Editorial | Animate Dr Wheatley with R&D
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.
"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.