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Treat S&T as a sacred cow

Monday, March 23, 2015
Science and Society

No, no, no! This idea is not gobar! Think about it for a second. Is it not true that gobar provides benefits to society? It is an excellent fertiliser and a renewable fuel among other things. Ok, ok. If some people feel more comfortable with the idea of the “goose that lays golden eggs” that is fine also, but note that the context is the same. Both refer to sustained economic benefits. Because of this, the phrase “sacred cow” has come to denote that which is so valuable and important that it must be treated with great respect and regard by all and sundry. 

Science and Technology (S&T) brings sustained economic benefits to the societies that place a premium on nurturing and sustaining scientific and technological infrastructure. It allowed the developed world to achieve its position of global pre-eminence and is facilitating the rise of emerging powers like China, Brazil, India and South Africa. The one thing they all have in common is scientific and engineering prowess.

In the former plantation-based economies of the Caribbean, the colonial masters planted the seeds for the growth of the S&T infrastructure. Have we, as a nation, over the past five decades, nurtured it sufficiently so that it could have blossomed copiously, to allow us to enjoy the fruits of economic benefits now and in the future?  The answer is clearly not fully in the affirmative. 

The issue that must be addressed then is this: why have science, engineering and technology not been given the status and attention it deserves? It is interesting that in T&T, we not only assign star status to sports people, artistes and yes, beauty queens, but also afford them massive state endowments. Scientists and engineers? Who cares! Well really we should, because they are the ones drive economic development and growth.

In the developed world, sure, sportsmen have star status and sky-high salaries. They are however, not given state endowments and quite rightly so, for their earnings are more than sufficient. So why do countries, in the sphere outside the developed ones, feel we have to give them further money and property? The argument proffered is that they provide PR and marketing value to the country. Well, why not hire and pay them for their perceived marketing value, as companies do?  

As we are aspiring to thrust ourselves into developed country status, we should treat S&T and its practitioners as the First World does. More than one famous S&T specialist from the Diaspora have indicated to me, during their stay here, that science and technology must be put on the front burner, in terms of funding and also by the recognition of the achievements in the field. 

Maybe, at the heart of the problem, is the fact that development in S&T is a long-term commitment. It must then, by necessity, transcend election cycles. In other words, funding for S&T must be treated as a national priority irrespective of the regime in office. Of course, development imperatives will change, but funding for the R&D infrastructure should not be unduly diminished. 

For this to happen, funding for research and development must be legislated with either a large enough initial grant to make it self-sustaining or a mandatory yearly fixed quanta. This position must be respected and adhered to by all parties. We have been discussing diversification for at least four decades now. Some forward steps have been taken as well as some backward ones. The result is that we are not where we would like to be or should be. 

For this to change, there must be a serious reverence and commitment to scientific principles and engineering values. Science and technology powers innovation which actualises entrepreneurship. It can provide the milk of economic prosperity and fertilise a thriving commercial sector if we treat it like a sacred cow.


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