Styrofoam and promoting innovation
LARGELY UNCOMMENTED, if not missed, in the noise of his visit last week to the Wisynco plant at White Marl, St Catherine, was Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ call on Jamaican industry to become more innovative.
“I am challenging you, the captains of industry, to see what can be used to propel innovation, to bring new products to market that create new streams of manufacturing that employ new people ... which drives growth,” Mr Holness said.
The prime minister’s remark, of course, was in the context of the call, by a member of his party, and passed in the Senate, for a ban on the importation of styrofoam and plastic below 50 gallons in size as part of an attack on the problems these products, of which Wisynco is the sole Jamaican manufacturer, cause to the island’s environment. He urged William Mahfood, Wisynco’s chairman, to consider the use of hemp – a relative of the marijuana plant, whose cultivation is being legalised for medical research and related industries – in the manufacture of a biodegradable substitute to standard styrofoam packaging.
This newspaper has great sympathy for both Matthew Samuda’s Senate initiative and the prime minister’s prompting of firms to do more with regard to innovation, but do not believe that their efforts were taken far enough. Indeed, our sense is that despite the germ of seriousness in it, Mr Holness’ statement was an in-the-moment line, not underpinned by serious policy thought. It is perhaps an area for attention by the PM’s Economic Growth Council, chaired by Michael Lee-Chin.
Innovation, especially of the kind noted by Mr Holness, is the handmaiden of research and development, which usually involves someone spending money to develop ideas and concepts into commercially viable products. There are little available data on this matter, but the best guesstimate is that Jamaica spends around 0.3 per cent of GDP on research and development, or about half of the amount for Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. In the United States, the world leader in R&D, the rate is closer to three per cent.
Earlier this year, Professor Archie McDonald, principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona, touched on the possibility for market-based research in laboratories at his campus – if they had the money. “We can do the research, but ... for it to go into policy, or for it to be implemented, it needs members of the public and private sectors to take it further,” he said.
Clearly, private interests, like Mr Mahfood’s Wisynco, can engage the UWI and other institutions on innovation and product development, such as Wisynco’s proposal to introduce enzymes into its styrofoam products to enhance biodegradability. But given where Jamaica now sits economically and in scientific development, advancement requires a layered, multi-stakeholder policy engagement.
That conversation must include how Government can reasonably incentivise investment in R&D by firms; how to infuse life in, and give real purpose to, the National Council on Science and Technology; and how, like athletics, to make maths, science and technology cool in our schools. These matters are not far removed from those that gave Mr Samuda concern, leading to his Senate motion. In hindsight, it is unfortunate it wasn’t allowed to gather wider discussion and debate. It is, however, not too late.