SOS for T&R to win the economic war

Thursday, 2 December 2010 01:48 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The abbreviation S&T (Science and Technology) is widely known even if misunderstood by many to what it really stands for.  Today for this subject from a national perspective a new abbreviation has surfaced T&R – Technology and Research. 

I have no information on the selection of these two words.  Maybe we are sending a message of the dire need for relevance of what we do in this sphere for economic benefit is my viewpoint. Usually science and its practitioners are accused of pursuit of one’s pet areas irrespective of relevance?  However, the argument may be one cannot discount the vital importance of science.  One can safely state though at this stage we definitely need to be more focused on real economic relevance of our work.  I would further state that this should be applicable to all areas rather than considering science alone.  

Economic war

Our own war on terror has concluded.  Winning the hearts and minds is also the process of winning the war on poverty and the fresh declaration of war in the economic front and in making Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia’ is a welcome sign of State taking the issue seriously.  The first war required foot soldiers and in right quantity and quality.  The new war requires foot soldiers of a different kind.  May I venture to identify scientists and technologists along with Research and Development (R&D) personnel as the real foot soldiers and other ranks in this war?

The challenge for both individuals and institutions is clear in trying to win this economic war.  The time span within which we have to produce results is much less.  Simply the luxury of time is not there for us.  Jawaharlal Nehru who placed science at the top of the national agenda, as soon as India gained independence in 1947, stated ‘Live dangerously.  Success often comes to those who dare and act regardless of the consequences and it seldom goes to the timid.’ We see that in certain situations those who are not timid and acting with temerity succeeding well illustrating the sentiment.  What we need is those who dare to have the right value set as well.  Those are the foot soldiers we need.  That is the S&T or T&R breed to be nurtured.

Getting the right talent

This fact was highlighted in the recently prepared document - Science, Technology & Innovation Strategy for Sri Lanka (see insert Figure).  As an important document identifying pathways from 2011-2015, this document is mandatory reading material for those who are staffing the ‘Economic War Room’.  It is important to understand that the ‘real front’ in this war situation is defined by the ‘State-of-the-art’ and the very recognition of such frontiers demands attributes of a different kind.

Sizes of the armies when considering various economies show an interesting picture.    Sri Lankan count for researchers is around 4600 – and not all of them provide full time research inputs which when factored in give an approximate value of 2700.  From key technology competitive indicators Sri Lankan R&D researchers per million people (2006) are 138.  The equivalent no. for USA is 4628.  The number for Singapore is 5479.  For Korea it stands at 3723.  The disparity is evident.  To bridge this division Sri Lanka at present should plan for an increase of 18,000 research personnel. In examining statistics, Sri Lanka again shows a disturbing trend.  The no of researchers in 1996 had been 6000, which had come down to the earlier value in 2006.  Usual bench mark figures are researchers per million inhabitants for developing countries is 374.3 and for developed countries is 3272.7.  We see that we are quite below the average even when considering a developing country as a guide.  There is a need for a strong stimulus package to entice people to these cadres.  The truth is we must not only arrest the decline but must turn it around to realize an increase.  As transitions and conversions are not quite easy – you simply cannot walk away from one job to become a researcher – the understanding has to be matched to implementations at ground level in many places.  There is a need to change the mind set from early levels of education- to think of careers or aspire to be researchers and scientists.   

Question of respect

In a recent on-line poll by Business Times an interesting result was shown.  The readers were requested to identify the ‘most respected’ category of professions according to their preference.  The results are revealing.  Doctors were the most respected with 32.14% followed by judges at 25%.  The rest were farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs in that order.  The balance was shown as ‘others’.  Just consider the mind set of those who participated in the poll.  The profession of a scientist – be it biologist, chemist, physicist or botanist - was never there.  Researcher would not figure in at all as this concept is quite vague in our career guide.  If doctors came on top there was not even a mention of the profession engineer!  Now this is a revealing situation and a situation that need some remedial action at least in terms of understanding professions.  If we say that the Economic War is to be won via research, development and deployment then the foot soldiers necessary to that task come from the above mentioned professions.

Nations have wavered.  For instance England with an industrial revolution under its belt felt at one point that the nation’s competitiveness is slipping away.  Hence the question from Margaret Thatcher to Akio Morita (who is the founder chairman of the Sony corporation).  His rejoinder is on record – Britain should respect her engineers as much as she does her accountants and lawyers.  

Setting the right role models

Now with Sri Lanka having brand new intentions the message should be quite clear.  The issue is not to shower respect and spoil the show but provide a challenging opportunity.    The current situation does not bode well to generate the cadres necessary for growth.  It is not pure numbers that one is looking at but quality with quantity.  The present situation is also eroding that opportunity as when selecting growth avenues peer pressures contribute to so much.  Nobel laureates in science have spoken of their chemistry set as their beginning.  Mechanical minded people have identified their LEGO or Mechano sets.  May be with changing times this is pure nostalgia.  With the type of respect shown for professions and the picture of our younger generation the need for some action is evident.  Holding on to one’s mobile and looking at the TV set with the remote controller next to you is unlikely to spur the imagination especially if ‘science stars’ are lacking within the frame of reference provided.  I do hope that some of the younger generation watching Hollywood movies such as ‘Mad Professor’ and or ‘Beautiful Mind’ (even though a true story) has formed not so positive ideas about life and times of researchers.  The current crop of role models available may not be up to the task for delivering in this area.

 As a developing country in this quest we need to listen to different ideas and think differently.  We are at times served with tested recipes by others. They may taste good but may not be brilliant.  One such idea that is frequently heard is “listen to the market place.”  Whilst that has its merit present times demand some boldness.  Henry Ford who revolutionized production after seeing a food factory said that if he too listened to the market place, he would have built a faster, cheaper horse.  How do we create that spirit?  Certainly to change numbers by four times fast action is necessary.

There is no question that to win the economic war there is no way other than through science, technology and innovation.  Right sizing the system to deliver is a mandatory policy imperative.  Action should be focused on getting the system attuned to such thinking.  When Korea wanted to popularize S&T among their populace they printed their messages even on tobacco packs!  Now we may not need to do that but popularize we must and there are many places to print the message.  The question at this stage is do we have the courage and the understanding to act differently and swell these cadres in quick time with a longer return on investment mindset?

(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 a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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