Colombo, Development, Education, Kandy, Post-War

Smarter investing in Science and Higher Education

I experienced three disturbing scenarios within the last 5 months. In no particular order they are as follows.

  1. I recently visited Sri Lanka after seven years. End of it I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and wanting to go back home. When I left my country for higher studies I had plans to come back. Right after the PhD, I wanted to stay a little longer and get some more research experience. So I took a postdoctoral position at a prestigious university. Of course I had to give up my probationary lecturer position and pay back the bond. After coming back from the recent visit, I searched for suitable jobs with enough chance to do scientific research in Sri Lanka. I actually sent my resume (CV) out. I am still waiting to hear. No vacancies! I also looked into becoming a lecturer at a university. That is the only viable option for science graduates. Starting salaries of a senior lecture positions are dismal. I don’t expect American salaries but I think it is not overly greedy of me to expect Indian salaries.
  2. One of my friends who has a PhD and a considerable postdoctoral experience in immunology wanted to returned to Sri Lanka and work at a well known research institute Kandy. He has been getting ready for this move in June of 2010. He has been offered a position. All but the letter was sent to him. He has told his current research director that he will be leaving and helped him to recruit and train a new person to take over his duties once he leave. He even asked me to bring a Sinhala 2nd grade book for his daughter so that she will have a smooth transition upon returning. Suddenly he received an email from this institute indicating that someone had filed a complaint against his recruitment. While I am not aware of all the details, the institute ended up retracting the job offer. I know my friend is a  very good scientist and his research idea was to develop a vaccine for a common illness unique to the South Asian region. Knowing his capabilities and plans (research and funding) he would have succeeded too.
  3. One of my former students was offered admission by two universities in the USA to pursue her PhD. She wrote and ask me about the quality of those two universities so she could make an educated decision. While writing a reply to her I did a Google search to find the rankings of those universities. I ended up using; a site where universities in the world are ranked. For fun I searched my work place, which is ranked number 59th in the world and the two top universities in Sri Lanka. The numbers were dismal. I am not literally going by these rankings but if they were within the first 2000, I would have been happy.

People of Sri Lanka, after the war and electing a strong government are hopeful of development and making our country the wonder of Asia. Infrastructure building and other investments and are flourishing. As it has been for the last 50 years Science and Technology is neglected. H.E. the President named 2009 as the year of Information technology (IT) and English. Ministry of Science and Technology has an incomplete website with most of the data outdated. Sri Lanka recently invested in a coal power plans and oil resources exploration while the whole world is talking about going green and developing alternative energy resources. One wind farm was started but this was done without proper planning. For a small country land wind farms are a waste of space. They are noisy and eventually people will start complaining. Some of the smaller European countries are building wind farms off shore solving both noise problem and the land problem. We need to get little more organized in out efforts. Need to take lots of baby steps and pay attention to the details. Need to be smarter even when doing the right thing.

If we are to achieve the goal of becoming the next wonder of Asia, we need at least few of our universities to be in the top 500 universities in Asia. If India can do it we definitely can do it. There are lot of trained and very capable Sri Lankans from chemistry, physics, molecular biology, immunology, pharmacology and other biochemical and biological sciences,etc. are eagerly waiting to return. Most of my Indian friends were able to return after finishing their degrees. Some of the Chinese students have started returning. We spend a lot of money in educating people in sciences and other than in IT, we lose most of them to the developed countries.

In addition to all these we as a country need an attitude change. Let the young blood to take over and inject new ideas. We have to feel less threatened by them. In a world where molecules are imaged using atomic force microscopy (AFM), barrettes have to make some space for AFMs. Things like what happened to my friend makes the young generation to move further away. We need these fires under the ashes to completely burn out. Hope someone is listening!