An­i­mate Dr Wheat­ley with R&D

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY -

WE DON’T be­lieve that An­drew Wheat­ley, Ja­maica’s science and tech­nol­ogy min­is­ter, is so eas­ily sat­is­fied. We con­clude, there­fore, that he spoke with nei­ther the pre­ci­sion nor clar­ity he in­tended. Which is what would ac­count for the min­is­ter’s claim that Ja­maica is “not lag­ging be­hind” in sci­en­tific re­search.

“We have, over the year, pro­duced a num­ber of sci­en­tists who have gone on to make tre­men­dous con­tri­bu­tions in the ar­eas of science and tech­nol­ogy,” he told this news­pa­per last week.

Dr Wheat­ley is him­self a sci­en­tist who has done im­por­tant work on the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal prop­er­ties of plants and tis­sue cul­ture crop de­vel­op­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. There are oth­ers like him.

But it would be a hard stretch to ar­gue, un­less it is a prod­uct of a febrile imag­i­na­tion, that Ja­maica, or else­where in the English-speak­ing Caribbean, is over­run with nat­u­ral sci­en­tists and en­gi­neer­ing tech­nol­o­gists who are en­gaged in pri­mary and/or in­no­va­tive re­search. In­deed, as this news­pa­per noted re­cently, the best es­ti­mate is that Ja­maica spends no more than 0.3 per cent on re­search and de­vel­op­ment (R &D), which is around half of the spend in Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean and sev­eral mul­ti­ples be­low Amer­ica’s three per cent.

In­deed, ear­lier this year, Dr Wheat­ley’s for­mer boss at Mona, the cam­pus’ prin­ci­pal, Pro­fes­sor Archie McDon­ald, urged the pri­vate sec­tor and oth­ers to help fund re­search at the uni­ver­sity and to trans­fer the out­comes to prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion, ei­ther to com­merce or so­cial de­vel­op­ment.

“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,” Pro­fes­sor McDon­ald said.

We agree. And here is where Dr Wheat­ley can help, us­ing his plat­form in Gov­ern­ment.

When the min­is­ter made his com­ment, it was at the Sci­en­tific Re­search Coun­cil for the launch mark­ing Novem­ber as Science and Tech­nol­ogy Month. Among his ob­ser­va­tions was the cul­ture of in­no­va­tion in de­vel­oped coun­tries and their heavy em­pha­sis on science and tech­nol­ogy. It is an ap­proach, he sug­gested, Ja­maica should em­u­late.

GREENER PAS­TURES

“As a peo­ple, I don’t think we at­tach enough promi­nence to re­search and de­vel­op­ment,” he said. Fur­ther, Ja­maican sci­en­tists tended “to go over­seas to find greener pas­tures”.

All this may not amount to lag­ging in Ja­maica. What­ever it is, it surely must be part of Dr Wheat­ley’s port­fo­lio to drive sup­port for science and tech­nol­ogy and to pro­mote in­no­va­tion. In other words, his job in­cludes mak­ing science and tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tive re­search cool and sexy. And he should work with the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry to bring ex­cite­ment to the STEM sub­jects in schools.

The min­is­ter, in this re­gard, must have a clear science and tech­nol­ogy pol­icy, in­clu­sive of how the Gov­ern­ment will work with the pri­vate sec­tor and re­search and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions to fund R&D. In­deed, the Gov­ern­ment should make it worth­while for firms to in­vest in this area, in­clud­ing ac­cel­er­at­ing long-promised leg­is­la­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, Dr Wheat­ley has to find ways to res­ur­rect the seem­ingly co­matose Na­tional Coun­cil on Science, if he be­lieves that such a body has value.

Science Month is as good a time as any, and cer­tainly an ap­pro­pri­ate one, for Dr Wheat­ley to be an­i­mated by, and be­gin to build, na­tional con­sen­sus around these is­sues.

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