Whom does govt. get its science advice from, quacks, cronies or scientists?


By Dr. Kingsley A. de Alwis

President Maithripala Sirisena says the new government’s objective is to take the ideas and proposals of the scholars and intellectuals to utmost consideration for the forthcoming programme to build the country. He pointed out that the knowledge and experience of the scholars are important in the economic, political and cultural reforms in the country. (President Sirisena’s address to the 30th annual summit of Sri Lanka Economists’ Association - Oct. 30, 2015 - www.president.gov.lk/news). Governments are today called upon to make decisions on many critical issues that require a deep knowledge of the underlying science in each case. Most countries have scientific establishments that are capable of providing expert opinions and advice on such issues, based on an understanding of the relevant scientific disciplines and their application to real world problems. Such advice may concern, among other matters:

(i) Long term policy planning (e.g. options to meet the country’s future energy requirements);

(ii) Urgent crisis intervention (e.g. the immediate actions required in case of a major disaster such as a tsunami or possible nuclear accident at India’s Kudankulam nuclear power plant, which is only some 200 km from Sri Lanka);

(iii) Endemic problems requiring long term scientific research to unravel the underlying causes,as well as immediate decisions based on the limited available data to recommend short -term interim measures (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease in the NCP or the water quality crisis in Rathupaswela);

(iv) Long term emergency preparedness measures for major natural disasters (e.g. tsunamis) or industrial accidents (e.g. the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal);

(v) Actions needed to meet impending challenges to the environment and natural resources of the country (e.g. increasing air and water pollution, soil degradation); and

(vi) Proposals for major development projects needing detailed scientific analysis (e.g. the Megapolis Project and Colombo Port City Project).

Critical Areas Needing Science Based Policies

Generic areas in which sound science-based policies are critical include: environment, climate change, disaster management, agriculture including fisheries, management of natural resources, industry, health issues, energy development and management, urban expansion or renewal, new development projects, etc.

There are many current issues that need good scientific advice. The National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL) has been conducting, on its own initiative and in collaboration with other concerned members of the scientific community, public discussions on a number of important national policy issues, including the following:

• the development and use of the country’s natural resources (e.g. Energy Options for Sri Lanka in the next two decades; Exploration and exploitation of the Marine Mineral Resources of Sri Lanka; developing a Framework for a National Groundwater Policy; etc);

• dealing with major health issues (e.g. Chronic Kidney Disease of Uncertain Origin (CKDu); the Rathupaswela ground water quality problem; the Dicyandiamide contamination of milk powder);

• the scientific issues involved in the proposed major development projects or programmes (The Port City Project and associated environmental issues; the proposed Megapolis and City Development planning);

• the adoption and spread of new technologies (e.g. nanotechnology in theconstruction, agriculture and health sectors, among others); and

• promotion of science education for rural children using interactive Information andCommunication Technology.

Science Advisory Mechanisms

Fortunately, Sri Lanka has well established scientific institutions staffed by highly qualified, experienced experts in all major scientific fields and disciplines. These are mostly government-supported organizations such as:

• the research divisions of government departments(Agriculture, Export Agriculture, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Forests, Geological Survey and Mines Bureau, Meteorology, Animal Production and Health, Government Analyst, National Botanical Gardens, Wildlife, National Zoological Gardens etc.);

• government-funded research institutes (Tea Research Institute, Rubber Research Institute, Coconut Research Institute, Rice Research and Development Institute, Sugar Cane Research Institute, Veterinary Research Institute, Industrial Technology Institute, Medical Research Institute, Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Institute of Fundamental Studies, etc. and

• the Science, Engineering, Medical and Social Science faculties of the Universities (Colombo, Peradeniya, Kelaniya, Sri Jayawardenepura, Moratuwa, Ruhuna, Rajarata, Jaffna, Eastern, Sabaragamuwa, Sir John Kotalawela Defence Academy and the Open Universities).

Besides these government-funded organizations there are several professional institutions which do not get regular government grants and whose technical advice is therefore independent and not influenced by government pressure. These institutions representing different professions, such as the Institution of Engineers of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Medical Association and the Institute of Architects, could be consulted on matters related to their specific disciplines.

Any of these institutions could be called upon for advice on specific matters related to their mandates and expertise. On the other hand, when problems and policy matters are of a broad cross-cutting nature, multi-disciplinary teams need to work on the issue involved. In such cases, these could be addressed by ad hoc committees comprising scientists with the relevant expertise drawn from a number of statutory institutions and academic institutions. This may have the disadvantage of taking away scientists from their substantive and often indispensable functions in the institutions concerned. Such adhoc advisory committees also suffer from the disadvantage that they have no official status at the international level, which could be important where the government needs to present positions that have the blessings of an established scientific authority.

A single organization of highly qualified eminent scientists with many years of experience in all the major branches of science does indeed exist in Sri Lanka, namely the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL). This body includes scientists from all the main disciplines including: Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Medical, Dental and Veterinary Sciences; Engineering, Architecture and Surveying; Life and Earth Sciences; Physical Sciences; Chemical Sciences; Social Sciences and Anthropology and their sub-disciplines.

This multiplicity of disciplines enables the NASSLto coordinate investigations and report on issues that require a multi-disciplinary approach – as most science-related issues do today.

This apex body of Sri Lankan scientists enjoys wide international recognition, participating in the activities and meetings of the Inter-Academy Panel (IAP) (the organization that links all National Science Academies in the world) and its regional groupings, as well as in the Science Council of Asia (SCA) an association of Asian Science Academies. The President of NASSL is the current President of the Science Council of Asia and Sri Lanka will be hosting its Annual Meeting in 2016. These links would allow the NASSL to reach out to any additional international expertise required should the need arise.

Furthermore, the NASSL was created by an Act of Parliament - the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (Incorporation) Act, No.66 of 1988 - with the specific mandates (among others) to:

• to act as an independent consultative body to the Government, to undertake and direct research when necessary, to take cognizance of and report on issues in which scientific and technological considerations are paramount to the national interest, to advise on activities related to the applications of science and technology in national development and to report on utilization of worldwide scientific achievements for the development of Sri Lanka;

• to report on the management and the rational utilization of the national resources of Sri Lanka so as to ensure optimal productivity consistent with continued use of the biosphere on a long term basis taking into account the repercussions of using a particular resource on other resources and the environment as a whole, and to help in making use of the resources of the country in national development; and

• to promote and maintain a liaison between Sri Lanka scientists and scientific bodies, both local and international

Examples of Government decisions based on scientific advice

Two Examples of Government decisions where science prevailed over other dubious considerations that were being touted by interested parties are cited below:

1. The Eppawela Phosphate Case

In 1997, an attempt was made to grant mining rights for the Eppawela Phosphate deposit to a joint venture with Freeport Mc Moran (which later was merged to IMC Agrico) and a Japanese company. This was challenged in the courts by the scientific community led by the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka (NASSL) which argued that(a) exploitation of the deposit for export would deplete it in a short span of time, whereas it could meet Sri Lanka’s requirements of phosphate for up to 200years in a scenario in which the phosphate reserves of the major producing countries are being rapidly depleted and would run out in about 50 years,(b) there would be severe adverse environmental consequences if the deposit was exploited on a large scale as envisioned in this proposal, and (c) one of the companies involved had a questionable track record that drew severe criticism from environmentalists about their operations in Florida and Louisiana.

In 2000, the Supreme Court held that the attempt to form such a joint venture was in contravention of the fundamental rights of the citizens of Sri Lanka. It further stipulated (a) that the deposit could be exploited only following a comprehensive exploration and study of the deposit including its location, quantity and quality of appetite made by the Geological Mines Bureau in collaboration with theNational Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka and the National Science Foundation (NSF), (b) that the results of such an exploration should be published and (c)that any promoter should obtain the approval of the Central Environmental Authority. And thus, Sri Lanka was saved from an exploitative agreement that would have resulted in rapid depletion of an important mineral resource and environmental degradation of a large area in the North Central Province.

2. The Proposal for an Irrigated Oil Palm Plantation under the Mahaweli Project

In 1981, the government gave its approval in principle to a proposal to lease 24,000 acres of land in System B of the Mahaweli Project to the Malaysia’s Guthrie Group to establish an irrigated oil palm plantation. The Science and Technology Advisory Committee of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS) set up a study group to examine this proposal. Issues that arose in this study included the leasing of land and provision of irrigation facilities to trans-national organizations in projects funded under international aid agreements that were meant to benefit rural peasant farmers, the establishment of large estate type holdings in an irrigation system designed for small holders, implications for Sri Lanka’s coconut industry, potential conflict areas with other settlers under Mahaweli System B, and long term environmental effects. The report of the study group emphasised that growing of oil palm under irrigation was practised only on 50 ha. in the whole world at that time, was an untried technology, and could be a loss to the Government and people of Sri Lanka. It also pointed out that no proper feasibility study of the project appeared to have been done. The report prepared by SLAAS was submitted to the Government. It was seen by the Guthrie Group, which then withdrew its proposal, thus saving Sri Lanka from a costly experiment and the government from losing face by having to withdraw a proposal that it had already approved in principle.

Government’s failure to use this resource

Unfortunately, in making decisions on science related matters, the government has often failed to avail itself of the expertise and experience of the eminent scientists available to it through the NASSL and other legitimate scientific organizations. Politicians often seek and get advice from a particular group of scientists or have their pet "scientists" who obligingly express views that bolster their position on issues affecting their electorates. This has been the case recently in regard to the outbreak Chronic Kidney Disease in the North Central Province. When the politicians and take rash decisions based on the recommendations of a coterie of their favourite "scientists" quoting dubious research data, these decisions could work to the detriment of the country. (See for example the article Glyphosate Ban –The Unintended Consequences in the Island of June 20th 2015).

On many issues of public concern, disagreements among scientists arising from differing interpretations of limited data were formerly resolved through discussion or more research. Such differences of opinion have now become subjects of argument in the public media. Opinions are expressed, often in the most intemperate and unscientific language, not only by scientists with differing viewpoints or different interpretations of limited data, but also by people with vested interests or preconceived ideas and politicians trying to make capital of situations from which they hope to harvest votes. The government often depends on scientists with political agendas and quack scientists with dubious credentials for advice on such controversial issues.

The question is: With such a rich institutional resource of highly qualified scientific expertise available to it, why is the government so reluctant to use it?

The writer is the Immediate Past President of the National Academy of Sciences ofSri Lanka


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