See what you can do for science in Sri Lanka!

Thursday, 15 December 2011 00:38 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As you read this column, an important three-day event in Colombo is coming to an end and as the day ends, it would have resulted in many deliberations, exchanges of different ideas and some concrete suggestions taken down to communicate to planners and rulers to note and take action.

The three-day event is another first for Sri Lanka – it is a meeting termed the Global Forum of Sri Lankan Scientists. Many have flown in from quite a number of places and their resumes are quite strong and with their positions and influences they appear to have surely implied their abilities and power in their adopted land.

It is also a testimony to an education system that existed or exists in the country as most of them are products of the free education system of Sri Lanka. A quote often quoted from JFK comes to one’s mind: See what you can do for your country and not what the country can do for you.

He was addressing his fellow citizens and some may have even landed on US soil few days back even. For many of these individuals who have flocked to Colombo acknowledging the call, you have to consider the first part of the quote only. I am sure they are keen in this regard and a relevant platform has been provided via this global forum.

They will acknowledge that in cases of many, they indeed have benefitted from what the country had done for them during their formative stages and their current successes must owe some of it if not most to these initial days and what one has gained.

Time to deliver

I am also sure that there may have been many reasons for moving offshore. The phenomenon of brain drain is now an accepted scenario with international definitions though when skilled and highly skilled people depart, it is a double blow to the internal economy. Hence one can almost modify JFK’s sentence to “do not just see and discuss,” but “simply deliver in any way possible”.

It is also the fervent wish of the organisers that they will and the interactions will lead to many alliances; of course the understanding is that links developed will not be between those in United States with those in Australia!

One can support through developing human resources to providing services and of course many innovative ways to support exists. One unique aspect of this forum is that the embedded virtualisation of the event makes the content, discussions and exchanges available on a virtual platform beyond three days.

One can follow the event on social media and listen to presentations again and again. Hope Virtusa which is leading this support activity reports publicly on scientific chatter. Can a scientific spring in Sri Lanka be created by constant Tweeting?

Diaspora engagement

Seeking the support and assistance of one’s Diaspora is not new. Many countries actively have pursued this strategy for years. It is the intensity of engagement as seen between Israel and United States, and to some extent between India and United States, that really shows the power of networking and Diaspora engagement.

For Sri Lanka, it is well known that a sizeable group exists overseas. Our first main recorded exodus happened during the post 1971 insurgency and of course we are well aware of the 1983 events.

Today the situation is different as far as local environment is considered. The country has not moved on to harnessing the talent in any focused manner and this Global Forum is timely as it comes at a time that Sri Lanka is keen on showing it is an economy on the move!

In spanning the activities of developed economies, it appears that they in fact improve on programmes to harness the external talent, increasing the possibilities of migration.

In the US the Kauffmann Foundation is on record requesting the US Government to consider retaining advance degree holders by offering them opportunities – green cards to highly-skilled migrants.

This cannot be considered as a bad practice as it understands the value of higher education and the strategic loss of trained manpower if allowed to move back. The point we must understand is that it is not only the provision of higher education that matters, but how one integrates them into the economic mainstream.

In the forum on the first day itself one heard that some learnt well or were taught very well, but only derived satisfaction of applying what they learnt when they were in the First World – an important message in basic human psychology perhaps to higher education service providers and planners. It is natural when you are empowered with knowledge that you want to practice and the barriers to practice are a serious impediment.

This event has come hot on the heels of another first organised by the Ministry of T&R – i.e. the Technology Market Place meeting and exhibition. It is indeed good that science, technology and commercialisation are given attention and gaining some momentum. That is what will finally differentiate our economy in a meaningful manner.

Technology gap

It is an oft-repeated mantra in these gatherings to reiterate what was said by the Economics Nobel Laureate – Robert Solow. He is famous for his theory of economic growth and pointing out technical progress as a key factor for economic growth.

Though it took analysis by Solow to make this point to economic theory, the technical innovations and benefits have accrued and positioned some countries in an enviable position. Solow was analytical enough to understand facts and connect data and in forming the big picture. It was science and technology rather the results of S&T that he was analysing.

With Solow stating his principles in the 20th century, we in the 21st century cannot gather and be vociferous on lack of attention, planning and resource crunches when it comes to S&T. That surely means some understanding in some quarters is amiss. It certainly cannot be when one aspires to be a knowledge hub.

Hope the creative writers of policy are aware of the difference between a knowledge hub and a call centre or a little more advanced BPO unit.

It has been pointed out that the difference between a developed and a developing economy actually comes from the technology gap.

It is important that the recommendations contained especially from this type of forum are taken with due seriousness.

While we may see and implement certain improvements and enact changes, the collective voice coming out from an event of this nature is much more significant.  The public also has a right to know and stay informed.

That will ensure that the same thing cannot be stated at a later stage.

Woes of scientists

However, a fact to be noted is that the woes of scientists have stayed almost constant and the solutions suggested too. The connecting of the solutions to woes has not yet seen the light of day.

The forum can reiterate that the intent cannot be realised minus positive action. Though of late many steps have been taken, the essential steps are still awaited and it is also important to step up the momentum as the impact of science and technology takes some time to materialise.

Understanding these different time constants for delivery between science and technology on the one hand and a normal group of tourists visiting the island has been challenging. We may observe that while investments on tourism may be increasing, science education and the number of schools with science programmes is rapidly shrinking. While this should ring alarm bells in many quarters, the fact is that the situation appears to have been left out to be managed by market-based instruments.

One may have all the nice events of the decade. The interactions may well prove to be enjoyable. Some actual developments may also materialise. However, the significant difference will materialise when country accords the due position to science, technology and innovation.

Remember the sentiments expressed by Louis Pasteur whose activities on the bench and the resultant understandings may have paved the way to enable seven billion humans in today’s context. He stated: “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of a nation.”

Science teaching

We are seeing many patches of countryside devoid of science teaching. The learned in science may depart with the intentions of serving humanity from a base station which values science and support their endeavours. However as a nation we must understand the importance of his last line. We cannot lose people and create wonders.

We have convened a forum. Many have joined in and they must stay committed. They have a duty to stay so. However, the voice of the forum must be heard within the corridors of power to be really effective.

Remember JFK did not just say it. He followed it with action across many fronts. In tilting the balance in Sri Lanka, what we need is those who will venture out and deliver, perhaps going over an extra mile too – separation distance immaterial. The message to forum participants hopefully is clear.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis 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 also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on


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