By Dr Geneive Brown Metzger
Caribbean News Now contributor
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- It is now well established and widely accepted that economic growth is linked to investment in science, technology and innovation. The best examples are from developing countries like Singapore and Brazil which, in the last twenty years, have leveraged all three to transform the economic and social landscape of their countries. Jamaica, with its growing poverty, brought on by the increasing debt burden, high cost of energy and low productivity, must urgently chart a new course to stimulate sustainable socio-economic growth through the advancement of science, technology and innovation.
Recently, I spoke in Boston at an annual science and technology (S&T) conference sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The particular session in which I was involved focused on science and technology diasporas and S&T diplomacy. It struck me that I was the only person from the English-speaking Caribbean among the speakers, although Africa, the UK, Africa and Asia were represented. I included in my remarks some of the many scientific research endeavours in the Caribbean and was sure to mention Caribbean S&T diaspora who are well placed and blazing scientific trails in the US.
Then, only a few weeks later, the scientific community was ablaze with news of the scientist who led the team of researchers who found the “cure” for HIV AIDS in infants. And, wouldn't you know it, Guyana-born Dr Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, shines light on the contributions to science that CARICOM diasporans are making.
In IT, it is not widely known that inventor John Henry Thompson, a player in Silicon Valley, is from Jamaica. A chief scientist at Macromedia, he developed Lingo programming, a scripting language that is used to create flash and shockwave programs that now are prevalent in video games, web design, animation, and graphics.
Dr Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot is a lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry and Crystallographer at UWI, Mona. She has a passion for science and is committed to the promotion of science as a tool for development. She served as co-chair of the Young Scientist Ambassador Program (YSAP). This program involves Young Scientists from 55 countries—promoting young scientists to bridge the international scientific gap by facilitating cultural, scientific, intellectual, or educational interactions. She is also coordinator of the recently launched Young Scientist Community in the Caribbean Academy of Sciences. Singh-Wilmot is a mentor and a motivator. She has been recognized various times for her contribution to teaching at UWI. Committed to engaging youth in science from the primary level, she spends at least one hour per week working with children from various primary and prep schools in Jamaica, getting them excited about science and its opportunities. In October 2010 she was inducted as a Young Affiliate Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) in Hyderabad India. She is the first Young Affiliate to be selected from the Caribbean Region.
However, with all the ground breaking work in the Caribbean region, veritable science and technology stars in the diaspora, science and technology still have not been embraced and put into practice by policymakers as a way to solve the region's problems. Recently, I spoke with one of the Caribbean leading research scientists, Dr Marvadeen Singh-Wilmot, to get a handle on this critically important subject.
Question: How important is science and technology to the development of the Caribbean and what opportunities does S&T offer for business development and job creation?
Dr Singh-Wilmot: We must recognize that science creates and science solves problems.
Therefore we must invest in science research and use the results to drive investment and spur growth. For example, we should be building on the work of Manley West and Albert Lockhart who developed Canasol and Asthmasol from ganja for the treatment of glaucoma and asthma respectively and of Thomas Lecky who developed the Jamaica Hope and other breeds of cattle for the tropics. Indeed the current status of the Bodles Research Station where Lecky worked speaks volumes about our commitment to revitalize an ailing agricultural sector with a science-based, technology-driven approach. Yet, our research institutions, largely the universities, have managed to make significant strides in science.
Question: Cite some examples of research that we've begun in the region that warrant support?
Dr Singh-Wilmot: The application of molecular biology to develop plantlets that are disease resistant and more recently the use of IT in modernizing farming practices are just some areas in which progress has been made. Other areas of active and promising research include the extraction of compounds with pharmaceutical applications from Jamaica plants. There is an abundance of research data in the area of Jamaican natural products. However only very few of the promising ones have had enough attention and support to propel them into commercial enterprise.
There is so much more research that shows so much more potential and only need the investment to go forward. There are proposals to use nanotechnology right here in Jamaica to fabricate solar cells for photovoltaics that are one eighth the cost of the current silicon technology. This way Jamaican's could take advantage of the sun's energy and truly benefit from being on the sun-belt.
Just this morning, February 4, 2013, the Japanese company Nippon Light and the Jamaican government launched a commercial pilot plant for the mining of rare-earths (useful metals present in smart phones and tablets, computers, televisions, speakers, LEDs and many more) from red mud (waste from bauxite). Although the research was done years ago at the University of the West Indies to show that our red mud lakes indeed had significant amounts of these precious, rare and expensive metals and although we have waited long enough, the country welcomes this news and it stands as one example of how science and technology can be used to drive Jamaica's development. In this competitive economic environment Jamaica has to look for new opportunities. Bauxite is on the decline and our sand, sea and sun is not enough anymore.
Science and technology has done it for others and it can do it for us too. However, we will need to create a culture of science in order to build the enterprise of science and take advantage of its many opportunities.
Question: What is missing in the science and technology curriculum in Jamaica's educational system?
Dr Singh-Wilmot: Just so that we understand a little about the curriculum, children at the primary level do general or integrated science which continues up to third form (grade 9) in high school, at which point they specialize and choose their majors. All high school students must take information technology (IT) starting at third form while some schools also require one additional science subject for non-science majors. Maybe then it is not what is missing in the curriculum; it might be in the delivery of S&T subjects where we fall down. The content-driven approach has left most of our children with the notion that the science subjects are hard and abstract with no promising career opportunities except in medicine. Many, therefore, shy away from science and engineering and the few who do only want to be medical doctors. To create a culture of science that is needed to stimulate productivity, more Jamaican schools must practice inquiry based science education (IBSE) because science is best learned through experimentation. A more hands on approach, from the early stages, will help our children think critically and gain confidence in their own abilities to solve problems. This of course requires more resources from the state and private sector and some extra creativity from our science teachers which might very well be the reasons that IBSE is not widely employed as an approach to teaching science in Jamaica.
Question: Are you suggesting that putting an emphasis on the medical sciences is a limited approach to how we can apply science and technology and in fact, might be a detriment to advancing the exploitation of science for development?
Dr Singh-Wilmot: Yes I am suggesting that this is indeed a limited approach and while there is a need for medics, the problems that small island states like Jamaica face such as energy and food security, natural resource preservation, natural hazards and climate change, public health etc. need the attention of the brightest and best young scientists in the region. In order to stimulate that interest in science, we need to build a strong science culture among our people and to achieve that we must begin by giving our children the right exposures. Children must be given the opportunity to explore and discover, to ask questions and design the path to finding answers.
We must have people who understand the scientific method and the power of science in finding solutions to problems, interacting with our children. We must have people who can inspire and excite our children about the endless possibilities in science if our children are to move forward and be the best in science and mathematics. In addition, we must promote science as an enterprise and support it by introducing entrepreneurship into the secondary school curriculum.
Question: How can the Jamaica diaspora contribute to the mission of advancing science and technology?
Dr Singh-Wilmot: The diaspora can contribute in a number of ways. First by including science, technology and innovation in the conversation about Jamaica's way forward at all levels. The diaspora must become an advocate for the positioning of S&T as one of the economic pillars of the Jamaican economy. They should press for it to have a larger role on the CARICOM agenda.
We need to have a stronger voice so that our leaders can hear us when we say that investment in science and technology is inextricably linked to economic growth. We need the diaspora to call for investment in R&D infrastructure so that we can build local capacity in S&T. Second, we must strengthen the collaborations with scientists at home and those in the diaspora. This can give well needed exposure especially to Jamaican young scientists and importantly can result in increased access to S&T funding which would not otherwise be accessible. For example, through the US government’s PEER Science program which supports projects in developing countries as long as they can identify a US partner who has NSF funding. We can start by having a database of Jamaican scientists (academic and industrial) in the diaspora. Diaspora members can gain membership to The Caribbean Academy of Sciences (Jamaica Chapter) and through this organization can work with local scientists to advance research and development in S&T.
However it is not only the scientists in the diaspora that are critical. In order to build the enterprise of science we must facilitate the meeting and interaction of entrepreneurs locally and in the diaspora with scientists locally and in the diaspora.
Finally, we need to work together to embed a culture of science in Jamaicans, indeed across the Caribbean, including our leaders. One proposal is a joint quarterly publication that identifies a local issue, presents the science behind it and the possible science-based solutions which is sent to every Member of Parliament and every Senator in addition to being made available to the public.
Dr Geneive Brown Metzger is a former Jamaican Consul General and US-Caribbean business analyst/Diaspora strategist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.geneive.com