|Getting scientific research moving
By Dr. U. P. de S. Waidyanatha
Sri Lanka is amongst countries with the highest literacy rate in the world, but is amongst the lowest in scientific research and technology output. The per capita scientific research output in terms of measurable indicators such as research publications in peer reviewed journals (or journals cited in the Science Citation Index - SCI) is amongst the lowest in South East Asia. Sri Lanka is even below Bangladesh in this respect and is only marginally above Nepal. In a recent ranking of 60 countries on local university-industry collaboration in research & development ( R & D), Sri Lanka is placed last.
A major cause for this dismal situation is believed to be our poor investment in R & D, being only 0.19% GDP; the world average being 1.4%. India invests 0.9% and developed countries, on average, about 2%. It is argued that we should invest at least 1%. There is some justification in this argument. We employ more scientists and engineers per unit of population than India, nearly fourfold and tenfold more than Pakistan and Bangladesh (Table 1). Investment per scientist/engineer is then also the lowest in the region. Poor remuneration, constraints in research funding and procuring equipment and other supplies, bureaucratic impediments, problem of access to good schools for scientists children particularly, in the peripheral districts, and lack of recognition for scientific achievements are some oft quoted reasons for frustration, low output of our scientists, and brain drain. On the other hand, there has been no consideration whether scientists outputs match even the meagre inputs provided.
Brain drain, both out of the country and within it continues apace, making it exceedingly difficult for planning and sustaining coherent R & D programmes. Most R & D institutions lack critical masses of researchers in many fields. Majority of the foreign trainees, particularly those who proceed to US do not return at all, and of those who do, a substantial share leaves especially after the fifth year of return when the service bond value is halved. The Coconut Research Institute, for example, lost about 50% of its PhD cadre in the last seven years.
In this gloomy setting, how could R & D be speeded up, given the fact that no government could cure all ills in a hurry. The resources are just not there. Moreover no government could be expected to cause serious disparities in remuneration and other perks between scientists and other comparable professionals. Top decision makers will scuffle any move in that direction: administrators are on top and scientists are only on tap!
Is funding the problem?
Clearly, investments in R & D are inadequate. But are we using even the available meagre funds effectively and efficiently? The Treasury doles out allocations to R & D organisations at an annual budget allocation meeting, which is more like an auction for rapid dispensing of items! There is hardly any evaluation of projects/programme in terms of national or institutional priorities and never any performance appraisal or output auditing. Interestingly, perhaps for the first time that I know of, at the budget allocation meeting last year, the Secretary to the Treasury had enquired about outputs from several heads of institutes to their embarrassment! Many had failed to give tangible answers. I am unaware of any public R & D organisation that has examined returns on investment (value for money) for any given period. Lack of the need for accountability has caused complacency. institutions have been often slow in discontinuing unproductive programmes, changing course, and investing in new directions. Old projects are dressed in new garb, and the wheel continues to be re-invented! The outcome of much research is often little or cosmetic, hardly worth the investment. Of course, it has to be conceded that more than 80% of the allocation for most R & D institutions is for emoluments, leaving little for actual research expenses, unless external grants are secured, for which there is no incentive or compulsion in the present system of employment.
Retrenching and making new recruitment to meet new research demands or retraining existing staff is difficult, given the severe funding constraints. At the same time, there is no motivation for change, so the entrenched system continues. Hopefully, reforms that would take place with the proposed zero base budgeting should bring about substantial changes in the right direction
Human Resources in South Asia
Increasing R & D output will require several basic changes in the present system, such as, engagement of scientists including the university academics on contract, at least initially; allocation of research funds and promotional incentives based on performance; academic promotions based on a higher weightage for quality research output; substantial incentives for local postgraduate research; and a system of rewards and recognition for outstanding performances.
Employment on contract - Risk is an incentive!
The prevailing system of employment initially on a probationary period for a few years followed by permanency (job security!) is a distinct disincentive for performance. Insecurity is the opium for output! R & D personnel inclusive of University teachers should, ideally, for the first 10-15 years, be recruited on contractual terms. The system of tenure track followed by tenure of employment being practice in many developed countries for scientists and academics, proven to have increased research output enormously, should be introduced here too, at least for the new recruits. Old hands should be allowed to opt for the new scheme which should carry the incentive of at least 50% more than the present salary, given the risk of contractual employment.
During the tenure track period, those who do not have appropriate postgraduate training may be allowed to pursue such training, if the appointees so desire. In other words, assessable research output and achievements against assigned responsibilities, and, not compulsorily, a postgraduate degree, should be the basis for furtherance of carrier. However for developing countries such as ours, where external constraints condition scientists output, adequate allowance should be made for it in the performance appraisal schemes.
It is sometimes questioned whether output would diminish after securing tenure. This has not been the case usually in developed countries. Once one earns a reputation as a good scientist or academic one has also build around him a team of other capable scientists, research students, and grant contacts etc a self propelling system - which will not allow one to escape into complacency.
That contractual employment improves research output is already evident in the example of the Institute of Fundamental Studies (IFS), Kandy. Its research output in terms of per capita publications in journals quoted in the Science Citation Index, in recent years, (Fig 1) has been nearly tenfold higher than that of universities and other R & D institutions in Sri Lanka. Research cost per unit output is also amongst the lowest for IFS. By contrast, the Tea Research Institute for example, has invested most in research but is amongst the lowest in output (Fig. 2). Motivation then appears to be the greater need for increasing productivity than funding. Ironically, IFS not too long ago was scorned at by some pundits as a vacuous exercise! Other organizations of course have functions other than research such as teaching for universities (which is the primary function) and technology transfer for R & D institutions, limiting time for research. Further, certain fields of research (such as perennial crop breeding) do not yield publishable results readily, and allowance should be made for these considerations in assessing performance. Yet, the overall disparity is too large to be bridged with excuses. IFS has not necessarily got the cream of scientists in the country. It is the incentive of higher salaries and the risk of contractual employment that have driven the IFS researchers for enhanced output. However, given the choice, fresh graduates yet appear to prefer permanent positions in governmental institutions to contractual positions such as offered by the IFS, despite substantially more attractive terms, largely for reasons of job security (complacency!). The situation can change only with unified terms and conditions of service across all R & D institutions.
(Continued on Monday)
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