Wed | Nov 25, 2020

Editorial | Government research funding needs rethink

Published:Wednesday | June 5, 2019 | 12:00 AM

During the 2019-20 Budget debate, the Government proposed at least two initiatives to demonstrate its commitment to research and development as drivers for the Jamaican economy.

First, Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke revealed that $200 million was being allocated to “specifically fund research and development to be carried out by faculty and/or students at our tertiary institutions”. Earlier in the year, at The University of the West Indies Research Day, he stated that “research is fundamentally important to growth and development of Jamaica, but we need to do it in a way that can be sustainably maintained”.

No detail was given by Minister Clarke as to how the fund would operate. It is also not clear whether the $200 million would be an annual commitment or a one-off allocation.

The second announcement came from the minister of health and wellness, Dr Christopher Tufton, who in his Budget presentation on June 29, 2019, stated that the Government wants “to track the science towards pursuing progressive, evidence-based policies … and for this reason we will launch, this year, our Health and Wellness annual research fund, financed by the NHF to the tune of $50 million”.

While Dr Tufton spoke to the fund being for “applied research, based on competitive proposals and in line with identified challenges”, he, too, was short on the specifics for the allocation mechanism and criteria for project selection.

The current revelations at the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee hearings in Parliament, showing how loosely public funds are being handled by the Caribbean Maritime University and Petrojam, have further raised public concerns. This gives us cause to worry about how taxpayers’ resources are to be allocated and managed under these new research funds.

The first concern is about whether or not there is need for the establishment of additional bureaucracy at a time when there is the commitment to cut back on existing public bodies and to refrain from setting up new ones.

We already have in place a National Commission on Science and Technology (NCST), which is charged with the responsibility for raising and allocating funds for research and development (R&D). While this body has been somewhat dormant and does not appear to have achieved a great deal recently, much of its underperformance may be traced to inadequate funding.

A second concern is the potential for ‘silo thinking’ in R&D if each ministry focuses on what it sees as its priorities. Publicly funded R&D should have a multidisciplinary approach, where feasible, and reflect national priorities.

Instead of setting up new bodies to manage the proposed allocations for R&D announced by the ministers, the additional funding could be directed to the NCST. The commission could be repurposed to fulfil the requirements and objectives ministers Clarke and Tufton have in mind; to the extent that these are national in scope and importance. The NCST itself may need to be revamped to become more effective.

NATIONAL ENDOWMENT

Like Minister Clarke, this newspaper is concerned about the need to fund research in a sustainable way, and be less dependent on the whims and goodwill of ministers. Most countries that are serious about R&D have endowment funds for research into which both the public and private sectors contribute. A portion of the proposed funding from the two ministers could go towards the establishment of a national endowment fund for R&D.

If the initial endowment is sufficient, in time, such a fund, if properly managed, will sustain itself and contribute to the growth of serious research in Jamaica. The endowment fund should be managed by a reputable financial institution, via a publicly tendered contract.

The science and technology portfolio of the Government is run by Science and Technology Minister Fayval Williams, where the NCST resides, and we wonder about the extent of the consultation between the three ministers regarding the funding of R&D and the mechanism for coordinating research. The minister of science and technology could well be persuaded to put a portion of the dwindling resources from the Universal Service Fund into an endowment fund to aid future generations of scientists and researchers.

A national endowment fund, operating possibly as an arm of the NCST, would be an independent body using objective criteria for project selection, led by science experts and eminent people of high integrity. Such an approach could achieve the objective of sustainable long-term funding for R&D.