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UWI/UTT research clusters essential to drive prosperity

Monday, March 16, 2015
Science and Society

United we stand, divided we fall. The foregoing phrase is often invoked in familial and socio-political instances. But it is equally or probably more valid in the case of research and development. In small countries with limited resources, human and otherwise, it may assume prophetic dimensions. 

There is copious and irrefutable evidence to indicate that strong institutional Research and Development (R&D) is a driver of sustained economic prosperity. Increasingly, cluster-driven R&D is becoming an integral characteristic of the innovation chain. For this reason, many countries have developed clusters and networks for regional and national development. They are focused on prioritised research areas and specific application areas with a view to future products and markets. These include energy, environmental studies, biotechnology, robotics etc.  

So exactly what is a research cluster? Princeton University indicates: “Research clusters provide a framework for research and training at the doctoral level and provides a means for sustaining interlocking communities of professors and students who aspire to the highest scholarly distinction in a particular area of departmental strength. Each cluster is defined by several members of faculty who have earned national and international prominence as scholars in these fields.”    

At the heart of the research enterprise then are teams of researchers ranging from undergraduate to postgraduate to postdoctoral, being led and mentored by a professor or professors. These teams, even the multidisciplinary ones, tend to be departmentally based. The development of these research clusters is a time-intensive process. It stands to reason therefore, once developed, they must be carefully nurtured and sustained if the benefits of the tremendous investment in time and resources are to bring about value added returns for the institutions and countries. 

Therein lies our problem. At both universities, significantly more effort needs to be directed to encouraging multidisciplinary relevant, inter and intra university research. This calls for some sort of co-ordinated effort by both UWI and UTT. Robotics/mechatronics research at both institutions may serve to elucidate the point. At the UWI, emphasis is placed on software development and it occurs in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computing and Information Technology. 

At UTT, the emphasis is on design, fabrication and testing of robotic/mechatronic systems. Clearly, joint research will serve to strengthen the research capacity of both groups as they have complementary expertise. 

Research in engineering relies on mastering a variety of mathematical techniques. In this regard, UWI has well established mathematics programmes at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. UTT, on the underhand, is quite deficient in this regard. While there are quite competent and capable mathematics teachers in the institution, no degrees are offered in mathematics. It would make sense for UTT to reach out to the mathematicians at the UWI to offer courses to their postgraduate students and to join the research effort through graduate co-supervision and examination.

The same holds true for many other programmes. Research clusters only come to life when a critical mass, with expertise in the specific and allied areas, is achieved. At both institutions, the number of professors active in specialised research and numbers of postgraduate (MSc, MPhil and PhD) are inadequate if impactful and value added R&D is to be developed and sustained. The numbers do not make for joyful reading.

To rectify this, priority research areas must be identified and research clusters, with personnel from both universities and industry, be instituted and funded. UTT is structured to facilitate multidisciplinary research clusters but it is hamstrung by the lack of a sufficient number of staff with doctoral degrees. Most of the faculty at UWI are PhD-holders and thus can play an active role in joint research. Both, UWI, St Augustine, and UTT, are funded by the tax payers of the country. It is time for both institutions to closely collaborate for the benefit of the citizens.


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