Sat | Sep 22, 2018

Editorial | CARICOM’s urgent need for innovation

Published:Sunday | July 15, 2018 | 12:00 AM

With most focus on the hard structural changes that they believe are necessary to make CARICOM a successful economic bloc, a less sexy, yet meaningful suggestion by the Golding task force has gone largely unnoticed - that is its recommendation for the establishment of a regional centre for research and innovation.

The idea, though, takes on greater relevance in the face of last week's publication of another significant document that has attracted little attention in Jamaica and other CARICOM members, this year's ranking on the Global Innovation Index (GII) by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Only two CARICOM states are mentioned, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, with neither of them doing particularly well, ranked, respectively, at 81and 96 among 126 countries.

The issue of research and innovation, or that too little of it appears to happen in this economy, has long been an issue of concern for this newspaper, but has been gaining wider notice because of the buzz around the emerging medical marijuana industry and the promise by one foreign-owned start-up to disburse more than J$260 million in research grants over the next decade.

There are two compelling reasons why this renewed interest in R&D and finding new, more efficient ways of doing things and solving old problems matters. One is that innovation, all things being equal, usually drives productivity, which translates to economic growth. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is a seeming correlation between the long-term stagnancy of the Jamaica economy and the country's declining labour productivity, at around one per cent per annum. The problem of low productivity, though, is not unique to Jamaica; it is common in a large number of CARICOM members.

Second, while Jamaica and its CARICOM partners may have lagged in recent decades, innovation is not an alien concept to this region. The Caribbean, for instance, used to be on the cutting edge of developing resilient sugar and banana varieties and advancing sugar-production techniques. And while other regions may now be in the lead, four decades ago, two Jamaican scientists, Manley West and Albert Lockhart, were at the cutting edge of ganja research, developing drugs for the treatment of glaucoma and asthma.

 

REKINDLE THE SPIRIT OF INNOVATION

 

Decades before them, Thomas Lecky, the animal geneticist, had developed new breeds of milk and beef cattle that thrived in the tropics. In the 1980s, research work in Jamaica led to the drying and stacking of red mud rather than storing the effluent from alumina refining in ponds, with the risk of chemicals leaching into groundwater.

The issue now is how to rekindle this spirit of innovation and what policies may be necessary to underpin this reawakening in a group that is part of a region - Latin American and the Caribbean - that, largely, lags the world in innovation, ranking fifth among seven regions tracked in the GII. Or, put another way, CARICOM has to find ways of creating an environment in which people are excited about formulating ideas, then translating them into actions that help people to produce more efficiently - less input for greater output.

Some of this, of course, will happen just by bright people seeing problems and seeking solutions to them. But mostly, it demands a systematic attention to the drivers of research and innovation, from having good schools at all levels, including universities, to creating specialised research institutions and regulatory frameworks that encourage, rather than hinder, creativity. Firms, too, have to be encouraged to invest in R&D, beyond the less than one-half of GDP that Jamaica spends in this area.

The Golding task force's recommendation of a partnership between the region's private sector and the University of the West Indies to drive innovation, perhaps with the Trinidad and Tobago Industrial Research Institute at the heart of the project, is, on the face of it, sensible. It is a matter that should be pursued with vigour and urgency.