Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Research for public policy and action

Published:Sunday | January 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Coming out of a recent Gleaner Editors' Forum with Mona School of Business and Management (MSBM), we are hearing that the business school is set to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Government to generate research data to inform policy decisions. The deal is specifically with the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce.

There are 14 other ministries and hundreds of departments and agencies of government, all of which can benefit from targeted research data for both policy and action. And on the academic side, there is the rest of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and several other research-capable higher-education institutions like the University of Technology, to which I am connected, which can provide the targeted research data on commission.

MSBM's Executive Director Prof Densil Williams told the Editors' Forum that the use of research data by Government and businesses, although far from satisfactory, is slowly improving. As cases in point, Prof Williams noted that, as part of a "greater convergence between academia and policymakers", the Ministry of Finance has been relying increasingly on research data to inform much of the tax-reform policies that it is seeking to implement. And other government bodies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, have been making increased use of research data, he said.

A research group out of the School of Building and Land Management at UTech has just signed a grant contract with a foreign donor to research property-tax compliance. The applicability of this research to national affairs is so potent and obvious that the university has gone on to recommend the young and productive lead researcher as its nominee for a Commonwealth doctoral scholarship.

Government owns and operates a College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), which is almost exclusively limited to teaching. The Government's own agricultural research facilities have been run into the ground from neglect. A lot of the research problems in agriculture are practical fact-finding investigations that do not require blue skies science and could well be undertaken by CASE faculty and students, with appropriate support.

While I am happy for the MSBM, with which I have been associated for many years, being specially tapped for providing research solutions to the 'business' ministry of Government, I want to take the opportunity to again make the case for a much broader and deeper collaboration between Government and academia - and industry as well. That famous triple-helix model of these three sector strands wrapping around and supporting each other. Prof Williams cited the case of our transnational GraceKennedy entering the Ghana market and commissioning from MSBM a cultural study to "better understand the cultural dynamics" of that market.

In the triple-helix model, nobody is granting a favour, nobody is begging anything. It is neither welfare nor philanthropy, it is strictly business. Mutually beneficial business.

Higher-education institutions like MSBM and UTech urge their staff to research and even threaten them that they must publish or perish. But, particularly in these applied institutions, it is the practical problems for which research solutions make a difference in society that matter most. A group of us at UTech have just put out a paper in which we wrestle with the problem of measuring the research impact of a young university of technology beyond the counting of papers published and the citations they receive.

We used two cases to make the point of alternative impact measurement. In one case, an engineering research consultancy group has delivered a solar-powered piped water system to a community in Carron Hall, St Mary, which for generations had to scramble down a steep hillside to collect water from a waterhole. How many published papers is that worth as a measure of impact? That work was supported in cash and kind by the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica, the National Water Commission, and the St Mary Charities Organization.

The other case was innovative work done on creating food products from the humble cassava by staff in hospitality and nutrition, resulting in a published book.

Right now, another engineering group, grant-financed by the European Union, is working on using hydrogen gas generated from water as a safe, cheap and efficient alternative fuel to liquefied petroleum gas.

A lot of the little work being done is externally financed. I have been hammering the point that one of the important ways in which Government can and should support research with a positive payback is by establishing a national research fund into which productive researchers can tap through competitive bids. Every developed country has one, and an increasing number of developing countries, including South Africa, have research funds.

I have taken the trouble to show how a Jamaican research fund could be financed pretty painlessly and managed effectively.

Ideally, a percentage of the annual budget should be earmarked for a research fund if the country is serious about research and innovation as a key driver of growth and development. The research fund is separate from operational subventions to research agencies and would be managed by an independent centralised agency like the South African National Research Foundation. A mere one-tenth of one per cent of the 2014-2015 Budget would provide $540 million for the research fund. Even one-tenth of that one-tenth would be a fair start.

The country, I have proposed, should adopt the practice of attaching a small R&D levy on to the international contracts for services to the GOJ which contractors 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.

And we can go the same route of negotiating with donors the allocation of portions of grants to research and development as standard procedure.

VAULABLE INFORMATION TO ATTAIN

But beyond this more generic financing of research, which can inform policy and action, both Government and industry can seriously benefit from buying specific commissioned research services from the technical expertise in higher-education institutions. And the institutions would benefit from sale of services as a fair commercial transaction.

We have seen GraceKennedy commissioning a market study from MSBM as a business deal. In recent years, a UTech/UWI research consultancy consortium provided the data work for a national housing policy. Another UTech group conducted a study of the domestic banana market for RADA paid for by the European Union Banana Support Programme and designed to drive policy decisions on the future of the banana sector.

UTech has just been contracted by the Education System Transformation Programme to conduct a quality assurance needs assessment for teacher education, and the university is being supported by the Development Bank of Jamaica to undertake further work on the U-Touch computer software which researchers are developing to assist deaf students to learn language better. The university has recently signed a commercial agreement with a computer company for students to develop apps in a joint venture for a market the company already services.

I am pulling stuff with which I am most familiar, and MSBM will forgive me for not being more familiar with its applied research output. But the point is clear. There are several good cases out there as living examples of what can be done, but not nearly enough of them.

The interest of the Ministry of Industry Investment and Commerce to tap into the research capability of a leading business school is commendable and a pacesetter for the rest of Government to seek research-based solutions for policy and action out of its own academic institutions. And business can follow the lead. When the triple helix flourishes, national economies do better. 'Knowledge is power' is more than a slogan; it is a fact, certainly for applied knowledge.

n Martin Henry is an administrator at UTech. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.