A word from an academic to the new Government

Let me first congratulate President Mr. Maithripala Sirisena and the elections commissioner Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya for bringing such an honor to Sri Lanka from across the Globe for the high standard of the General Election 2015.

I returned to Sri Lanka and joined the staff of the University of Moratuwa in 2003 mainly to start a research laboratory for field robotics to make some contribution to the humanitarian demining efforts at that time. I write this note based on my experience till I left again in 2007 with the hope that the new Government may pay some attention.

Personal income: Here in the UK, I do not do two jobs, and I am not desperate to find extra income sources because my monthly pay is more than enough to live a decent life. The main problem we faced back in Sri Lanka at that time was that the monthly pay was not enough to live a decent life. As a senior lecturer my monthly pay was Rs. 45,000. I had to rent an annex for Rs. 20,000 per month, the monthly fuel bill alone was on average Rs. 16,000, and the remaining Rs. 9,000 was not enough to feed two Children. So, the first shock was the mandatory need to do extra work to make ends meet. However, I am glad that the academics in Sri Lanka have won several struggles in the recent past to solve this problem. As I understand, now a senior lecturer’s pay is nearly Rs. 100,000. However, I still think that the Government should make a distinction between those who perform well in research publications and those who spend most of their time in teaching if we ever wish to bring Sri Lankan universities among the top 100 – 200 in the World during our lifetime. At King’s College London, where I am working now, there is an annual “performance based pay rise” scheme. This assessment allows us to bargain for a pay rise based on exceptional performance in research publications, supervision of PhD students, grant income, impact stories like spin-off companies, global esteem indicators like appointment in editorial board of leading international journals, and innovation in teaching. Therefore, no two lecturers, senior lecturers, readers, or professors earn the same pay. Though pay is not the main motivation, the recognition that comes with it is a huge motivation for most academics to dedicate more time for research.

Grant management: The second important factor was grant management. Even if we brought research funding, management was a nightmare. Even for the simple thing like buying a motor, I had to bring three quotations. Least cost maybe an appropriate criterion in most other Government functions. But in research, what mostly matters is speed. Here at King’s College, I am given a credit card to buy anything I want for my laboratory using the research funds I have brought. I have been given separate accounts for each research grant I lead, and it is just a matter of filling an online form at the end of the month to indicate which account should be used to charge each expenditure I have made through the credit card. I just print that form, collate the originals of receipts, seal the envelope, and pass it to the head of department. I rarely meet him. The system knows that all academics care more about the personal progress they can make by using the funds in the most effective way to get good research publications and impact stories than by pocketing few bucks out of research grants. While in Sri Lanka, the academics were not trusted. They were made extremely slow and inefficient by the system to a point where those who bring research grants and do research are the most frequent culprits than those who spend time only on teaching or work outside the university. Therefore, please seriously consider revising the Financial Regulation policies applied to university research fund management.

Industrial collaborations: Since most investors come to Sri Lanka looking for cheap labor, their business models are not geared to collaborate with local Universities. Their research, if at all are based elsewhere. The little they do with local universities was mostly limited to testing. Most senior academics were happy with this level of engagement because that was at least a reason to be contempt in terms of generating some extra consultancy income. Please do a survey to make an updated assessment about the nature of engagement with industries. If the situation is still the same, please bring in new funding schemes that encourage collaborative research with industries. For instance, here in UK, even the fundamental research funding agencies encourage us to attach letters of support from industrial/clinical partners. In Sri Lanka, I encourage to allow funding agencies like the National Science Foundation to support research done in private industries like in the European Union research-funding program. This will empower Small and Medium Enterprises to collaborate with local universities for new product development.

International engagement: I felt that Sri Lankan research community is very much isolated from the rest of the World, with few exceptions in humanities and public policy. The modern World works in large networks. For instance, as academics in UK, we have to have research partners from at least three EU countries to apply for EU research funding which is the largest funding source in the World for my field – robotics. Even for UK based funding sources, now it is the norm to have research partners from several universities in one grant proposal. Now the EU has extended the partner countries to several Asian countries including Thailand when it comes to research partnerships. However, non-EU partners get funded by their own country for collaborating with EU research consortia. Therefore, Sri Lankan Foreign ministry could negotiate a win-win model with major regions for research and innovation, whereby a foreign research consortium can include a Sri Lankan research partner in their grant proposals at no cost to them, because, if the grant goes through, the costs included by the Sri Lankan partner will be funded by a Sri Lankan funding agency. Partnership models like these will allow Sri Lankan researchers to engage in large Global research networks by capitalizing on unique capabilities in Sri Lanka as a tropical country (tropical diseases, renewable energy, agriculture, flora and fauna, defense cooperation, etc.).

National importance of research: In UK, each research grant proposal should write a section called “national importance” where we have to outline our expectation of how the proposed work could underpin the progress of UK industries and society over the next 50 year horizon. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 2003, I was hoping that the Government expected local professionals to contribute towards National needs. Visiting the demining sites of the engineers’ brigade of the Sri Lanka Army and NGOs, we noticed that most of them used metal detectors, while others used dogs and rakes to detect landmines. We identified a number of technical areas that could be improved. For instance, the imported dogs cost around Rs. 4.5 million per dog. They fell ill very frequently due to the tropical field weather in the North. Back in Colombo, we conducted experiments to see how far the local animal – mongoose (Mugatiya) – could be used to detect explosives. The results were very promising. The best the academics can do is to publish our findings so that user communities could follow up. We presented the results in the Ministry of Defense and elsewhere to attract local attention in vain. Nothing moved beyond that point citing financial reasons, though we pointed out that training mongoose locally will be several folds less costly than importing dogs at Rs. 4.5 million per dog.

Perhaps the most disappointing experience was about field vehicles for demining. My laboratory conducted experiments to develop new design approaches to field robots that maybe used in demining. Due to limited funding, we could not develop complicated robots like in the developed countries. However, our machines developed using material found in junkyards, but with clearly new ideas faced various resistances. Again the ideas could not be developed to advanced stages due to financial constraints cited by the Government. However, later I heard that the Government had the money to import several flails at a cost of Rs. 270 million per unit. I was told that all what mattered was some intervention from Mr. Basil Rajapaksa (personal policy not National policy). Money suddenly appeared. These machines were nothing but modified excavators with a fast rotating drum holding hammers on chains. A used excavator can be bought for a cost of less than Rs. 50 million. The motorized drum with chained hammers can be designed and fabricated in Sri Lanka at a cost less than Rs. 30 million. With other fabrication costs, the same or a better system could be fabricated in Sri Lanka within a budget of Rs. 100 million with full participation of local engineers if the users gave the right specifications. Field robots we tested were developed locally; within a budget of Rs. 1 million including the cost of training three masters students with a monthly stipend of Rs 16,000 per student. After four years of struggling, I left Sri Lanka again in 2007 looking for a better life for my family and for opportunities to continue what I was doing with less resistance. I encourage the new Government to fix these problems by rewarding other Government institutes not only in energy, defense, agriculture, fisheries, transport, but also in humanities, foreign policy, archeology, history, and law for showing annual progress of research collaborations with respective research centers in local universities.

Finally, I would expect the new government be open to criticism from academics especially in the area of humanities, than using academics who approve your policies to mislead the public. I think people taught a good lesson on 17th August 2015 that such cheap methods do not last long. In fact, your Government will survive longer if you effectively engage those who are critical of your policies without any trace of threats of abduction or sudden accidents. I wish you success.