Wed | Jun 23, 2021

Manley West, science and technology

Published:Sunday | April 29, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry, Contributor

Professor the Honourable Manley West, one of the famous pair of ganja men of science, passed on last Tuesday.

West, a pharmacologist, and Dr Albert Lockhart, an ophthalmologist, developed from the ganja plant the drug Canasol for the treatment of glaucoma, as well as Asthmasol, for the treatment of asthma. Long before these developments, folklore had it that ganja improved the night vision of fishermen and relieved asthma.

For their efforts, and a sort of backhanded compliment to the power of the weed on which they worked, both scientists were awarded the nation's third-highest honour, the Order of Merit (OM). The OM is conferred upon citizens of Jamaica who have achieved eminent international distinction in his or her field of endeavour. No more than two can be awarded each year, and there can be no more than 15 living members of the order.

So, yes, at one level the country is prepared to honour science and scientists for outstanding achievements. But backing science to make those achievements and many more mundane ones possible is another matter.

Agriculture in decline

Professor West died in a week when director general in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MOAF), Don McGlashan, was bemoaning declining agricultural output. Speaking at Bodles at a seminar on system biology and epigenetics for increased agricultural production, McGlashan, while reeling off higher output data from the glory days of Jamaican agriculture, told his audience that many of those successes were, in fact, underpinned by the application of science innovation and technology to the nation's agricultural pursuits.

At one time, the Orange River Research Station in St Mary recorded the highest yield of cocoa in the world, McGlashan said. The Bodles Research Station where he was speaking, and where Thomas Lecky (another OM scientist) developed four breeds of cattle for the tropics - without a lot of government assistance, by the way - has been run into the ground and is now a shadow of itself.

The current administration is paying more lip service to science and technology than the last. A ministry with science and technology leading its name (Science, Technology, Energy and Mining) has been established. While it may be a fault of media, which notoriously under-report science and technology, a lot is heard about energy and mining and much less about S&T. The National Commission on Science and Technology (NCST) has been resuscitated but is not likely to yield any better results than the first time round unless some critical fundamentals are changed.

And speaking at the same seminar at Bodles last week, Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke made yet another government call for agriculture to be science-based and technology-driven, going forward. According to the minister in a press statement, the age of the machete, hoe and fork has come to an end, as increasingly competitive agriculture is being driven by mass production, research and greater use of technology. He warned that if Jamaican farmers are to become competitive they will have to change the status quo. Poor 'farmers'. Semi-literate old men scratching away on quarter-acre plots cannot be expected to drive a scientific revolution in agriculture. A whole transformation of the rural economy is called for.

follow South africa model

Countries which are serious about applying S&T to development establish research funds from which financing can be obtained on a competitive basis for research projects. While the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) and the United Kingdom's system of research councils are better known in our part of the world, I have been tracking South Africa's National Research Foundation (NRF). South Africa is more in our league, with the same sorts of problems of poverty, squatting, violence, colonial history, and development challenges. The University of Technology is leading a growing relationship with South Africa.

We venerate Nelson Mandela here and name things after him which are then as undermaintained as our S&T infrastructure. Early on in post-apartheid South Africa, the government established the NRF. The Wikipedia post on the NRF is instructive, and I reproduce it almost in full:

South Africa's National Research Foundation is the intermediary agency between the policies and strategies of the Government of South Africa and South Africa's research institutions.

It was established on 1 April 1999 as an autonomous statutory body in accordance with the National Research Foundation Act.

The NRF has three main functions:

1. To support research and innovation, through its agency, Research and Innovation Support and Advancement (RISA);

2. To encourage an interest in science and technology through its business unit, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA);

3. To facilitate high-end research through its National Research Facilities.

One of the NRF's key objectives is to ensure appropriately qualified people and high-level infrastructure to produce the knowledge that makes South Africa a global competitor. Its 'focus areas' are:

Research and Innovation Support

Astro/space/geo sciences

Biodiversity/conservation

Nuclear sciences

Advancing science

Funding from the NRF is largely directed towards academic research, developing high-level human resources, and supporting the National Research Facilities, although beneficiaries include students, and private individuals or companies.

The foundation's own website says, "The objective of the National Research Foundation (NRF) is to support and promote research through funding, human capacity development, and the provision of the necessary research facilities in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of the natural and social sciences, humanities and technology, including indigenous knowledge systems." The home page lays out funding opportunities.

Progress hindered

I was in on the ground for the establishment of our National Commission on Science and Technology in 1993 under then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson while serving as national coordinator for a United Nations Development Programme-funded project for strengthening national capacity in S&T. I felt strongly then that the NCST would never perform creditably, as it didn't, for two main reasons: Patterson resolutely refused to make the commission a creature of law, as South Africa did for its NRF with the National Research Foundation Act. Instead, the NCST was left basically as a non-statutory personal attachment to the prime minister himself as its chairman. Second, except for salaries for a handful of staff, the NCST was expected to be funded by private-sector donations - in Jamaica!

Government notoriously provides a little housekeeping money for its research and development agencies, but nothing for research. The country is poor and broke, but if science, technology and innovation is, indeed, the way forward, we cannot afford not to make strategic investments in it. I have been floating the idea in various places, and today here in this column, that a possible source of financing for S&T, innovation, research and development is painlessly pulling a small percentage from the many special funds held by the Government. Schemes such as the Universal Access Fund, the Tourism Enhancement Fund, the HEART Trust Fund, the National Housing Trust Fund. The justification lies in the fact that work can be undertaken in areas broadly related to the fields of the funds and innovative results can benefit areas served by the funds.

Secure financial base

Government could even create a dedicated R&D fund through a small levy on select elements of the economy, particularly on the import sector, which would have the double positive effects of raising the money for innovative product and process development while imposing a penalty on importation.

And by innovation, we don't mean that the thing has to be big, radical, or altogether new. In fact, most innovations are 'tweaknovations' and renovations - small but significant modifications and improvements upon existing products or processes. Japan built what was then the world's second largest economy mainly by borrowing and adapting, and in processes doing it better, faster, cheaper than the originators. China is doing it too.

And not all innovations come out of labs. S&T may be useful to refine and standardise what is already an innovation. The MOAF's Don McGlashan spoke about the dry-mulch system developed by south St Elizabeth farmers which he thinks may have inspired the raised-bed plastic mulch system now being used in Florida.

In my view, the humble patty is a bigger innovation than Lecky's scientifically bred beef cattle that end up in there. Jamaican jerk is a world-class invention hardly taken full advantage of. As is the grapefruit drink Ting, which has turned grapefruit going to waste into a gold medal-winning international product. And it's not only food and things. Reggae is probably Jamaica's biggest innovation on the world stage.

As we say goodbye to Professor Manley West, we need a system not just of researching for innovation but of identifying, nurturing and financing innovation.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.