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Put money where your mouth is, Madam PM - Doubts loom over 'renewed' focus on science, technology and innovation

Published:Sunday | November 2, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Minister of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining, Phillip Paulwell (right), addresses a JIS think tank on October 30 about updating the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. At left is director general of the National Commission on Science and Technology, Professor Errol Morrison. - JIS

Martin Henry, Columnist

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller chairs the National Commission on Science and Technology (NCST), as did Prime Minister Bruce Golding and Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, with whom the whole thing began in 1993. To herald Science & Technology Month, November, she presided over a meeting of the "reconstituted" commission last Wednesday.

"Reconstituted" is an appropriate choice of word in the OPM news release about the event, as the NCST has, for a while, been deconstituted, dysfunctional and dormant. Professor Errol Morrison, eminent biomedical scientist, was lifted out of the UTech presidency and made director general of the commission in June. The Gleaner chose to headline my column marking the appointment as 'Resurrecting the dead with high science'.

A lot more than eminent leadership and ceremonial prime ministerial chairmanship will be required to reconstitute or resurrect the NCST.

The prime minister spoke all the right words, up to a point, as did P.J. Patterson before her from the founding. Bruce Golding didn't say very much during his four-year tenure as chair, and did even less, with science and technology completely disappearing from Cabinet and from ministry nomenclature as a sector deserving any special attention.

The NCST, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said last Wednesday, is expected to advance research, popularise science and technology, as well as make recommendations to the Government for policy action in the area.

The investment in science and technology by several countries, she noted, has provided returns that assisted in bringing them out of impoverishment to be productive, developed societies.

But then the very first action of the reconstituted NCST leaves me wincing. It is not an investment action. It does not elicit any real confidence that there is "a renewed emphasis on science, technology and innovation". It is not a visible, practical, concrete commitment to anything. It is the establishment of a committee of the commission "to work on reviewing the National Science and Technology Policy with a view to developing a new Science, Technology and Innovation Policy for Jamaica"! To join policies "already enunciated in a variety of areas: telecommunications, energy, manufacturing, among others".

FORGOT BIGGEST POLICY

The prime minister forgot the biggest of them all lying in the graveyard of policies: the National Industrial Policy.

The NCST and any renewed emphasis on science, technology and innovation are going to need some money. To be fair, the Government has made some amount of investment in science and technology going back to before Independence. The Scientific Research Council, for example, was created in 1960 with the express purpose of driving national development through science and technology. Research-capable commodity boards were established. Agricultural research centres like the once-famous Bodles were established. And, of course, investments were made in higher education in science and technology - UWI, CAST, School of Agriculture, etc.

The critical missing links, Madam Prime Minister and Mr Deputy Chair of the NCST, Science and Technology Minister Phillip Paulwell, are funding for research and practical mechanisms and support for getting innovations from lab and field to market.

The NCST is to make recommendations to the Government for policy action in science and technology for development. Having worked the field for many years, being on the ground at the establishment of the NCST, worked on the first policy and plan and on the STI Policy, written extensively on S&T in this column today closing its 27th year, and having observed countries, particularly South Africa, calculatedly investing in S&T for development, may I offer a few recommendations that I have repeatedly made?

As an absolute, non-negotiable necessity, our country needs a national research fund in order to convert the talk to the walk.

One country that is operating a highly successful and productive national research foundation is South Africa. Its website is www.nrf.ac.za. From direct contacts, NCST Director General Professor Morrison and I are very familiar with the South African NRF, having observed it at first-hand during a visit to that country.

Towards the end of the Nelson Mandela one-term presidency, the South African NRF was established in 1999, pulling together a number of earlier agencies serving various research sectors and expanding their roles.

The broad strategic goals of the agency are to:

  • Promote internationally competitive research as the basis for a knowledge economy;
  • Grow a representative science and technology workforce in South Africa;
  • Provide cutting-edge research, technology and innovation platforms;
  • Operate world-class evaluation and grant-making systems; and
  • Contribute to a vibrant national innovation system.

"As an independent government agency," the agency's website says, "the NRF promotes and supports research in all fields of knowledge. It also conducts research and provides access to National Research Facilities. The NRF provides services to the research community, especially at higher education institutions (HEIs) and science councils with a view to promote high-level human capital development. The NRF aims to uphold excellence in all its investments in knowledge, people and infrastructure."

FUNDING S&T

So how does the South African National Research Fund do these things?

In the 2011-2012 financial year, the foundation handled a total budget of 2.1 billion rands (about US$235 million, or J$23 billion at the then exchange rates).

The Government in February 2013 signed an agreement with South Africa on scientific and technological cooperation. A team from South Africa is scheduled to visit November 24-26. What projects will we be putting on the table, 21 months after the agreement? And where will our co-financing be coming from? Or do we simply plan to push our begging bowl in the face of the South Africans?

While its strategic objectives are closely similar to the South African National Research Foundation, the Jamaican NCST has never had a dedicated grant fund supplied by the GOJ for research. The commission has attempted to operate a National Foundation for the Development of Science and Technology that has been weakly supported by private-sector contributions.

Ideally, a percentage of the annual budget should be earmarked for a research fund if the country is serious about STI as a key driver of growth and development. The research fund is separate from operational subventions to research agencies and is to be managed by an independent centralised agency like the NCST. As little as one-tenth of one per cent of the 2014-2015 Budget would provide $540 million for the research fund!

Another potential and attractive source of financing for research has been recommended to MSTEM. It is earmarking a portion of the many special funds held by Government to support research, funds such as the HEART Trust Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Universal Access Fund, and the Tourism Enhancement Fund. These are, by definition, 'development funds', and a case can be made that research conducted in areas related to the fields of operation of these funds can benefit these areas of development.

The country, I have recommended, should adopt the practice of attaching a relatively small R&D levy on to the international contracts for services to the GOJ which companies would be required to pay as a relatively painless cost of doing business. Their operations in Jamaica would thereby leave a tangible legacy of development through the development and applications of S&T.

We can go the same route of negotiating with donors the allocation of portions of grants to research and development as standard procedure and, in this era of fiscal discipline, keep sticky state fingers off those allocations by sequestering them in an active NCST.

By a combination of these pretty painless measures, an unheard-of multibillion-dollar research and innovation fund could easily be established and maintained.

I will know that the prime minister and chairman of the "high-powered" NCST did more than read a script prepared for her to mark the reconstitution of the NCST and the launch of Science and Technology Month 2014 when she puts some money where her mouth is.

Martin Henry is a university administrator and public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.