Conference maketh a ready man!

Thursday, 23 August 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With apologies to Francis Bacon whose quote is misquoted but not in essence of what he meant. Bacon’s comment that “reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man” is to be seriously looked at today in education and in practice where we appear to falter at every step of the way due to not being full, ready or exact!

At times reading is taken to be a joke and a waste of precious time, writing is confined to memos and minutes and the rest is taken over by cut and paste.

I have read student submissions of salt coming into Sri Lankan rivers and streams due to salt being used to clear snow from roads and then getting into waterways, finally resulting in higher dissolved solid levels. I searched in vain for this elusive presence of snow in Sri Lanka as we only lack snow-covered landscapes to give tourists a complete package.

I have listened to people who have no idea what is going on this place and across the world chattering away on obscure news lines of no use to anybody. They have ventured no further than the headline of a newspaper. A devout reader can be a social pariah and an outcast.


Bacon’s conference

Bacon’s conference was in discussing with others what one knows and aware of so that one can really hone in all the information. A discussion well conducted and ably participated indeed can make the person ready for more challenging tasks.

This conference is not about drowning the others’ voices with yours and claiming victory, sadly a state-of-the-art in some of our conferences that we see broadcasted! However Bacon may have come out with such thoughts when he probably watched with despair some of the events in England too at the time in 16th century.

He was living in a renaissance era and scientific revolution was on. He laid the foundation for a revolution of sort – observation and experimentation as the way forward in science. This scientific way or inductive methodologies has stayed with us and is the way today the science is conducted.

You get ideas and perform experiments, then discuss your results and write to communicate. The Baconian method is simply the well-established scientific method. Science is not completed unless one has completed the task of final communication. That is the way for the scientist to be exact!


Process of conference

When a country spends some of its money to support research, the process of conference comes in. This is neither quite familiar nor visual in Sri Lanka. We are not used to attending conferences and sharing best practices and then allowing that loop to continue delivering to us more refinement as well as innovations.

We do not speak of overseas visitors coming into Sri Lanka for very many international conferences. Pity as this is of course is a fantastic destination and has much to offer if coupled to conferences. However such conferences to take place and to be attractive we do need a strong research and development activities within the country.

As an example Singapore can boast of itself as a conference destination. A knowledge hub cannot arise minus these attributes. Presence of call centres will not make knowledge hubs.

This week however we will witness a scientific conference with the theme ‘Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Sri Lanka: From Science to Commercialisation’ taking place at Mt. Lavinia Hotel, an event led by the National Science Foundation.

This is a national conference with local talent conducted with the specific intention of showcasing what is happening in this important area and communicating to decision makers to factor in new concepts sourced locally to solve national problems. The event will showcase research activities from universities, research institutes and even industry in the area of nanotechnology.

From North to South and East to West, researchers representing various institutes will converge to Mt. Lavinia and meet and network over two days. This is an area the nation has invested and shown a pioneering effort and fruits of such labour should be reaped. However, when you invest in science, you must be prepared to cover a long distance, sticking together and holding hands with the research community.


A slow process

Progress in general is a slow process though the final results can be spectacular. It took eight years for a scientist – Dutchman Jan Ingenhousz – to verify and provide proof that indeed sunlight plays a role in cleaning dirty air to allow life to thrive as Priestley described.

Still we are not exactly sure of the exact mechanism of photosynthesis and nanotechnology is trying to mimic this nature’s process and to solve a global crisis – in energy. The humans however had made many advances and one must be thankful to many scientists and researchers who stuck to their guns and in some cases even sacrifice their lives for the cause of unearthing the truth and for pushing the frontiers of knowledge.

It is meaningless to speak of developments that we take for granted today as wise investments that gave returns. They are as a result of action by individuals and groups who pursued the unknown with an extra dose of imagination as servants of science. Engineers and technologists in turn introduced the discoveries and inventions suitably crafted with their own innovations to serve a greater number of people.

That is the world we see today though the signage may be dollars and rupees and at times if not most of the time we go blind about those who really enabled these changes to happen. Today the world appears to credit the man with only money in his pocket.


Why confer?

Why confer or consult in a gathering? All what one comes out may not be equally exciting, always right or always useful. One can get excited by one’s own pet discovery but minus some deep analysis and if applied blindly can give rise to serious problems.

All most all technologies are like double-edged swords and more powerful and more versatile the technology is greater the degree of discussion and understanding that has to take place.

The world did witness the thalidomide, DDT and the atom bomb. We removed ammonia and replaced it with CFC and today after finding out that CFCs can cook us by allowing UV radiation to come through our atmosphere we are replacing CFCs with ammonia again for some uses and in a mighty hurry too.

In nanotechnology we have placed public engagement at an early phase as quite important. The school curricula today introduces nanotechnology though much more needs to be done about it. One cannot forcefeed the public and one cannot run a process of public education and sensitisation by resorting to shock tactics either.

There is a need for the Sri Lankan public to understand 21st century living and be on top about the way global interactions and trade will impact us. There has to be active engagement at all times.

Today in Sri Lanka one can see public hoardings with products boasting of nanotechnology inputs. Beyond the extra rupees that have come in for the superior claims and functions, it is evident that the user is quite unaware of what this entails and perhaps the seller as well.

This state of public apathy is not quite useful as consumers are simply won over by expensive advertisement campaigns or by celebrity endorsements. In nanotechnology one will think small but expects to win big and that is the economic driver, however this needs to happen in a systematic way.


Tea and nanotechnology

Consider the tea industry. We discuss tea a lot. We expect a lot from it, having invested lot of land, labour and time on it. However, the global value of the industry is around US$ 9 billion if you multiply the per capita consumption and the current value per kilo. We do realise more than US$ 1 billion from it per year. However, the upper value is not exciting and it is not easy to improve on it.

Consider nanotechnology as an investment area. Already one is talking about more than US$ 1 trillion economy in nanotechnology products and services in about a year’s time. Now planning to capture a slice of that would be more exciting and feasible than working hard for another billion from the tea sector, unless of course innovative value addition via products such as even nano teas (there is a product on sale termed nano tea however with the definition somewhat tampered) are considered.

To benefit from an innovation driven process thinking, research and action should get pride of place. Today we consider more advertisements, branding and positioning within a stagnant space around two leaves and a bud minus innovation.

It should be made known that developments in nanotechnology in Sri Lanka had shown some interesting opportunities to the tea sector but from a growth perspective. The taste perspective perhaps awaits more work. Why not come and confer? The conference can make the Sri Lankan tea man who must be a bit muddled today a more ready man! This also applies to the rest too.

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