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Science and technology for economic growth

The importance of science and technology is rarely mentioned in discussions on economic growth. Discussions on economic growth are generally focussed on economic variables such as savings, investment, foreign direct investment, infrastructure, foreign aid, trade and inflation. There has been also some recognition on the importance of education and health that are now described as human capital. Science and technology is hardly mentioned as an important contributor to economic growth.

The Sixth Biennial Conference on Science and Technology (BICOST- VI) last week focussed on utilising science and technology for economic growth and brought out the importance of investing in science and technology for attaining the high rates of growth stipulated in the Mahinda Chintanaya. In fact the Mahinda Chintanaya itself emphasised the need for knowledge improvement and scientific development as a means of achieving economic development.

National Policy on Science and Technology
The conference presented The National Policy on Science and Technology that had been developed after the BICOST V in 2008. It states that “Scientific and technological innovations enable the country to improve competitiveness and productivity giving the means to achieve a higher standard of living and a better quality of life. They offer solutions to many of the important global and national issues, providing the knowledge and the means to generate economic activity, to improve health and living standards, to alleviate poverty, to enhance public safety and security, to preserve the quality of the environment, and manage the natural resources.”
The presentations at the conference made it quite clear that science and technology were vital for achieving economic growth and sustainable development. Particularly compelling was its argument that it was this component by which the country could survive in a competitive global environment. “In the increasingly competitive global economy, Science and Technology clearly is an important strategic driver to achieve balanced national development. It is therefore imperative that a strong commitment is made to harness the potential of Science and Technology as a key driver in raising the national capacity to acquire and utilise knowledge to foster innovations and simultaneously ensure economic development and human welfare.”

Economic gains
It was emphasised that unless scientific innovations are utilised many products we export would not be competitive in quality as well as on price. It is by the use of modern technology that the country’s exports could be made into value added products. This applies to many mineral products that we export without value addition. Enhancement of value addition would increase export earnings. In other products we have to retain our competitiveness by ensuring quality production as well as by being cost effective. Technology is the solution to both these.

One of the commendable areas in our export performance has been the export of solid tyres for heavy vehicles like aircraft. Sri Lanka has held the position of being the largest producer and exporter of solid tyres in the world for several years. This is directly related to being a producer of natural rubber and the consequent advantage in the production of solid tyres that has a high component of natural rubber rather than synthetic rubber. However, the retention of this comparative advantage rests with the constant upgrading of its production technology. Here is a good example of how science and technology plays an important role.

The conference presentations made it very clear that unless there is adequate emphasis on science and technology, the country would not be able to achieve its economic growth rates of 8 to 10 percent and double per capita incomes within the next six years. The argument here is that the attainment of a high rate of growth must depend heavily on the country being able to increase and expand industrial exports. In order to export competitive products there is a need to apply scientific and technological knowledge and innovations. Scientific applications would also increase agricultural production and exports and contribute towards a greater degree of self sufficiency.

Investment on science
One of the most important factors emphasised was the low expenditure on research. The Report pointed out that ” Sri Lanka’s gross domestic expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), a key indicator, historically around 0.15-0.2% of GDP, is low by international standards, and has not facilitated the desired growth in Science and Technology capability. Inadequate resources and facilities, cumbersome procedures, a lack of focus and direction, and the fact that many of the best scientists from Sri Lanka have sought employment elsewhere, has retarded the achievement of a critical mass of high quality scientists and technologists. Growth in Science and Technology has been slow, with many indicators remaining largely static over the past decade or more.”
In fact the expenditure on research is one of the lowest in the world and low even in comparison with countries in the region such as India and Pakistan that devote more than 1 percent of their GDP to research. Pakistan spends 1 percent of GDP on science education, research and technological developments and science infrastructure that is being developed. The country is reversing the brain drain and is expected to make significant strides in scientific research and technological developments and science infrastructure that are being developed. South East Asian and North East Asian countries spend much more and have reaped the benefits of investment in research. Many studies have pointed out that investment in research pays high dividends.

Role of scientists
While adequate funding is necessary it is not a sufficient condition. Scientists too must play their role. In a context of very limited funding that is likely to continue owing to the financial difficulties of the government and faulty prioritisation of government expenditure, scientists would have to look to ways and means of managing the scarce resources they have more effectively.
In a frank exposition, the weaknesses of scientists not collaborating and cooperating with each other, scientific institutions working in isolation and not cooperating with each other and duplicating research and lack of prioritisation of research were among deficiencies that were mentioned. There should be much more networking of scientific institutions in order to make more effective use of the physical infrastructure as well as the limited scientific personnel. Foreign assistance and collaboration and networking with foreign research institutions may provide opportunities of augmenting research capability.

Science and other pre-requisites
NASTEC is fully aware that scientific developments alone will not suffice. It points out that: “To raise Sri Lanka to developed status this Science and Technology Policy along with others must be integrated with other inputs such as infrastructure (transport, telecommunications, power, etc.),a fair and efficient legal system, including law enforcement, and above all peace and security. National development can only truly be achieved in an atmosphere in which individuals have faith in the system and feel comfortable investing in productive enterprises.” Equally correct is the undeniable fact that ignoring the development of science and technology and not funding research adequately will not enable the country to reach the economic targets that are so often bandied about.