ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53
Financial Times  

Tissa Vitarana asks for ‘more’

No funding for science

Picture shows from left -- Dr. M.C.M Jayasuriya (Director, National Science Foundation), A.N.R. Amarathunga (Secretary, Ministry of Science and Technology), Prof. Tissa Vitarana (Minister, Science and Technology), Prof. Sirimali Fernando (Chairperson, National Science Foundation) and Prof. M.T.M. Jiffry (Member - Board of Management, National Science Foundation).

Harsh words were directed at the Treasury Department when Minister of Science and Technology Tissa Vitarana criticized its 'grudging' release of money to scientists and institutions. Speaking at a recent press conference to announce the 40th anniversary of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Mr Vitarana said there is limited support, tremendous burdens of red tape and financial resources. Sri Lanka is investing only 0.13 percent of its GDP on average in science and technology whereas other countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan are investing 2 to 3 percent of its GDP. He said Sri Lanka cannot expect to develop economically and emerge from poverty simply by investing in infrastructure alone. Technology has to be provided to all areas of the country to make use of raw materials for value addition.

The Minister said Sri Lanka, in monetary terms, is a poor country and in order to rise out of poverty, science and technology have to be promoted. Large numbers of Sri Lankan scientists are going abroad due to poor conditions, lack of facilities and poor salaries, creating a 'brain drain'. "These are brains and talents we cannot afford to lose," he said. Those who have chosen to remain have depended on the NSF to do the research and development the country needs.

The future holds tremendous challenges such as the food shortage and rising prices. Mr Vitarana said Sri Lanka must find ways to increase its agricultural productivity and in particular, increase its yield of rice, fruits and vegetables. He also mentioned that there is a growing global energy crisis as oil prices increase and expects it to hit US$150 per barrel later this year so finding ways and means of cutting down on oil requirements is essential.

Mr Vitarana said other countries have ridden on the crests of waves of technology to rise out of poverty and so far, Sri Lanka has missed all of them. South Korea and Taiwan invested heavily in information and communications technology (ICT) for economic development. India also invested in ICT and biotechnology. "Nanotechnology is the new wave and we are trying to catch that wave," he said.

Mr Vitarana said the private sector will not be able to face international competition without the use of nanotechnology. The number of countries that identified nanotechnology as national progress jumped to 72 by the end of 2007 from only 17 countries in 2006. The spending on the ethnic conflict has created inadequate funds to support the launching of a comprehensive nanotechnology centre which will include a lab complex with facilities in Sri Lanka.

He also said the Rs.5 billion over five years will have to be raised by tapping into foreign sources and donor agencies but said this also comes with several challenges. "It is not easy to get funding because we become their competitors," he said although limited assistance will most likely be provided by foreign countries in the form of training and scientific exchange programmes. He added that Japan may provide direct aid and the Ministry is currently exploring that possibility. The initial phase of the programme is a public private partnership which has created a new company called Slimtech with the cooperation of leading private sector companies including Dialog and Hayleys.

Sri Lankan expatriates abroad have already agreed to provide support in creating the nanotechnology centre and the NSF will take a leading role in taking nanotechnology forward in Sri Lanka. If successful, Mr Vitarana said Sri Lanka has hopes for emerging out of poverty. If it fails, he warned the country will only slide deeper into poverty. Professors from Cambridge and Belfast University as well as a scientist who is developing and promoting nanotechnology in Britain are prepared to help. "All we need is the money," Mr Vitarana said. (NG)


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