MARTIN HENRY

What are we do­ing about sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy?

Jamaica Gleaner - - IN FOCUS - Martin Henry Martin Henry is an ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Ja­maica. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com and med­hen@gmail.com.

TO­MOR­ROW MORN­ING, we are open­ing up at the Pe­ga­sus a ma­jor National Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Con­fer­ence spear­headed by the Sci­en­tific Re­search Coun­cil (SRC) as part of S&T Month. The min­is­ter, Dr Andrew Wheat­ley, him­self a PhD-level sci­en­tist, will be lead­ing with a key­note speech on ‘Re­search and In­no­va­tion Driv­ing National De­vel­op­ment’.

Since I will be see­ing him and work­ing with him to­mor­row, as well as with the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the National Com­mis­sion on Sci­ence & Tech­nol­ogy (NCST), Pro­fes­sor Er­rol Mor­ri­son, I will en­deav­our my level best to pro­voke them to good works.

The NCST was re­sus­ci­tated by the last Gov­ern­ment af­ter years of dor­mancy but is still with­out any money to do any­thing ex­cept run an of­fice.

The 56-year-old SRC is pump­ing new en­ergy un­der the lead­er­ship of the young Dr Cliff Ri­ley but is still with­out real money for re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

A Min­istry of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy is now firmly en­trenched in Gov­ern­ment and is now headed by a trained sci­en­tist-turned-politi­cian, com­ing up from lo­cal gov­ern­ment. But all this is in­fra­struc­ture, shell in­sti­tu­tions for sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, re­search, and in­no­va­tion to which must be added the higher-ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, the state re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions and sup­port agen­cies like the In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Of­fice. Un­der­fi­nanced and un­der­led.

From my long years of en­gage­ment with the field, in­clud­ing lead­ing a UNDP­fi­nanced project for build­ing national ca­pac­ity in S&T for de­vel­op­ment over 20 years ago and work­ing in the de­liv­ery room when the NCST was born, I con­clude that S&T in Ja­maica suf­fers from two fun­da­men­tal prob­lems: fi­nanc­ing and fo­cus.

We talk a lot about the im­por­tance of S&T for de­vel­op­ment. Well, de­vel­op­ment has to be driven by in­vest­ment, which means putting up re­sources up front for a re­turn on in­vest­ment later on.

But the min­is­ter wants other peo­ple to do it. Launch­ing S&T Month, Min­is­ter Wheat­ley went back to urg­ing the pri­vate sec­tor to lead the way in re­search and de­vel­op­ment to fos­ter economic growth in the coun­try. This is not go­ing to hap­pen. At least not as the start­ing point. It is an ap­proach that nearly killed the NCST and left it weak and sick and has kept the SRC poorly for over half a cen­tury. A postMor­ri­son NCST will regress to its half-dead with­out an in­fu­sion of money.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that a ma­jor in­hibitor to re­search and de­vel­op­ment is fund­ing, the min­is­ter said, “The Gov­ern­ment will cre­ate the leg­isla­tive frame­work; how­ever, the pri­vate sec­tor needs to take up the chal­lenge of in­vest­ing in re­search and de­vel­op­ment.”

But the State will need to lead the nec­es­sary cat­alytic in­vest­ments to get more out of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy for de­vel­op­ment. And where is the money to come from? The bulk of what­ever re­search takes place in Ja­maica is sup­ported, not by Gov­ern­ment of Ja­maica pub­lic fi­nanc­ing, but by ex­ter­nal donor fi­nanc­ing. This can­not con­tinue as a vi­able way to ap­ply S&T to de­vel­op­ment needs.

Gov­ern­ment should be­gin by tak­ing a leaf out of the re­search book of one of its cash-starved higher-ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions, the national Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Ja­maica. UTech an­nu­ally squeezes out of its mea­gre bud­get a Re­search De­vel­op­ment Fund for its staff.

Were the Gov­ern­ment to put up just one-tenth of one per cent of this year’s Bud­get of $600 bil­lion rounded, $600 mil­lion would im­me­di­ately be­come avail­able for re­search.

But the Gov­ern­ment doesn’t even need to put up that much from the Con­sol­i­dated Fund. As I have pointed out sev­eral times, sig­nif­i­cant pools of pub­lic money ex­ist in an ar­ray of spe­cial ‘de­vel­op­ment’ funds that can be le­git­i­mately tapped for re­search sup­port in the ar­eas to which those funds are ded­i­cated: NHT, HEART Trust, UAF, TEF, NHF, CHASE, etc.

As a coun­try, we chase for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment with ad­dic­tive com­pul­sion. Ev­ery in­com­ing project should have a small re­search sup­port levy at­tached to it. Two per cent? This would al­low re­search and de­vel­op­ment for strength­en­ing the Ja­maican do­mes­tic econ­omy with­out re­ally do­ing any dam­age to the vi­a­bil­ity of the FDI projects.

The South Africans will be at the S&T Con­fer­ence un­der a sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal co­op­er­a­tion agree­ment signed be­tween both gov­ern­ments in 2013. They are anx­ious to learn from us. There is some­thing we should learn from them. The Nel­son Man­dela pres­i­dency cre­ated a National Re­search Fund in 1999 to “pro­mote and sup­port re­search through fund­ing, hu­man re­source de­vel­op­ment, and the pro­vi­sion of the nec­es­sary fa­cil­i­ties in or­der to fa­cil­i­tate the cre­ation of knowl­edge, in­no­va­tion, and de­vel­op­ment in all fields of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy”. South Africa is among a length­en­ing list of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries with NRFs.

VI­SION MAY BE SCARCER THAN MONEY!

The de­ploy­ment of a national re­search and de­vel­op­ment fund through com­pet­i­tive bids, through strate­gic fa­cil­i­ties, and through tar­geted train­ing would pro­vide and lead that other short­changed com­po­nent: fo­cus. Money would fol­low strate­gic national foci for re­search and de­vel­op­ment en­gage­ment. As the NCST boss, Prof Mor­ri­son, pas­sion­ately made the case at the launch of S&T month, de­vel­op­ing just one in­ter­na­tional win­ner from our best bets would set the Ja­maican econ­omy.

UTech Ja­maica is play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role in the S&T con­fer­ence as one of sev­eral Ja­maican part­ners in two EU­funded in­ter­na­tional projects, IPICA and CAP4INNO. Let’s work with the acronyms. The names are too long!

Be­fore talk­ing about the projects, let me say some­thing about re­search at the univer­sity, which is now dragged about and bat­tered in the pub­lic do­main, even by its own chan­cel­lor and a for­mer min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion. Much of the drag­ging and bat­ter­ing is ill-in­formed.

Pow­ered by its own tiny re­search de­vel­op­ment fund, ex­ter­nal grants and con­sul­tancy fees, UTech has com­pleted a sig­nif­i­cant range of sig­nif­i­cant re­search projects for de­vel­op­ment.

At the con­fer­ence, we’re go­ing to present a pa­per on so­lar-pow­ered LED light­ing for street lights, which is on its way to be­ing com­mer­cialised. The univer­sity was the lead part­ner in an in­ter­na­tional re­search con­sor­tium to use so­lar en­ergy to split wa­ter mol­e­cules by elec­trol­y­sis re­leas­ing hy­dro­gen gas, which can be used as a do­mes­tic cook­ing fuel.

UTech was a ma­jor player in de­vel­op­ing the National Hous­ing Pol­icy and has re­cently com­pleted ground­break­ing work on the at­ti­tude of prop­erty own­ers to­wards pay­ing prop­erty taxes as a crit­i­cal fac­tor in non­com­pli­ance. It was UTech that eval­u­ated the pi­lot Tablets in Schools Project, pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal feed­back for pub­lic pol­icy.

The univer­sity has de­vel­oped the ICT-based UTouch I and UTouch II to help deaf and hard-of-hear­ing stu­dents learn English. The univer­sity has done ground­break­ing ac­tion re­search on teach­ing English as a sec­ond lan­guage and on teach­ing for­eign lan­guages with com­puter-aided strate­gies based on its own ex­pe­ri­ence.

Work has been done on the economics of food con­sump­tion and on the impact on the per­for­mance of health pro­fes­sion­als of the re­moval of user fees in the health sys­tem. Work has been done on dol­phin fish­er­men in­ter­ac­tions af­ter com­plaints that dol­phins were rob­bing their fish pots and would be harmed to pro­tect the fish­ers’ liveli­hood.

Staffers have done ster­ling work on the use of cas­sava in culi­nary en­deav­ours with as­sess­ments of di­etary value. The univer­sity did work on Dig­i­tal Switchover for the Broad­cast­ing Com­mis­sion, con­ducted a sur­vey of the do­mes­tic ba­nana and plan­tain mar­ket un­der the EU Ba­nana Sup­port Pro­gramme, and has worked on the chem­i­cal anal­y­sis and the preser­va­tion of plants en­demic to the Cock­pit.

It is UTech that is now un­der­tak­ing for CARICOM as client eval­u­a­tive sur­veys of ICT and sport ser­vices in CARIFORUM states and de­vel­op­ing a re­gional pro­cure­ment train­ing cen­tre for the CDB.

Trust me. The list is longer. I’m in a po­si­tion to know. But more could be done with more.

Thanks to the EU. But we’ve got to do a lot more for our­selves. And I’m do­ing my bit to show how this can be done within the con­straints, real and imag­ined, that we bawl about so much.

FILE

UTech re­searchers have done ster­ling work in sci­en­tific ex­plo­rations in the Cock­pit Coun­try.

CON­TRIB­UTED

A stu­dent at work in one of the sci­ence labs at UTech.

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