Importance of Science and Technology for Socio-economic Development

All aspects of life are based on science and technology, which has existed since civilization. Life starts from elements in the periodic table and ends up as ashes which contain the very same elements and are then returned to the soil. During early civilization, man had only the basic needs to sustain life such as food, water and shelter. Food was their medicine too.

Lessons from History

Technology existed during the early kingdoms of Sri Lanka and this is well illustrated by the advanced irrigation systems, construction of dagobas(pagodas)and the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. It is commonly acknowledged that Sri Lanka was well ahead in technology during the early days, but unfortunately was slow on the uptake of new technologies.

The so-called ‘new ‘countries took up technology rapidly and overtook the ‘developing countries. In these first world countries, this rapid development followed science and technological progress at the expense of Nature. Sunlight, the origin of all energies, was also taken for granted. If our science and technological development had kept pace as in the past, we could be utilizing sunlight which we have in abundance as our main source of energy instead using of petroleum, coal and similar energy sources. The billions of dollars used to import this fossil energy could have been saved and utilized for other necessities. Furthermore, we have built our cities and towns with concrete buildings, using electricity for light and air conditioning without due consideration about how to sustain them in the future.

The Importance of Scientists

In general, the development of a country is strongly associated with the growth of its science and technology. Hence, in many countries, the Ministry of Science and Technology is given high prominence to advance agriculture, health and the quality of daily life. New technologies will give new opportunities in careers, education and other areas enhancing the economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the importance of scientists, whether microbiologists, virologists, epidemiologists or mathematicians. Working together they are attempting to combat this deadly virus at breakneck speed by epidemiological studies, modelling, testing and by developing a vaccine.

Of course, the governmental authorities, for example, the security forces, are essential to enforce law and order especially in our country, where some people are less responsible socially. In this, the Army with the tri forces are rendering a great service to control the spread of the disease. If more people can develop social responsibility, only a lockdown would have been necessary and the essential services could have been carried out by practicing the social distancing rule. The non-essential services could have continued through a work from home system (WFH), balancing the need to curtail the spread of the disease and the economy. However, these public health measures of social distancing, lockdown and WFH can only be sustained through every citizen having an understanding of the basics of transmission. Education through online technology, long overdue in our country, is now rapidly gaining priority due to C-19 pandemic restrictions allowing students to continue to learn and keeping them occupied at home without much hindrance to their career opportunities. In the world, online educational technology was fast developing prior to the epidemic due to its convenience.

It offered students the choice of when and where to study giving them the opportunity to combine studies with employment. The University of Colombo Institute for Agro-technology and Rural sciences delivers online programs for the farming community leading to a degree which combines agricultural knowledge, technology and marketing skills.

Around three hundred farmers have graduated with this degree while a thousand more are on board. The course also includes the use of local resources as insecticides and pesticides, for example, neem and several medicinal plants.

This leads to the agribusiness community of the rural sector enhancing their agri-knowledge as well as their IT skills as the degree is pursued entirely online. Marketing of products are also mostly carried over the Internet. The age range of this farming community enrolled in the degree course varies from 20 to 65 years.

The motivation and the desire to gain knowledge are considered essential. Our experience has shown that overall, the majority, show a positive attitude and are highly motivated to obtain this degree with the knowledge.

Our country should unquestionably utilize more solar energy involving the universities which are engaged in research into solar cells.

There is a myth that solar cells are expensive. It may be so if they are imported but they could be manufactured locally. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, everything from pins to airplanes are imported without looking into the possibility that many of these could be produced nationally bringing more employment to people.

Technology Development in Universities and Research Institutes

State universities, research institutes and vocational training institutes conduct valuable research suitable for local purposes. The University of Colombo developed tissue culture technology for banana plants two decades ago under my leadership and there is still a very high demand for this. Such research carried out by the universities, research institutes and similar establishments are slow to progress to technological innovations which result in the commercialization of these innovative products.

University cells (incubators) were started to enhance links where research and technology development were conducted by academics with research students with the relevant industry. Several products were commercialized through these cells, such as agri-produce, cosmetics and detergents. The cells of universities need to be strengthened to promote innovations and commercialization. International universities have their cells/incubators to promote graduates either individually or in small groups to start their own businesses on a small scale which build entrepreneurship.

Financial institutions are encouraged to provide business loans. The new graduates have the incentive to build a business from their own knowledge and insight with some mentoring from established scientists and entrepreneurs. This leads to higher employment prospects for new graduates through public and private partnerships.

The National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC) is currently studying how policy could be amended for the implementation of science and technology inventions towards innovations and commercialization. It is also studying the policies of countries such as Korea, Singapore and Japan which enabled them to start their small and medium industries.

What has already been identified is that small and medium industries struggle to survive due to soaring utility bills for electricity, water as well as the high interest rates for loans. NASTEC scientists in collaboration with the University of Colombo research students are engaged in looking at solutions for these problems.

NASTEC hopes to advise the Government on the amendment of policies for starting small and medium commercialization of products developed by young innovators. NASTEC will be working with other institutions such as the NRC, NSF, SLIC, SLINTEC and ITI on the above.

It is an opportune time for scientists in all disciplines whether in agriculture, machinery, AI, robotics, cosmetics and other fields to work collaboratively with the industry to make Sri Lanka self-sufficient in many of her requirements.

The Future

Every country needs to assess its science and technological advances and their impact on Nature and the Environment. Also, there may be indigenous knowledge about the climate, geology and related areas which should be harnessed.

Technology adopted should be country specific and not simply imported and implemented. Sri Lanka is a country rich in fauna and flora. This together with the indigenous knowledge should help us to use technology appropriately so that it will protect and save our natural resources and at the same time lead us to sustained prosperity.

It is time our country started to produce our own requirements. With a new leadership in the country, it is possible to seize the opportunity to ensure individuals with appropriate knowledge and with a proven track record are appointed.

Our goal should be to move the country forward towards self-sufficiency. We need to promote a determination to accelerate development and a desire to see our motherland move forward in this goal. As a nation, we should put aside party politics and unite with these goals in mind.

The writer is the Chairperson,
National Science and Technology
Commission, Sri Lanka.