Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Martin Henry | What are we doing about science and technology?

Published:Sunday | November 13, 2016 | 11:00 AM
Martin Henry

Tomorrow morning, we are opening up at the Pegasus a major National Science and Technology Conference spearheaded by the Scientific Research Council (SRC) as part of S&T Month. The minister, Dr Andrew Wheatley, himself a PhD-level scientist, will be leading with a keynote speech on 'Research and Innovation Driving National Development'.

Since I will be seeing him and working with him tomorrow, as well as with the director general of the National Commission on Science & Technology (NCST), Professor Errol Morrison, I will endeavour my level best to provoke them to good works.

The NCST was resuscitated by the last Government after years of dormancy but is still without any money to do anything except run an office.

The 56-year-old SRC is pumping new energy under the leadership of the young Dr Cliff Riley but is still without real money for research and development.

A Ministry of Science and Technology is now firmly entrenched in Government and is now headed by a trained scientist-turned-politician, coming up from local government. But all this is infrastructure, shell institutions for science, technology, research, and innovation to which must be added the higher-education institutions, the state research organisations and support agencies like the Intellectual Property Office. Underfinanced and underled.

From my long years of engagement with the field, including leading a UNDP-financed project for building national capacity in S&T for development over 20 years ago and working in the delivery room when the NCST was born, I conclude that S&T in Jamaica suffers from two fundamental problems: financing and focus.

We talk a lot about the importance of S&T for development. Well, development has to be driven by investment, which means putting up resources up front for a return on investment later on.

But the minister wants other people to do it. Launching S&T Month, Minister Wheatley went back to urging the private sector to lead the way in research and development to foster economic growth in the country. This is not going to happen. At least not as the starting point. It is an approach that nearly killed the NCST and left it weak and sick and has kept the SRC poorly for over half a century. A post-Morrison NCST will regress to its half-dead without an infusion of money.

Acknowledging that a major inhibitor to research and development is funding, the minister said, "The Government will create the legislative framework; however, the private sector needs to take up the challenge of investing in research and development."

But the State will need to lead the necessary catalytic investments to get more out of science and technology for development. And where is the money to come from? The bulk of whatever research takes place in Jamaica is supported, not by Government of Jamaica public financing, but by external donor financing. This cannot continue as a viable way to apply S&T to development needs.

Government should begin by taking a leaf out of the research book of one of its cash-starved higher-education institutions, the national University of Technology, Jamaica. UTech annually squeezes out of its meagre budget a Research Development Fund for its staff.

Were the Government to put up just one-tenth of one per cent of this year's Budget of $600 billion rounded, $600 million would immediately become available for research.

But the Government doesn't even need to put up that much from the Consolidated Fund. As I have pointed out several times, significant pools of public money exist in an array of special 'development' funds that can be legitimately tapped for research support in the areas to which those funds are dedicated: NHT, HEART Trust, UAF, TEF, NHF, CHASE, etc.

As a country, we chase foreign direct investment with addictive compulsion. Every incoming project should have a small research support levy attached to it. Two per cent? This would allow research and development for strengthening the Jamaican domestic economy without really doing any damage to the viability of the FDI projects.

The South Africans will be at the S&T Conference under a scientific and technological cooperation agreement signed between both governments in 2013. They are anxious to learn from us. There is something we should learn from them. The Nelson Mandela presidency created a National Research Fund in 1999 to "promote and support research through funding, human resource development, and the provision of the necessary facilities in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation, and development in all fields of science and technology". South Africa is among a lengthening list of developing countries with NRFs.

 

Vision may be scarcer than money!

 

The deployment of a national research and development fund through competitive bids, through strategic facilities, and through targeted training would provide and lead that other shortchanged component: focus. Money would follow strategic national foci for research and development engagement. As the NCST boss, Prof Morrison, passionately made the case at the launch of S&T month, developing just one international winner from our best bets would set the Jamaican economy.

UTech Jamaica is playing a significant role in the S&T conference as one of several Jamaican partners in two EU-funded international projects, IPICA and CAP4INNO. Let's work with the acronyms. The names are too long!

Before talking about the projects, let me say something about research at the university, which is now dragged about and battered in the public domain, even by its own chancellor and a former minister of education. Much of the dragging and battering is ill-informed.

Powered by its own tiny research development fund, external grants and consultancy fees, UTech has completed a significant range of significant research projects for development.

At the conference, we're going to present a paper on solar-powered LED lighting for street lights, which is on its way to being commercialised. The university was the lead partner in an international research consortium to use solar energy to split water molecules by electrolysis releasing hydrogen gas, which can be used as a domestic cooking fuel.

UTech was a major player in developing the National Housing Policy and has recently completed groundbreaking work on the attitude of property owners towards paying property taxes as a critical factor in non-compliance. It was UTech that evaluated the pilot Tablets in Schools Project, providing critical feedback for public policy.

The university has developed the ICT-based UTouch I and UTouch II to help deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn English. The university has done groundbreaking action research on teaching English as a second language and on teaching foreign languages with computer-aided strategies based on its own experience.

Work has been done on the economics of food consumption and on the impact on the performance of health professionals of the removal of user fees in the health system. Work has been done on dolphin fishermen interactions after complaints that dolphins were robbing their fish pots and would be harmed to protect the fishers' livelihood.

Staffers have done sterling work on the use of cassava in culinary endeavours with assessments of dietary value. The university did work on Digital Switchover for the Broadcasting Commission, conducted a survey of the domestic banana and plantain market under the EU Banana Support Programme, and has worked on the chemical analysis and the preservation of plants endemic to the cockpit.

It is UTech that is now undertaking for CARICOM as client evaluative surveys of ICT and sport services in CARIFORUM states and developing a regional procurement training centre for the CDB.

Trust me. The list is longer. I'm in a position to know. But more could be done with more.

Thanks to the EU. But we've got to do a lot more for ourselves. And I'm doing my bit to show how this can be done within the constraints, real and imagined, that we bawl about so much.

- Martin Henry is an administrator at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.