Letter: Scholarships and economic development


Dear Sir:

The Trinidad and Tobago government has just announced that instead of awarding scholarships for tertiary education based on academic performance across the board in whatever, especially since most of the awards are in mathematics and science, these scholarships will in future be awarded to recipients in areas that are deemed necessary for the development of the country – its socio-economic growth and development. Hence a committee will be appointed to advise on, I presume, the relevant areas.

With particular reference to the economy of Trinidad and Tobago, we are at the end of the petroleum plantation and the need is (was always there) to diversify the economy; grow or develop an onshore economy that can create globally competitive export companies. Besides providing the necessary foreign exchange for this small and open economy it will provide well-paying jobs, so relieving the government of the make-work, the overstaffing of state enterprises and even the public service.

Though the Trinidad and Tobago government talks about diversification and there are plans to build a dry dock, an aluminium production facility for making motor car wheels etc., another industrial park to house in part some promised Chinese firms, a Sandals hotel and an airport terminal in Tobago and whatever else comes to mind, there is no strategic plan – vision/mission, objectives, strategies – that is hoped can transform this plantation into a global exporter, vision 2020, 2030 included.

Hence, appointing a committee to choose socio-economic areas for the award of scholarships without an a priori decision on how and into what areas this economy is to be transformed is, to put it mildly, putting the cart before the horse.

The general theory behind transforming and maintaining the sustainability of an economy is well documented in the literature. The basis of this is the Triple Helix, an integrated activity among the private sector, the government and the R&D institutions. Further, today competitiveness in the global market – even the local market of our small open economy – is innovation, novelty in the products and services we intend to offer for export. Attempting to compete head on from scratch in the world market with mature and well established industry players is ill advised.

The actual implementation of the Helix depends on the characteristics of the particular economy. For example, in the US the private sector in not risk averse, venture capital exists and government funds the basic R&D at universities, which is encouraged by the Bayh-Dole Act (1980) that awards intellectual property (IP) ownership to the university even though the work was funded by government. Unlike Trinidad and Tobago, where our government took an inventor from UWI to court, claiming it owned the IP that was created by UWI and allegedly funded by government.

In Trinidad and Tobago the onshore has been spoilt by the easy availability over the years of foreign exchange, rents from the energy sector, and prefers to live well from low risk buy-markup-sell commercial endeavours. The research of the R&D institutions is not geared to innovation and economic development. Hence, as I have been saying for decades, we need to craft a national innovation system along the lines of the Triple Helix, with the intent of creating these new export companies.

A major constraint will be that we are small and our human resource is also small and as such the R&D that will drive our innovative effort has to be in a few areas, chosen a priori in a foresighting exercise. More so, the staff for this exercise has to be homegrown (or adopted and working locally) and one can expect that our scholarship programme should select those to be so educated and trained,

Some tell us that foreign investment and the import of technology from abroad can develop our economy. However, the work of Nobel Prize winner in economics, Prof Paul Romer, and Richard Baldwin tells us that it is the endogenous, local, contributions/innovations that drive economic competitiveness and its sustainability, not what we import. Hence the failure of Pt Lisas to diversify the economy.

Thus, selecting areas in which we should award scholarships to educate and train people to assist in the development of the country before we commit to developing a national innovation system and choosing the areas of activity via a foresighting exercise is logically unwise. Indeed we will need our science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) trained staff but equally we require the market development, marketing and sales staff, where today the highest returns are in R&D and marketing.

Mary K King
St Augustine



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