Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Editorial: Making R&D cool

Published:Monday | February 22, 2016 | 2:00 AM

Cool things that can benefit Jamaica's economic and social development, suggests Professor Archie McDonald, are happening in the research laboratories at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. But the institution requires cash to do more, and in a fashion that will transform experiments to practical application.

The way to accelerate this, Professor McDonald, the principal of the Mona campus, said at the launch of last week's exhibition of the campus' research activities, is through partnerships between the university and the private and public sectors.

"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.

We agree. But there is also a need for more, including strategies to build excitement behind research and development.

Indeed, as Professor McDonald implied, the evidence suggests a strong correlation between investment in research and development (R&D), economic advancement and wider social development. Data on Jamaica's spending on R&D are not readily available, but it is estimated that it has hovered at around 0.3 per cent of gross domestic product over the past decade or so. That is half the rate for Latin America and the Caribbean.

On the other hand, while the global spend is below two per cent of output, the rate in the United States, the world leader in R&D activity, is 2.8 per cent, or more than US$460 billion, which reflects in America's dominance in innovation, leading to new products and ownership of intellectual property. Of course, no one expects Jamaica, in this respect, to mirror the United States.

But countries of similar population size and, not very long ago, development, also point to the possible outcomes from putting money in R&D. Singapore is a good example. It spends a bit over two per cent of its GDP on R&D, has more than 4,700 people per million of its population engaged in research, and boasts per-capita wealth many multiples of Jamaica's.

Jamaica won't, in the short term, replicate the Singapores or Norways of the world, but can do much better if there is a multiprogrammed, mezzanine-type national strategy around this.

At its foundation must be making maths and science cool at school, with opportunities for wealth (or at least a good living) and, possibly, global stardom - in the way young people now enjoy in athletics and other sports.

 

ACCELERATED AND IMPROVED TRAINING

 

This requires the accelerated and improved training of maths and science teachers to enhance the delivery of these subjects. At the same time, agencies such as the Government's National Council of Science and Technology have to emerge from their seemingly unenforced somnolence to a process of aggressive popular engagement.

While it is beginning to happen, at the university level, institutions have to continue to shift their past overemphasis on social-science research to work in the applied sciences for practical application, and make noise about it. University administrators can't any longer be isolated in academia.

They and their institutions have to become entrepreneurial, making real-world engagement, as Prof McDonald and UWI, Mona, are increasingly showing they appreciate.

Private-sector institutions, too, should have a loud voice in this conversation, which starts with seeing R&D as not merely a cost, but as an investment on which there will be returns.