Sun | Jul 12, 2020

Martin Henry | Long day at the Pegasus with science and media

Published:Friday | November 23, 2018 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry
Dr Henry Lowe (left) shares a hearty laugh with Professor Errol Morrison, director general of the National Commission on Science and Technology, during the launch of Science and Technology Month at The Pavilion, Terra Nova All Suite Hotel in St Andrew, recently.

Events of Science Month and Journalism Week kept me happily engaged at The Pegasus from morning till night last Monday.

The Scientific Research Council (SRC) was hosting the first day of its two-day 5th Biennial Science & Technology Conference & Exposition under the theme "Science Technology & Innovation in Business: Facilitating Trade and Global Competitiveness". And in the evening, the Press Association of Jamaica was discussing traditional media versus new media and social media in a forum, "Do you still need traditional news and sports?"

The two are not unrelated. Although you wouldn't know that from the weak overlap of audiences and presenters. I did see one other participant in the science conference at the journalism forum. Despite years of advocacy for science journalism, the conference was poorly covered and reported. The very emergence of new media and social media is a product of science and technology, with the most profound impact on the field of journalism and on everybody's life.

The SRC conference opened up with the Director of Indigenous Knowledge (IK)-Based Technology and Innovation in the Department of Science and Technology (DST), South Africa, Dr Aunkh Chabalala, giving a scintillating keynote lecture on the work that his unit is doing.

But I found Professor Errol Morrison's extemporaneous introduction equally engaging. Morrison, a significant contributor to diabetes and other areas of biomedical research, is heading the National Commission on Science Technology and Innovation, which has no money for research and has been struggling for years to get out a new science technology and innovation policy, which always 'soon come'. The Permanent Secretary in the S & T Ministry, Wakeem Murray, said as much at the conference.

Dr Chabalala was complaining that his IK unit at the DST received the least funding support. But it was getting four million rands a year! Around J$38 million. From which it could back some IK research and, very importantly, provide some support for the setting up of small and micro-enterprises based on indigenous knowledge refined by further scientific research.




Professor Morrison regaled us with 'parables' about the scientific basis of practical folk knowledge. A farmer he knew who planted by the moon cycle explained that when the moon was bright, pattoo (owl) spotted and hunted rats and mice better and his corn was better protected from rodent attack. Then there was his gardener getting rid of rat bats by cutting open and stringing out Scotch bonnet pepper when the professor's scientific products had all failed. The same Scotch bonnet pepper on which one of his graduate students had done research for use in pain relief he found to be a key ingredient in an over-the-counter formulation in a Miami pharmacy - but not in Jamaica. And we keep repeating that the Lockhart-West drug development from ganja for glaucoma treatment was based on fishermen's folk knowledge that ganja improved night vision. Medicinal marijuana is now a multibillion-dollar global industry, but despite the big talk, there is no research financing for it in Jamaica.

The prime minister, the country's chief scientist said, wanted to see practical results from research that can boost the economy and help push the growth agenda. Professor Ishenkumba Kahwa, himself a productive research chemist (the asbestos man) and the point man for the STI policy waiting to be born, gave example after example of impactful research in his presentation on the "Socio-economic Impact of Science Technology and Innovation across the Region."

Two have stuck with me. Local research has tamed the lion fish, an invasive carnivorous species, which was threatening to devastate fish stocks in Caribbean waters. What is the value of this work done with foreign grant money to the Jamaican economy particularly at the level of artisanal fisher folk? Politicians love the poor more.

A great deal of faith and hope and expectation in the scientific community is hanging on the promulgation of a new science policy. Although I am helping to work on it as I did on the reverently cited 1990 policy and subsequent S & T plans, I am more than a little cagey.

Without or with policy, what I want the prime minister and his government to do - which political leadership, aided by their technical support is well positioned to do - is to identify the key economic growth and social transformation areas and the issues holding up the progress, then be prepared to put some real money into seeking research-based solutions. If Throne Speech and Budget speeches and ministry papers already have the problem content, then let the work begin! The science people can formulate the research questions and do the work, but they need the financial support. South Africa, since 1999, and a growing number of other developing countries, have joined the developed world in having a national research fund (NRF).

Right now, researchers at UTech are working on a project for the reduction of gender-based violence using computer-based games with children. You, would think that this is something that the Jamaican Government would be ponying up to support. Where is the money coming from? The project is internationally financed in five countries by the Research Councils of the UK through the University of Huddersfield, which proposed it and got grant support from their national research fund.

As I have repeatedly pointed out, a Jamaican NRF can be easily established, with little pain and no pressure on the Budget. Mark you, a thin slice can be shaved from the budgets of ministries, departments, and agencies and put into the research kitty.

But there are considerable pools of funds in several off-Budget special funds from which allocations can be made into a national research fund, even if tagged for research related to the area covered by a particular fund. We have the NHT, the HEART Trust, the UAF, the TEF, the PetroCaribe Development Fund, the CHASE Fund, and others.

The third possibility for funding, which I have regularly floated is a small levy on foreign direct investment for research that allows each investment to leave a development legacy.




Oh, and Kahwa's other case that grabbed my attention was the work done on the cassava value chain from field to beer for Red Stripe. This is the kind of story that an engaged media should tell. I was enormously pleased to see a guest column in this newspaper last Sunday by none other than the managing director of Red Stripe, Ricardo Nuncio, telling the story of the collaboration himself. But suppose he didn't?

Nuncio had high praises for the Ministry of Agriculture. MinAg has been shamefully hobbled in its research and development capacity by being starved of funding. But its residual technical expertise was useful to Red Stripe in the cassava venture, which has created hundreds of jobs, used up idle lands, and produced import substitution.

I was also quite pleased to see MICAF hosting with the D & G Foundation and Red Stripe an inaugural knowledge-sharing forum last Wednesday, "Beyond Talk: The Commercialisation of the Cassava Value-Chain." Den mek wi stap the taakin bout oda tings, nuh man, an jus du whey fi du. I am still waiting to see what the media will carry on this significant forum. I picked up this knowledge-sharing forum from a MICAF notice to media requesting "full coverage".

The tensions between traditional media and new media and social media, which were vociferously explored in the PAJ forum, which was strongly tilted towards traditional media, as is to be expected from who the host is, will be resolved in a new meta-synthesis for media and communication.

Meanwhile, neither side in Jamaica is doing enough to deliver to the public information on STI and its impact. Like those very practical presentations at the SRC conference on STI in Business.