From brain drain to brain gain

By Dhaneshi YATAWARA

 

Keeping pace with modern advanced technological trends based on local expertise and innovation would be the key to empower Sri Lanka.

Contradictorily, the ‘brain drain’ which we as a country, has experienced over the past few decades has built a vacuum in the development and innovations in the Science and Technology field.

A significant number of eminent scientists and technologists moved out of the country due to many reasons.

This migration of scientists and researchers from the developing world to the developed world has been a critical problem to developing countries such as Sri Lanka. To keep pace with the fast moving world, developing countries need to come up with a strategy to ‘brain gain.’

Promoting and sustaining a globally engaged scientific research community in the country will pave the path to, in the long-term, not only encourage technology transfers but attract foreign investments as well. Keeping this in mind, a program to develop a sustainable sci-tech culture locally as the base for future progress of the country has been initiated. It was crucial as the industrial sector was struggling to boost high-tech based exports from their present status, just 1.5 percent of the total Sri Lankan manufactured exports.

Technology and Research Minister
Pavithra Wanniarachchi

It is in this backdrop that the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency responsible for Sri Lanka’s science and technology (S&T) enhancement, under the Ministry of Technology and Research, is creating an international level platform for scientists, researchers and technologists, both local and international, to exchange and share their expertise.

The ‘Global Forum for Sri Lankan Scientists’, organised by the National Science Foundation under the guidance of Senior Minister for Scientific Affairs Prof. Tissa Vitarana and Technology and Research Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, in collaboration with UNESCO, will be the ideal forum to upgrade the country’s development. This Forum will be held in Colombo from December 13–15.

Migration

“Today, to cope with this issue of migration of scientists to the developed world, the developing world has come up with various strategies. The rise of intellectual expatriate networks all over the developing world during the past decade is one such strategy that has enabled developing countries to systematically use their expatriate experts, scientists and technologists for development at home,” said Chairperson NSF Professor Sirimalee Fernando.

As a country that has experienced considerable “Brain Drain” during the past few decades, Sri Lanka needs to realign its efforts to build a strong network to pave the way for the efficient use of S&T expatriates.

“As envisioned in the policy Mahinda Chinthana, Vision for the Future, this Forum will be the inception point for scientists, technologists and industrialists to contribute and partake in the national development process. It will support the science, technology and innovation strategy of Sri Lanka,” said Prof. Fernando.

She said the Forum will also serve to establish and develop linkages between expatriate scientists and local scientific institutions, and provide a platform for the facilitation of technology transfer and employment expertise to boost the productive capability of Sri Lankan industry.

Conceptual design

UNESCO has played an initiating role in the conceptual design of the Forum and is actively involved with the NSF and the Ministry of Technology and Research in the Forum’s Steering Committee as well as in facilitating funds to drive this venture forward. It is estimated that 150 expatriate scientists would participate in this conference.

The key resource personnel would be fully funded by the NSF whereas the other resource persons would be partially funded with local hospitality.

“To expand the contribution of science and technology to national development, public and private partnerships are crucial. We have the best example with the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute – SLINTEC which was set up by the Government in partnership with five bluechip companies,” Prof. Fernando said, explaining the involvement of industries in this Forum.

“The Forum will focus on cutting edge technology that would give a boost to the industrial development of the country,” said Director NSF Dr. Sarath Abayawardana, explaining how the Forum would act as a future investment.

The conferences at the Forum will focus on Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information and Communication Technology, Advanced Design and Manufacture, Green Energy Technologies, Natural Resources and Food and Water Security. The Forum will create opportunities for scientists and entrepreneurs to discuss, deliberate and draw road-maps for research, alliances and industrial successes.

“This will be a direct meeting point for researchers and entrepreneurs to seek possible ventures benefiting both sides,” said the Director NSF.

As the NSF organising committee explained, the main themes of the Forum reflect national interests that have a major bearing on the economic development through different sectors of energy, healthcare, agriculture, tourism and consumer goods and promoting exports.

The Forum will also accentuate on the integrated roles of technologies, applications and successful commercialisation. For example, nanotechnology has started leaving the confines of laboratories and conquering new applications. It is envisaged that the global market for nanotechnology-based manufactured goods will be worth US$ 1.6 trillion, for the period 2009-2013.

Expatriate scientists

The Overseas Special Training Program (OSTP) and International Partnerships for Science and Technology (IPSAT), conducted under the purview of the NSF, harness the knowledge of expatriate scientists. The IPSAT program facilitates expatriate scientists, engineers, S&T policy makers and research personnel to undertake collaborative research assignments for a stipulated period in Sri Lanka.

The OSTP is targeted at facilitating local scientists, researchers and engineers to participate in training and short-term research visits abroad. There are also collaborative activities taking place between different research groups, largely arising out of individual contacts. Formalisation of these activities and development of clear cut mechanisms to improve collaboration is the need of the hour.

The NSF is also working towards developing a web portal and a comprehensive expatriate database simultaneous to the conference that would facilitate both the local and expatriate scientific community for the continuity and strengthening of links that are already established.

This Forum would focus on encouraging research that is industry-oriented to deliver innovative products and processes that will definitely provide a competitive edge to the industry, enabling them to compete and harness opportunities in the global market.

The conference would be organised to ensure close interaction among locals and expatriates as well as to pave the way towards developing strategies and mechanisms to convert the “Brain Drain” to a “Brain Gain”.