Science into rupees

Thursday, 23 October 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We are eagerly awaiting the presentation of the National Budget by the President on Friday, 24 October. Balancing the books nationally is an important exercise. There was a time when the budget day was preceded by people hoarding goods in anticipation of price hikes and looking for quick returns. Such behavioural practices are no more, at least in the retail sector. The National Plantation Research Symposium Yes, the Budget is an important economic policy tool and the Budget to be presented is supposed to address the direction for the next few years. The pre-event publicity indicated that the thinking and the plan to be presented is enabling the national economy to move towards an advanced economy that is innovative, knowledge-based and self reliant. The emerging era is promised to be an era of renewed vigour and dynamism. As Sri Lankans we sincerely wish for that scenario, knowing very well that it is our collective effort, facilitate and directed through this type of important policy statements that will usher in the promised state. However, the Budget in a nutshell is all about income and expenditure, whether it is institutional or national.   Green plantation economy I had the opportunity to sit through research presentations from four research institutions over two days during the National Plantation Research Symposium conducted with the theme ‘Towards a Green Plantation Economy’ held at the BMICH from 15 to 17 October. The opening ceremony was attended by the President as the Chief Guest, which involved recognition of the sector scientists who had excelled in their respective areas. Listening through the series of research presentations, totalling 44, one could gauge the significance of their findings and effort involved. The biological world has no respect for State circulars or private sector quarterly deadlines. Soil acidity and the rainfall may decide whether to allow the plant to grow to its full potential or not. Further, pests and diseases can upset progress in their own ways. It is up to us to ensure that we understand the biological psyche in all its ways and the returns flow when we are on top of this quite dynamic situation. Scientific researchers have to be ready to be up any time and climb trees at odd hours of the day as well if one is to view how things are shaping up, whether the plant is tea, rubber coconut or sugar cane. New cultivars have to be made ready for emerging situations – climate change, drought conditions, salinity tolerance, nutrient depleted soils – and the developments of such take years if not a decade. For those who are used to plan on short-term basis, such concepts are alien. However, the non recognition of these mandatory efforts can lead to serious productivity differences in time to come. It was noted from the four sector presentations made at the beginning, that whether the crop is tea, rubber, coconut or sugarcane, Sri Lankan productivity – yield per hectare – is way below other countries.   High yields a must In all four of these plantation crops we have fallen behind. Understanding that Sri Lanka is not significantly endowed with land, if one is to move towards self reliance and foreign income generation through the plantation sector, striving towards high yields is a must. The need for science and scientists is paramount and scientists have to deliver. The system must recognise this need and ensure that it supports creative scientific engagement. Most of our research institutes do have problems of staff retention due to poor salary structures and capital availability to upgrade resources. In this day and age having sufficient grey matter is not sufficient, you need to have access to state-of-the-art research infrastructure as well. This is why the departing scientific talent succeeds while those who are remaining behind fail. They walk into laboratories and plant houses modern and up-to-date. They have access to excellent hardware and the procedures in place are quite conducive too. While applauding our worker bees who have stayed behind, we need to understand this gap that persists and need to address it quite quickly. The more you delay, the more problematic the issues going to be and definitely so in the plantations. You cannot simply accelerate the functioning of the biological clock. As an example, if the national policy speaks of fulfilling 40% of the sugar requirement through local efforts, the underlying necessity is scientific planning. Simply increasing the land under cultivation will not do if the effort only perpetuates the current yield. That would stress some other economic element. Similarly, factories need to be upgraded and one should be able to ensure that production facilities are favourably benchmarked for performance. As such, many scientific and technological challenges are there. What the symposium demonstrated was research – both applied and basic – is taking place. It is the quick integration of the findings to the plantation economy that is important.   Absence of policy makers and practitioners What is interesting to observe is that when research is presented, if the majority in the audience are researchers, then it is peer to peer communication only. The absence of policy makers and practitioners was noticeable – especially beyond the opening session. Sadly this is a fact with most of our research symposia today. Policy makers should understand that there is much merit in attending and interacting during this type of symposia and should not limit their attendance to management and financial events. In general we may see much more advanced preparation and commitment to dinner dances and paduru parties in the country where the scientist will have to labour in vacuum and present results almost in a vacuum too. Getting some press coverage for those who were rewarded for excellence is almost a dream. Only a few of us may know how important these rewarded projects are from an economic standpoint.   Science into dollars Genetics can influence plantation economies. It is instructive how the United States reacted after fully supporting the Human Genome Project which was to decipher the human gene. After unravelling the information all the findings were made available to the public. While the US made the investment, this data is available to us as well. Many economic returns have resulted from this public investment and much more will follow. In fact, the area of genetics is considered to be one of the twelve disruptive technologies heading our way. Battelle Technology Partnership Practice evaluating the US government investment on the Human Genome Project made the following observation: “The $3.8 billion spent on the HGP may well represent the best single investment ever made in science.” They noted that the $3.8 billion investment had resulted in $796 billion in economic impact besides launching the global genomic revolution. By 2011 it created 310,000 jobs. The study estimated that as per 2011, every $1 of HGP investment has helped to generate $141 to the US economy. This simply explains ‘Science into Dollars’ as per the United States economy. They appear to have really reaped returns.   Investing knowledge The National Budget may not exactly speak on the returns to the economy from about Rs. 4.2 billion research funding made last year. Some may consider this to be money down the drain and an unaffordable way of maintaining a few people within some institutes engaged in far from useful exercises. How much this Rs. 4.2 billion has yielded back to the economy is not clear. We simply do not have a mechanism to capture this information. This amount of money may well have delivered significantly in some sectors. However, non-quantification of benefits does result in ignorance perpetuating on the value of research to the national economy. One of the most innovative companies on earth – 3M, has the following philosophy – they understand research is putting money to generate knowledge. Innovation, according to them, is investing knowledge to generate money. The latter is quite important and 3M run both cycles within the organisation with impressive results. When the latter is effective the institution is quite visible. However, the first part needs to be present and effective to generate knowledge which can conquer the market place. Growing things as per the good old days is not going to herald in a Green Plantation Economy.   Budget cannot ignore research The development of a mechanism – a useful monitoring framework to assess research inputs and economic impacts – is a vital need of the hour. COSTI with its mandate in this direction has initiated this important task. While monetary and fiscal policies dominate discussion a vital pillar in modern day practice, the innovation policy is least considered and understood. Companies do not invest in Research and Development. When challenged to present one’s allocation even from the top of the pile, the answers are not encouraging. The national investment on R&D is below par (i.e. 0.13% of GDP) and in need of serious revision. The understanding that investments in research can payback in a big way is critical. Some tools may need to be devised to bringing this understanding. The Budget, which is coming in with the theme of heralding an advanced economy which is knowledge-based and self-reliant, cannot simply ignore research and innovation. We need to seriously understand the value of the process ‘science into rupees’. That can make or break our economy in time to come. [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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