Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Martin Henry | Science, technology, and Vision 2030

Published:Sunday | November 20, 2016 | 11:00 AM
Martin Henry
UTech-trained forensic students conduct investigations in a mock crime scene.
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A national research and development fund will be established by the Government of Jamaica. Public policy will be guided by scientific evidence. And the Government expects to promulgate a new national science, technology, and innovation policy by the end of the 2017-2018 financial year.

These announcements were made by the minister for science and technology, Dr Andrew Wheatley, a PhD-trained biomedical scientist with an extensive track record in research. He was delivering the keynote Distinguished Lecture at the 4th Biennial National Conference on Science, Technology and Innovation hosted by the Scientific Research Council and partners last Monday and Tuesday.

Drawing upon his own experience while he was a lecturer and a member of a very active research group at the UWI, Mona, Minister Wheatley underscored the importance of science technology and innovation in achieving the development goals of the country. "Science technology and innovation," he said, "must be at the centre of the economy and development." And, "research should support innovations leading to wealth creation." The Government, the minister said, will be moving to rationalise and consolidate research and development institutions to optimise their functioning.

It's important to lock the minister into these commitments by putting them loudly and boldly into the public domain.

We have long advocated for a national research fund. More than that, we have shown how it can work without either busting the Budget or grovelling for private-sector support, which has not been forthcoming.

 

POLICY INITIATIVES

 

I have had no invitation to work on the new science, technology, and innovation policy as I had for the very first one at the crack of the 1990s. There has been a whole heap of S&T-related policy initiatives since then. I probably would have turned down an invitation for fresh policy work. There's enough policy clutter around getting in the way of real action on the ground. And we, in fact, have a pretty robust existing ST&I Policy.

Say what? Yes, man. It is embedded in Vision 2030, the long-term national development plan that has been limping along since 2007 across two PNP and two JLP administrations.

The three young women, lecturers at UTech and UWI, who were vying for the Young Scientist Award, had all worked on health problems of importance to Jamaica and the world: diabetes and hypertension, urinary tract infections, and cancer.

Vision 2030 sets out S&T 'Issues and Challenges' and 'National Strategies' for overcoming those issues and challenges and integrating science and technology into all areas of development. And the plan promised in its published version copyrighted 2009 exactly what the minister promised last Monday as still future: "A draft National Science and Technology Policy is being finalised to strengthen the framework governing STI."

Policy formulation is an everlasting end in itself, not a means to get something done. Indeed, a way to avoid getting anything else done.

Last week, I said I'd come to the conclusion that S&T in Jamaica suffers from two fundamental problems. Those problems are financing and focus. Wait! There is a third. It is isolationism and wanting special treatment as a special sector. Vision 2030 has assigned ST&I, and very properly so, the integrated role of delivering knowledge-based technical solutions to the critical problems of development in achieving the four national goals.

What's needed now is an operational plan to deliver on this role so clearly set out, chapter and verse, in Vision 2030, Goal 3, Outcome 11. Not another round of useless policymaking that 'caan' done.

Many people are smitten with Minister Wheatley's technical competence as a research scientist who understands the needs of this special and specialised field. But I sound a note of caution and warning for minister. To a child with a hammer, the saying goes, everything is a nail. The minister, as a political leader, must look after development for the uplift of the Jamaican people, with ST&I being just one of the several tools available to the Government and which must be made to demonstrate the return on investment in it, beginning with a clear operational plan.

 

VISION 2030 FRAMEWORK

 

Now, that's something I'd be happy to work on. It's easy. Within the framework of Vision 2030 which is already there, every S&T agency, programme and budget line must be called upon to justify its existence and to demonstrate its contribution to outcomes.

The strategic power of the promised National Research Fund is to direct resources to priority areas and to productive agencies and persons through structured competitive bidding.

The Government wants to drive policy with scientific evidence. But first, the evidence must be had. And this does not necessarily mean new research work and big money. I have one simple suggestion to make. Every ministry, department, and agency of government should be mandated to appoint a research officer and establish a small research unit, as has been done for procurement and access to information, for example.

The job of the officer and the unit is to do secondary research, harvesting from everywhere relevant research data for the planning and operations of the entity, a vast amount of it available on the open, free Internet; and to identify knowledge gaps that need to be filled by new research, which can then be commissioned. I remember as a young technical information officer at the SRC before the Age of the Internet having to dig out of dusty paper sources information on the Irish potato for the then junior minister of agriculture (and having to deliver it by bus to his house!).

Considering my present attachments and responsibilities, I specifically asked Noelia Lopez for her presentation at the conference on policies and measures to support spin-off companies in the experience of the University of Alicante (UA) in Spain, where she is a senior project manager. UA is the lead partner on the two EU-financed projects that collaborated with the SRC in staging the S&T Conference.

The IPICA and CAP4INNO projects are concerned with building up national capacities in systems for managing intellectual property rights and knowledge transfer from research to market in several Caribbean states: Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, and, by extension, the countries served by the UWI. The institutional partners include universities, intellectual property offices in the participating countries, CARICOM, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), our own Ministry for Science & Technology. Our EU-based partners are in Spain, Sweden, and Austria. A great mix.

Perhaps the most important thing that our project colleague Noelia told us is that a proper university environment is needed. An "entrepreneurial university" must be created. UA has a comprehensive support structure, with staffing and financing, for R&D, IP protection, and knowledge transfer through its companies within a clear policy framework at both the national and institutional level.

Meanwhile, we continue to 'dream' of the Government's University of Technology becoming the MIT of the Caribbean by magic without the necessary support. And we want results from public research organisations without research financing. We continue to fiddle with policy. And to wait for a research development fund. National ST&I leaders kept making the plaintive point at conference that one Jamaican neutraceutical product on the world market could set the Jamaican economy.

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