Editorial | A foundation for science and technology | comment

Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr. is right that Jamaican scientists and the island’s Scientific Research Council (SRC), of which he chairs, have done a great deal of good work over many decades.

What is arguable, however, is that in the absence of better evidence, Jamaica is on the cusp of a scientific and technological resurgence, although we would very much like it to be. Or “Science 2.0”, as Dr. Lyew-Ayee put it in a message in this newspaper marking November as Science and Technology Month. “We are building on the strong legacy of leading pioneering scientists in Jamaica’s history,” he said.

There is indeed an inspiring legacy of science and technology in Jamaica. There’s the work of people like animal geneticist Thomas P. Lecky, who bred cattle that thrived in hot countries, or Albert Lockhart and Manley West, who pioneered medical marijuana nearly half a century ago. Or from the SRC’s anonymous researchers who help perfect processes that improve people’s lives and bring products to market.

But as important and important as these are, Dr. Lyew-Ayee will no doubt concede that Jamaica’s achievements in science and technology are nowhere near enough for, as Prime Minister Andrew Holness hopes, the island to take full advantage of the nascent fifth industrial revolution to be competitive in the new global economy.

Jamaica enjoys excellence in science and technology. However, it lacks the underlying infrastructure needed to sustain a major national research and development (R&D) project or fundamentally adapt technologies such as artificial intelligence, which are rapidly developing in this new industrial age, for rapid economic development.

MUCH CAN BE DONE

This is not to say that nothing can be achieved or salvaged under the current circumstances. Much can be done. However, at the same time as pursuing R&D within existing infrastructure, Jamaica urgently needs to focus on developing an ecosystem for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

In terms of making more and better of what now exists, this newspaper believes that the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), a government institution funded largely with taxpayer money, should be tasked with returning to its core (it now offers a wide range of social science degrees), aiming to get back on track as an elite university of applied sciences with a focus on R&D and innovation.

In addition, the government needs to consider ways to incentivize research and development through discussions with the private sector and third-party institutions.

A previous decision to allow pension funds to invest up to 5% of their portfolio in startups was positive but insufficient. It might be possible to devise tax regimes that encourage companies and people with big budgets to invest in the R&D efforts of research institutions, even if they are not trying to bring specific products to market on their own account. Industrialized countries spend up to four percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, primarily through the private sector. Recent figures for the Caribbean, including Jamaica, are not available, but some estimates put the region’s spending in this area at half a percent of GDP.

Over the long term, Jamaica’s success in science and technology, and ultimately in R&D and innovation, rests on having a cadre of people equipped to work in these fields. That starts with a good STEM education system. Which is currently not the case. For example, in this year’s Caribbean high school diploma exam, out of nearly 20,000 Jamaican students, only 37 percent passed math, a fundamental science and technology subject. Many of those who passed scraped through on the lowest grade. This comes after many of the exam’s age-eligible cohorts were banned from the test by their schools for failing to make the cut.

PROBLEM

The students are not primarily to blame for this. Jamaica has long had a problem with teaching math and science and retaining teachers who are competent in them – as highlighted by the Orlando Patterson Commission’s report on transforming Jamaica’s education system.

The commission identified a “critical shortage” of qualified STEM teachers, as well as technical and vocational subjects. “The shortage is repeatedly highlighted as a direct link between the number of high school students with STEM skills and a globally competitive workforce,” the commission said.

While the problem of brain drain from Jamaica’s classrooms is ever-present, STEM teachers are leaving faster — mostly for higher-paying jobs in the private sector or to teach abroad. “Between the 2014 and 2015 school years, nearly 500 math and science teachers left the public secondary school system,” says the Patterson report, released 13 months ago. “At the start of the pandemic, Jamaica lost an estimated 390 teachers between September 2019 and January 2020.”

A government program to provide scholarships in STEM subjects has not worked as hoped. Recruits don’t like the terms of their bonds and don’t find the pay particularly attractive. Even as these and similar initiatives continue, the government needs to radically reconsider and reconfigure its approach to STEM education.

For example, Prime Minister Holness is committed to building six specialized STEM high schools. As part of a new approach, he should invite the private sector and other organizations and foundations to be crucial partners in this program, including funding the building of their institutions, hiring staff and subsidizing their salaries, and involvement in the overall management of the schools. Not only will these elite institutions help shape a future cohort of scholars and innovators, but they can also become laboratories for best practices in STEM education for other schools.

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