ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54
Financial Times  

Lankan research ends up only as reports

By Natasha Gunaratne

The huge volume of scientific research conducted in Sri Lanka is still lacking a transfer mechanism to take it to the next level so it remains just that, research. In an interview with The Sunday Times FT, Chairperson of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Professor Sirimali Fernando and NSF Director Dr. M.C.N. Jayasuriya said so far, the culture has been such that it is curiosity-driven research. "A system was never there in Sri Lanka so as a result, we have a lot of ad hoc things that were done as research," Fernando said. "There was never a planned programme to address the needs of the society or the industry. Therefore, you do research and it's there. We are very concerned because the work that the NSF has funded in the past decade has ended up in final reports and that's it."

Fernando said a culture has to evolve which takes results beyond the shelf so people will benefit from the research. "This is what we call technology transfer and the commercialization of research and it requires another process. Scientists don't have the training and the entrepreneurial skills to do that. You need special skills, negotiating skills to be involved and to interact with the industry. Confidence is of paramount importance. Scientists need a marketing mechanism." She said these are some of the reasons why Sri Lankan industries are not very innovative.

The development of any country needs growth in industries. "It is the strength of the industries that will depend on how developed countries are and that depends on the strength of innovation and research," Fernando said. "Even our industries don't realize the importance of this."

Fernando and Jayasuriya explained that the NSF is now trying to bring in industry and institution partnerships by setting up the NSF Technology Division. The NSF funds the private sector by supporting them up to 70 percent of their research as grants. The outcome of all this thinking is now being geared to nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology, compared to other technology is fairly new so the competition in going for patents is far less as compared with other forms of technology such as IT, electronic and biotechnology. "The opportunities are much more with nanotechnology," Fernando said. "We have a huge pool of human resources working outside Sri Lanka as Sri Lankan expatriates who are doing well in other countries. Within Sri Lanka, there are more than 70 people who have had some training in nanotechnology so this is a good opportunity for us to promote research directed towards industry needs."

Fernando and Jayasuriya added that several workshops have been conducted with major industries including apparel, rubber, electronics and activated carbon who have all expressed interest. The NSF has also formed a new company with five partners to do research and development for industries. "Hopefully, we will do a lot of value addition to their products and give a boost to our industries and economy," Fernando said. Industry attitudes are changing. Some industries have set up their own innovation units and are developing their research and developments units as well.

A national research and development policy to create an enabling environment for scientists to do world class research and then to financially benefit from it is essential. This requires providing the right environment, infrastructure, human resources, capital and an overall improvement of the entire commercialization culture.

Jayasuriya explained that the NSF is focusing on thematic research which is identifying a problem and coming up with a solution over a short period of time, over 2 to 3 years. "There will be a solution to the problem at the grassroots level," he said. Areas of thematic research include disaster mitigation and the problems created due to natural disasters such as floods, drought, land slides and tsunamis. A modeling system will also be brought in to predict the kind of damage which can be caused by these occurrences.

Jayasuriya also explained that the NSF is working closely with SMEs on technology for development. There are separate programmes created in agriculture on how to make use of indigenous knowledge and organic agriculture. Similarly, the NSF is starting a programme on quality assurance for consumer protection to bring in the necessary quality standards for commonly used consumer products.

Fernando said there has always been state patronage for science and that governments at different levels have supported science and technology. "Supporting it is one thing but you need to come up with focused policies and plans to implement them also," she said. "That is where we have failed. It takes about 10 years to develop a policy. It is unacceptable. We need to now bring in a sense of urgency to the system because science and technology is evolving much faster than humans evolve and we need to act faster. The countries that have done that successfully are way ahead in development," she added, citing South Korea and Singapore as examples.

In 1968, the year the National Science Council (NSC), the successor to the NSF was established, Fernando said the per capita GDP in Sri Lanka was US$320, the same as Singapore for that year. The per capita GDP in South Korea in 1968 was US$80. "See where we are and where they are now," she said. "It's just planning. We invest very little." The Mahinda Chintanaya states that one percent of the GDP will be invested in science but in fact, she said it is far less. "Although it says it's going to, it's not happening. There are times that we just don't get any money at all for months and it is demoralizing for the scientists. What is the incentive for them to continue? We are having a lot of problems."

In comparison, South Korea invests three percent of its GDP in science and technology whereas Singapore invests 2.5 percent. "We are not getting support from the Treasury," Fernando said. "The NSF is a funding body and scientists lose confidence in us and they lose the work they have done. They need uninterrupted support. We can do much better if we get support from the Treasury. The money should be coming as and when we need it. We need cutting edge research and we need to invest in science and technology. Even the number of researchers is far below the global average. There is also a brain drain with Sri Lankan scientists going abroad due to the lack of facilities. The government has to also make a commitment."


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