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Martin Henry | Research needs a bailout, too!

Published:Sunday | April 23, 2017 | 4:00 AM
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It's not that difficult to raise $500 million for a National Research Fund, something the country desperately needs. That's only 0.07 per cent of this year's $740-billion Budget.

I pick a figure of $500 million because, despite the sounds and pressure long coming from the scientific research community, I doubt very much if the absorptive capacity exists to uptake more money than that, or even that much. Five hundred million dollars can buy you 50 research projects at $10 million apiece, or 100 projects at $5 million apiece. Which is the kind of ballpark in which local research plays - for the time being.

If research could only become poor university students threatened with being kicked out and being debarred from exams, it could raise a cool $300 million from somewhere deep in the recesses of the coffers of Government. Or research could opt for becoming an election-time bushing programme. Although this could be altogether too menial (and demeaning!) for researchers. Just in time for the last local government elections in February, the JLP Government found $600 million (and counting!) for bushing.

Research could get sick like the Cornwall Regional Hospital and have a chunk of money allocated for recovery and rehabilitation. Hundreds of millions, says Health Minister Chris Tufton.

Cornwall Regional is itself a subject for multidisciplinary local research about what ails it. The Jamaica Medical Doctors' Association has quite correctly suspected the conclusion of the PAHO investigative report that mould was a principal cause of the hospital's illness. Even I, an incomplete biologist and chemist, know that mould cannot account for the sharp chemical irritation that suffering staff has been reporting.

But, wait, we're on to something here! If the Government ever got serious about buying local research services to solve local problems for policy and action and to drive the evidence-based governance that we've been promised, the research community wouldn't know what to do with money and work.

 

JOINT RESEARCH

 

Last Wednesday, a couple dozen of us gathered at the Terra Nova for a historic research financing event. I broke leave to attend. For years I have been advocating for a National Research Fund (NRF), both on my own and also out of the University of Technology, Jamaica.

The bilateral cooperation agreement between South Africa and Jamaica was signed in February 2013, and this is its first concrete output after four years of 'consultations'. The South African chargÈ d'affaires here thinks this was quick!

The Call, which you may have seen in the press, is for proposals for joint research projects between South African and Jamaican researchers in the areas of indigenous knowledge systems and water research. The Jamaican partner researcher or team can get up to J$7.5 million over three years. A pool of J$90 million is available.

If I heard Science and Technology Minister Wheatley correctly in his official opening of the joint call, Jamaica has contributed $30 million to the joint fund. Even if we had contributed equally, as we should have from pride and honour's sake, this is a tiny, tiny bit of money.

The Fund does give the reactivated National Commission on Science & Technology (NCST) something useful to do. As I had confidently predicted at the inception of the commission in 1993, the NCST could not survive, much less flourish, without a state-provided research fund. So said ... .

With all the sound and fury of commitments given to science and technology, research and innovation by the portfolio minister in his Sectoral Debate presentation, one would have thought a bit more hard cash than $30 million would be forthcoming, specifically for research support from the kinds of places from which all kinds of bailout, bushing and rehabilitation money is mobilised.

I am calling for the minister to round out the 100 by making a further $70 million available to the embryonic Research Fund. The Fund isn't 'national' yet. What we launched on Wednesday was a tiny bilateral fund. In true Jamaican fashion, external demand has pushed us to act.

The additional $70 million should go towards seeding a strictly national research fund. Central Government should not expect others to put up money for research if it does not lead with a visible and meaningful allocation from the Consolidated Fund.

When we made repeated calls for a national research fund, it wasn't without proposing a feasible mechanism. At the top of the list is a modest central government contribution as is the case with the South African NRF and in a growing number of developing countries that are serious about applying research and innovation and science and technology to development. Every developed country has such a fund.

 

SOMETHING TO OFFER

 

Minister Wheatley pulled off a tactical ambush at the launch ceremony of which Maroon warriors would be proud. The surviving Maroon community is a rich repository of the indigenous, or folk, knowledge which is one of the two areas of focus in this initial Call. The minister singled out for special welcome the heads of three state agencies with pools of money: The PetroCaribe Development Fund, the PCJ, and JSIF. The HEART Trust was not in the pavilion, nor was the NHT, or TEF, or UAF. These and other special funds, which are 'development' funds holding rich pools of public money, should be called upon to support research, at least in their own area of focus broadly defined. 'HEART Trust-NTA increases grant to SLB from $100 million to $200 million' was an Observer headline on April 12.

It was worth breaking leave to hear the director general of the resuscitated NCST, Professor Errol Morrison, repeating a third option for financing research, and attributing source: a small, painless levy on investment projects, particularly FDIs, to go into research and innovation for national development. Can you imagine what a National Research Fund would look like if the highway and airports and hotel projects, just to pick some big, well-known examples, had contributed, say, a 0.5 per cent levy?

Morrison and I on a team from UTech were in the trenches in South Africa in April-May 2013 studying their higher education and their National Research Foundation and Fund. The South Africans say they intend to learn a lot from us. And we do have something to offer. We must learn a lot from them. Two important things to learn: 1. They have developed a robust system of researching, protecting and benefiting from indigenous knowledge, one of the two areas for the opening Call for joint research projects; 2. With all the same excuses that we have available to them, and more, they established a National Research Foundation and Fund in the immediate post-Apartheid era.

While I couldn't locate specific allocation to the NRF for this year, the 2016-17 budget for the whole Department of Science & Technology, not mixed up with other portfolios, was 7.4 billion rand (US$563 million, J$72.4 billion).

But Minister Naledi Pandor, who was guest speaker at the National Science & Technology Awards Ceremony here last November, is complaining that the S&T budget is flat, year on year, and South Africa "will be overtaken by nations that have less capacity and knowledge resources" if the flat budget trend is not changed!

Although last Wednesday's event was a significant little first step, we haven't even got an S&T budget, as such, not to mention a National Research Fund.

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