Sty­ro­foam and pro­mot­ing in­no­va­tion

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY -

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.

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