic planning. The Government of Sri Lanka must have development priorities to deal with certain requirements to attain the high growth rates. Long-term economic planning is an important aspect in taking the country to higher levels as global economic patterns keep changing and Sri Lanka should be ready to face the global economic challenges at any given time. Unpredictable though the global trade trends may be; but if there is a population with certain skill sets, and if there are proper infrastructure in terms of R&D and human capital in higher educational institutes, it would not be an uphill task to face global challenges. Global strategic considerations One can now clearly see the global power politics involving India, Japan and China trying to make their presence felt in countries in an effort to meet the increasing challenges both in economic aspects as well as regional security cooperation. Vietnam is aligning itself with India. The importance of Sri Lanka, its strategic location seems to have hit the front pages of global agendas. Geopolitical issues have seen some shifts in regional politics. India cemented a deal with Japan and Australia over civil nuclear collaboration. The Prime Minister of Japan was in India and made a historical visit to Sri Lanka. Japan reiterated that it has some concerns over maritime security in India Ocean. The joint statement highlights ‘Sri Lanka-Japan Dialogue on Maritime Security and Oceanic Issues in order to effectively address the issues of mutual interest in oceanic issues’ and ‘Prime Minister Abe expressed his gratitude to the Sri Lankan Government for the facilitation of the port calls by the vessels of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF)’. Japanese business sector has expressed interest in investing in Sri Lanka. Does this not sound that there is a certain focus on Sri Lanka owing to changes in Asia Pacific balance of power ? Vietnam received highest FDI Vietnam seems to have received the highest FDI, approximately $ 6.8 billion during the first half of 2014. It would be pertinent to ask what really attracted Vietnam for foreign FDI, which Sri Lanka did not have. South Korea seems to have made the highest FDI in Vietnam. Why did foreign investors invest in Vietnam mostly in high-tech industries? Vietnam spends 6.3% of GDP (World Bank, 2010) on education whereas Sri Lanka has spent only 2% of GDP (World Bank, 2010). Vietnam has received funding for science, technology and innovation by designing and piloting science, technology and innovation policies enhancing the effectiveness of Research and Development (R&D) institutions and encouraging the development of innovative technology enterprises. The World Bank report says: “The projects (in Vietnam) main beneficiaries are R&D institutions and innovative technology enterprises that invest in R&D. Spin-offs and start up enterprises that are incubated from R&D institutions or universities, will also benefit. The project will also support the establishment of a private-public partnership research laboratory in the R&D zone of the Hoa Lac High-Tech Park.” A quick Google search would produce a delightful news item on high tech research in Sri Lanka that was about a raid by a Wildlife Department official over ‘a high tech cannabis plantation’ in the Yala reserve. A high tech investor would look into the R&D possibilities in the country in which investment is contemplated and whether investor could benefit from such infrastructure in place. R&D in universities Universities can play a pivotal role in economic development provided they are provided with the required facilities and staff are adequately motivated. There have been many university strikes in Sri Lanka and one would ponder whether our universities are really able to contribute to national economic development. Have the universities been enlisted in national economic priorities? Have the university teachers been kept at a distance just because they demand 6% of GDP for higher education, thus creating an unhealthy work ambience? What are the current levels of R&D at our universities? Have they been adequately funded? Have the research been properly identified so that research outcome would be beneficial for the industrialists who are struggling with product innovation in order to confront the global competition? What exactly is the level of participation between University academics and private sector institutions? Does the University Act provide a space for such collaboration between Private and Public sector R&D ventures? Have there been constant dialogues between Chambers of Commerce and Industries with the R&D communities of the universities? In what way can the private sector participate in the ‘production of knowledge’ which is the cornerstone of industrial innovation? Graduate education and research cannot be separated and each doctoral dissertation is produced under the supervision of senior university academics. The outcome of each research must produce some tangible results. The science, engineering and medical faculties of universities must have a dialogue with corporate sector so that students and researchers can be provided with research topics that are hatched on the very factory/industrial hub where a certain manufacturing engineering problem is identified as being a matter for further research, a solution for which would provide a competitive edge for the product. The Medical Faculty could undertake research on a groundbreaking drug that can cure deadly deceases. The funding for such research could be from a private investor from abroad. During the three-decade long brutal war with the LTTE, defence research was undertaken as a tool of necessity. This was so with other countries. The Cold War produced super technologies to meet the national security threats imposed by US and USSR on each other. Sri Lanka is now experiencing the peace dividend and there has got to be a dialogue with universities and the private sector industries over R&D. The most important feature in a research academic is to possess the ‘current’ knowledge and in order to access ‘current knowledge’ an academic must have the academic freedom and the resources to access ‘current knowledge’. There has been a recent research by Prof. Rohan Munasinghe of the Department of Electronics, University of Moratuwa and was able to produce an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with auto pilot and this was considered a novel innovation. In order for this project to take off the ground it must have the financial backing either from the Government or from the private sector so that this research could reach another level. The Universities Act will have to be amended to provide space for such extensive collaboration. A private investor either locally or from overseas can be attracted for this UAV project. The Ceylon Pencil Company has also collaborated with University of Moratuwa. Intellectual Property (IP) rights and transfer of such rights have to be within the legal framework whether this falls within the work of the individual academic or whether this right belong to the University are issues that needs to be incorporated into University Act on R&D matters. The checks and balances on the use and abuse of private funds for research and proper management of such funds should also be covered under University Act. Types of research knowledge There are two types of knowledge: ‘codified’ and ‘tacit’. Codified denotes that knowledge that can be written down and transferred with ease. Tacit knowledge cannot easily be transferred in written form and it requires frequent human interaction between academics and the corporate scientists. Darby and Zucker (2003 cited in Kent H., 2006) have argued that “metamorphic” innovations such as those associated with the creation of new industries or the radical technological transformation of an existing industry, typically are driven by breakthrough discoveries in science and engineering. Examples include integrated circuits, recombinant DNA, and nano-technology. These kinds of discoveries are not well understood initially and cannot be codified. In the beginning, the new knowledge is largely tacit, and it is difficult for anyone other than the discoverer to see commercial value in the findings. Transfer and application to industry require bench-level relationships between industry scientists and the pioneering scientists”. The Silicon Valley in California is a best illustration of collaboration between U.S research academics and the corporate scientists and this has had a major impact on the local economic development. Some universities in US are deriving regular income from intellectual property patents and licensing and those funds have been redeployed for further research. There has to be a major overhaul of the University Act, incorporating an administrative mechanism for research collaboration, which is required to promote a culture of collaboration between the private and public sector in R&D. Each university in Sri Lanka must have a publication unit commonly known as University Press. A private entrepreneur may want to hire the laboratory of the university for tests as investing in a new laboratory would not sound viable. The academics can also be hired for short term consultancies and might have to report to the entrepreneur’s facility for applied research. University Act is a major hurdle for economic development and must therefore undergo radical reforms in consultation with chambers of commerce and with other stakeholders. It is extremely important to avoid duplication in R&D as there are Government institutions such as Industrial Development Board (IDB) and other Government institutions, hence better coordination among all research laboratories would obviate such duplication. There is a huge potential for economic development of our country if priorities are set right. (This writer is a freelance journalist and a government affairs consultant. He is a registered member of the American Association of Political Consultants.)

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