Science and Tech for a Service Economy

Posted on August 12, 2005  /  5 Comments

What does S&T capacity mean for a small developing country such as Sri Lanka? My conversations with distinguished scientist and educator, Prof. Kamini Mendis, helped me develop some working hypotheses for my research and also spew out some ideas for action. 

Prof. Kamini Mendis is in town for a short holiday. She is currently the Senior Advisor to the Roll Back Malaria Program at the World Health Organization (WHO). She moved to WHO after an illustrious career as a professor of Parasitology at the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Colombo where she published a record number of papers and graduated over 25 PhDs. I am sure her influence on undergraduate education was equally important.

I did not know Kamini in person but I was familiar with her work through my own research on researchers. As part of my work on a US National Science Foundation funded project on “Best Practices in North-South Collaborations” she was on the top of my list of researchers to interview. I was working off of a database of publications from the Science Citation Index for 1993-2002 with in the address field. That dataset may not cover the full output of researchers in Sri Lanka, but it gives me sufficient information to capture what I call the “top researchers from with the most local impact”.

My working definition of a top researcher is someone who has published 5 or more articles in SCI journals during the period 1993-2002, had more local collaborators than foreign collaborators, and graduated at least 5 local PhDs during that period. I am using the number of PhDs produced as a proxy indicator of other aspects of local capacity building.

My conversations with Kamini reinforced my working hypothesis that for countries such as Sri Lanka where there is hardly an industrial base that can productively absorb advanced know-how, the most valuable output of your research is the ‘people’ you influence through your work. Kamini can look back with pride at her own sphere of influence and see how that sphere continues to expand through the good work done by those she has influenced. (I am not going to list them here since I am still working to identify her mentees and develop some measure of their contributions)

Kamini has done her part in Sri Lanka and now has moved into the international arena. Should she have stayed here and, say, developed a Center of Excellence in Malaria Research for? The more I look at the data and the more I talk to people, the fewer reasons I find to advocate for Centers of Excellence for Sri Lanka. Take Malaria. During the 1993-2002 period,  Sri Lanka published 15 papers on Malaria related topics, but then Thailand published 251 papers during the same period. Thailand has about three times the population and twice the GDP as Sri Lanka.  These differences do not explain a difference of 15-fold in productivity. I need to look more in detail at Thailand’s Malaria research. But the question is why can’t Sri Lanka develop centers of excellence even when we have capable people.

The more important question is "How else can Sri Lanka  develop its capacity to deal with an increasingly knowledge-based/ technology-based world?". Kamini said that there is something about Sri Lankans that makes it difficult to bring them under a system or an organization. But then her coauthorships point to several strong and productive alliances with colleagues from other universities and other research centers. What she probably meant was the inability of the Malaria researchers in Sri Lanka to make a more organized effort.

I prefer to call our inability to organize ourselves as “individualism” and look at the positive side of our “individualism”. 

The services sector was the fastest growing sector in Sri Lanka’s economy in 2003 (Central Bank of , Annual Report 2003). Telecommunication services grew at 17%.  Telecom sector is essentially a buy-and-install driven sector. The backbone (wired or wireless networks, switches etc) and peripherals (telephones, cell phones) are put together to provide services. What we need for  further growth in telecommunications are people who can create jobs using existing technology (Gamage and Samarajiva paper). Similarly for other services such as banking, accounting and healthcare and education.

Instead of looking at research as an organized activity that provides technical know-how to drive a traditional manufacturing economy we should look at  research as an individually-driven activity that would continue to enrich a well–spring of analytical and innovative minds that would drive a service economy. In a global environment, the possibilities for growth in services are endless if our people have the right mindset. Right now our economy is partly carried on the shoulders of unskilled women who are taking their services to the Middle East. We need to do more services at a higher skill level from here.

Almost all the 25 or more individuals who were influenced by the top quality research work that was led by Kamini are indeed continuing to enrich the well-spring. In fact, during the last few months I have come to know some of them as committed university teachers who are ready to go the extra mile to make their teaching better. Malaria research in Sri Lanka may be on the downside because of the dwindling number of malaria cases and other reasons, but that does not matter. What matters is that the research that was done has produced a cadre of people who can excel in whatever they do. For a small a country like Sri Lanka, it is the process and people that matter, not institutionalization.

The Presidential awards that were initiated by Professor A Kovoor whereby researchers receive Rs: 100,000, I believe, for each SCI paper, has clearly led to a growth in SCI publications by individual researchers in (Upali Samarajeewa, unpublished work). What we need to do is to take the next step and recognize those who mentor junior colleagues and students (post-graduate and undergraduate).

Incentives are not enough. We need better infrastructure. Reliable and cheaper electricity is a must for anything. We can not also talk about any knowledge-driven activity without reliable and always-on internet for our universities. LEARN network  has played its role but it is time for something else. A survey by Thrishantha Nanayakkara on research culture in Sri Lanka  is a also source for more ideas for action (The survey and the survey results were on but not anymore).



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