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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Science and technology in economic planning—a reply

The Island: 14/02/2007" By a junior academic (AJA)

Prof. O. A. Ileperuma’s thought-provoking article titled "Science and technology in economic planning: the missing link" (Midweek Review, 31 January 2007) should receive the attention of all those who desire a better tomorrow for our country. He argues that "science and technology" can propel us into prosperity and, if anybody needs evidence of this, gives examples from recent times and from our own region. He has cried out for a prominent role for "science and technology" in development, and has propounded for this purpose a bigger role for scientists in policy-making and planning—the veritable portals of power. He points out that it is necessary for them to get involved in this process to the extent that we become a "technocracy" (a word the obscurity of which, in itself, points to the abeyance of these aspects in the portals of power in Sri Lanka). There is a need, he also points out, for sweeping changes in the field of education, for it is from here that future scientists are harnessed and trained from amongst the new generation and by which we can further improve their quality.

I cannot imagine that he must be the first scientist who said all this. But unhappily, no one whose thoughts have run along these lines before him seems to have been able to convince our society of their wisdom. Why was this so? Why is it that scientists have "the magic tool" in their hands and yet are unable to give its benefits to society? Until we find the reason for this and correct it, Professor Ileperuma’s article cannot be salvaged from the same fate as previous, similar articles.

But before we proceed, it is important to realise that science and technology are different. Science is an attitude of mind, a method of inquiry into nature; it serves its possessor well at all times. Technology is a series of examples of the application of existing knowledge that help us to make our lives longer and better in physical quality (except when it is being used to blow us up, but that was not what interested Professor Ileperuma). Education should seek to impart a scientific attitude to all students: the detailed study of the various ‘sciences’ and of technology, on the other hand, will need to be carefully developed in a few ‘gifted’ students, and promoted and used by a selection of learned men and women for the benefit of the whole society. Science is an invaluable attitude of mind: technology is (hopefully) a useful tool.

It is important that we do not fail to see the value of the scientific attitude in education. Quite apart from anything else, I will argue shortly that this has important relevance to the discussion at hand, which is in essence concerned with the role of technology in development. But to impress upon the reader this importance, I cannot do better than to refer him or her to Bertrand Russell’s excellent essay "The place of science in a liberal education" which appeared in the book Mysticism and Logic (Routledge: London). Beyond this I will not concern myself with this issue here. But I would like to use the word ‘science’ here in this broader sense, hoping that it would not confuse the reader for having read Professor Ileperuma’s article first.

Two easy mistakes

One must be cautious here and not make two very easy mistakes. We should not think that we are living in a time when the power and potential of technology is not known to (firstly) politicians and (secondly) the populace at large.

A study of history shows us that politicians and other powerful leaders of society (let me generically call them kshatriyas, derived from the name of the ruling plus trading caste in ancient Indian society) have known this long before the populace had. Virtually every civilisation teaches us this. While Archimedes was using the method of exhaustion to anticipate integral calculus – and incidentally discover the value of ? – he was kept busy helping his state’s leaders develop the weaponry to face their enemies. There is a wry joke about what engineers do: mechanical engineers design weapons for warfare, and civil engineers, the targets. Queen Isabella probably was not impressed by Columbus’s ideas on the shape of the earth: she was looking for a shorter, more profitable passage to the bounties that India offered. Even in ancient Lanka, the benefits of technology (such as is found in irrigation and dagoba construction), while helping enormously the ruling dynasties and their supporting clergy, did not quite percolate to the lower levels of the masses. Our current kshatriyas are, I would imagine, no different. (And yes, of course, technology had existed before science.)

Then, there was indeed a time when the populace (in contrast to the kshatriyas) did not know of the value of science but, happily, that must have been centuries ago. At that time, perhaps, it would have been necessary for the few who propounded science to convince their society that this was the way forward for the prosperity of the masses. They may have had to build, slowly and over decades or even centuries, a critical mass of ‘believers’ to push through the necessary changes successfully, and then also of ‘performers’ to achieve the initial, crucial successes. I do not know when and where this may have started (was it with optics, which gave rise to spectacles?) or culminated (was it in post-Renaissance Europe, perhaps with Francis Bacon and the royal societies?). I do not know, and I do not care: the fact is that today, we all know that we know all this. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the people or the politicians are unaware of this and waste our energies trying to convince them: I do not think that ‘science popularisation’ and ‘obtaining political commitment’ are the answers. The people already do know that science and technology help, and so do the politicians.

Science and power

The problem is that scientists are not powerful enough to freely harness their capabilities in the service of humanity. Science is compelled to sell itself—to those who can afford it and thence control it. It is then ‘owned’ by the kshatriyas, and it goes on simply to serve the narrow objective of strengthening their power further. Education will serve the purpose of identifying the next generation of ‘science servants’ for the next generation of kshatriyas. In fact, free education—by making the process of harnessing talents more comprehensive and by transferring its costs right back to the public—may actually make matters more convenient and congenial to the kshatriyas! People are smart, and politicians smarter: our efforts at science popularisation will simply enthuse the smarter members of the public to invest in it for their personal benefit, and our efforts at winning commitment from politicians will simply play us right into their laps.

Of course, the individual persons, families or creeds that move in and out of the portals of power will change over time and across generations – but the percentage of the population who obtains the benefits of technology and enjoy prosperity will remain essentially the same. If current world trends are anything to go by, the situation will actually worsen with time: the rich becoming richer and technologically more endowed, and the poor becoming poorer and technologically more impoverished, both trapped between an unwanted technology (traffic jams and television junk, for example) and a degraded environment (dengue and the effects of global warming, for example). The message is simple. If the kshatriyas wanted to use technology to bring prosperity to the people, the gap between the rich and the poor would have narrowed, not widened: they simply never wanted to.

‘Wisdom’ of the fools

All this does not mean that the kshatriyas were right and the rest of us wrong: I know that Professor Ileperuma is right to feel urged and even indignant. The kshatriyas are actually silly themselves, in spite of their successful methodology.

They, like us and everybody else, want only one thing: a better tomorrow for oneself and one’s children. (A "better tomorrow" here would refer to a higher physical quality of life, as would be made possible by the use of technology.) There are two ways (let me call them paradigms) to achieve this: either by achieving a better tomorrow specifically for one’s own children, or generally by achieving a better tomorrow for everyone’s children (including, automatically, one’s own). Both ways are extremely difficult to achieve, especially initially.

The first paradigm has the advantage that one has more control over the process and its outcome (especially if one was not a kshatriya to start with). But it also has disadvantages: it lacks a safety net and it is unstable on the long term. If one fails (for instance, due to an unforeseen sickness that strikes one in one’s youth—and there are always potent and common examples of these) the results to one’s children are miserable. And after one’s own lifetime and once one’s own earnings are exhausted by one’s children, the children’s children will have to leave the kshatriya comfort zone. A minister might have three houses in Colombo 7 for his children: but the descendants of former ministers who had 3 acres in it 50 years ago are now nowhere in sight. Look around you: this is what our social history will teach you.
The other silly mistake that the kshatriyas are making is in investing in comfortable lives abroad. While some of these countries have already achieved ‘a good future’ for their progeny via the ‘second paradigm’, they still seem to be forgetting that the lives there have less of other things that are desirable. Let me call these ‘values’, and postpone for the moment an exposition of this.

Approaching the real missing link

Prof. Ileperuma’s last sentence handsomely, if inadvertently, encapsulates the reason for the scientists’ failure: "Let us hope that the politicians will see the wisdom of using science and education to take our country forward". Such hope is obviously inappropriate. When will scientists see the folly in depending on kshatriyas to deliver our country from its misery? When will scientists achieve the wisdom of realising that the kshatriyas who reach the high portals of power are actually smarter, not duller, than them?

Human behaviour is a very strange phenomenon: to assume that it follows logical reasoning in an egalitarian, leave alone altruistic, way is to assume a lot. Let me give you one personal example.

When I went to England for my overseas postgraduate training, I was struck by a very strange observation in their hospitals. Since smoking is banned in public places there – I mean, really banned – there are small, enclosed cubicles outside hospital buildings for those who wish to satisfy their desire for a quick puff without having to break the law. Even on an icy cold winter evening, I was surprised to see a long queue of pregnant mothers who were shivering and waiting outside for their turn to go inside these cubicles; their husbands or partners were close by too, having themselves brought and delivered the cigarettes. Just as I entered the hospital from these inhospitable surroundings into the warm, inviting corridors inside, there was a big poster: can harm your baby – it can make your baby smaller". (This was a layperson-friendly way to communicate the fact that smoking causes intra-uterine growth retardation, putting the baby at risk of several complications once it is born.)

I spoke to my colleagues about this phenomenon, and that was when I realised how I had assumed too much. The mothers were not smoking in spite of the poster – they were smoking because of it! They had decided to purposefully smoke and make their babies small, so that it would be easier and less painful to push them out at labour! They were not concerned about the complications that the baby would have afterwards, because they felt that once the baby was born, it was the hospital’s duty to put right whatever was wrong with the baby! Many of them were apparently taking up to smoking, in fact, because of the pregnancy! If a woman at the threshold of her motherhood, in a society that apparently has more discipline and civic-consciousness than we do (and that is true) can take this course of action, I think I can rest my case about human behaviour.

The reason why those mothers would do that while our own mothers would not, is simple: our mothers have ‘values’. Their education system is truly remarkable, in that it has achieved a degree of discipline and civic consciousness that ours has not: but our culture is also truly remarkable, for it has been endowed with values that theirs is not. I hope that this gives food for two strands of thought: firstly, about the ‘wisdom’ of the kshatriyas who are investing in a future for their children overseas; and secondly, for our educationists who are working in isolation from our sociologists.

Giving individual people chunks of technology or asking politicians for commitment won’t make any difference to the country’s long-term picture. In general, human beings don’t behave in an egalitarian way, and the ‘egalitarian tool’ will simply be grabbed and used by a few. As far as I know, the only situation where egalitarianism existed in society in large measure – when large numbers of kshatriyas (by whatever name) left their comfortable abodes and loved ones to find a way of emancipation for all human beings – was in north-eastern India for a brief period about 2½ millennia ago. Civilisation has otherwise been the saga of the four castes.

But all this only makes a complete circle and brings us to where we started: scientists who wish to give the benefit of their magic tool to the country at large must have a bigger say in policy-making. Nevertheless, I hope, we can now see the circle itself in a different light. What, then, is the way to use the magic wand?

A combination of efforts between educationists, sociologists and (technology-based) scientists will certainly be necessary and useful, since by this conglomeration alone can the foundation necessary be arrived at. All 3 spheres are various forms of science: scientists need look no further than themselves to do it. The main purpose of this effort – the ‘foundation’, as I put it – should be to promote the scientific attitude in the entire student population, not simply those who are destined to be scientists. The scientific attitude is not to make them half-baked scientists. It is to make them capable of a dispassionate examination of issues, especially political ones, and enable them to evaluate and appreciate which kind of politician is likely to succeed in uplifting the lives of the largest number of people – rather than that of one’s own kith and kin specifically.

Beyond the foundation

But this foundation alone is not enough: we also need to push the technology agenda into the portals of power, rather than merely the portals of the powerful. I once had the naïve belief when certain university academics entered the political network (by invitation, as the story had it!) that this would begin to happen, but the march of time has since cured me. Rather than intellectualising politics, as I had hoped would happen and as Professor Ileperuma explained happens in India even now, their intellects simply became politicised instead. That was a false start.

We often have the notion that all this is the fault of our politicians, and in a way, of course, we are right. But there must be a reason why the wrong politicians are in power in a democracy: we have the wrong voters (or wrong voting behaviour). Politicians do behave abominably – but only because they were elected, and then again because it helps them to survive. We cannot expect the wrong politicians elected by a wrong voting public to behave rightly!

We must begin with the public, not the politicians. If the public expected differently, either different politicians will get elected or the elected politicians will behave differently in order to survive (or both). (Remember, our people did once elect people like Maithripala Senanayake and S.D. Banda to parliament.) If people are stupid, then politicians will learn how to serve stupidity: if they are intelligent, they will no doubt learn how to serve intelligence.

But how do we access the public? I have already partly mentioned the role that education will have to play here. It will also have to propagate a wider understanding of civics, values and the need to be informed and decide correctly. But the most important role here is with the media. The media needs to change from one that gives the consumers what it wants to one that gives it what it needs in a manner that it will want. It is a challenge. Is the media capable of meeting this challenge?

I think that this calls for a major cooperation between the media and the intelligentsia of the country: only these two groups in unison can save it.

The universities

The intelligentsia itself needs its own vision, leadership, independence and strength of character. I am inclined to think that the natural place to find all these virtues is the university, but even a cursory look would immediately engender in anyone a desire to look elsewhere. Are the university academics in our country capable of coming together in cordial unison, in an atmosphere of intellectual discourse and meet the challenge that our present times throw at it? This is where the journey that Professor Ileperuma’s article demands should commence. Every other start is a false start.

We have the right to see the universities play this wider role in society – not just under ideal circumstances, but even under fairly reasonable circumstances. But alas, this is not to be.
Universities in Sri Lanka – and these are all state institutions at present – are busy going from bad to worse, having the important business of meeting their destiny – of being gone for good – in the near future. An impatient society is busy building its own viable alternatives. Private sector institutions are springing up like mushroom to take care of further (in contrast to higher) education. Foreign universities, sensing the insatiable desire that parents have to give their children a decent education at whatever cost, are moving in with flexible and innovative ideas to take over the production of the professionals and the intelligentsia for us, even if less affordably than our universities. I cannot yet see any alternative institution stepping into promote a high quality research culture, but then who cares about high quality research? The last remaining business of the universities – that of playing the role of a cultural centre to give shape to our society’s future – will soon be taken over by the mass media: newspapers such as yours, and perhaps a separate radio or television channel in the future.

Nowadays, one can get a better dose of cultural discourse from The Island than from the universities. Even when university academics themselves engage in a high quality debate, they do so in your newspaper—such as, for instance, the recent debate on Sunday Island between Dr G. Uswatte-Arachchi and Professor Carlo Fonseka.

The universities, in the meantime, will continue as usual: graduating from inefficiency to ineffectiveness, from inertia to fossilisation, from violence to brutality. Eventually, we can all take a cue from the academic staff at the Fine Arts University and resign or retire en masse.
In the brief intervening period between now and then—the remaining moments of a giant, morbid corpus breathing its last – we shall continue as usual. The Universities Grants Commission will continue to confuse and be confused. The vice-chancellors, deans and senior academics will engineer backstabs and profess subservience. The junior academics such as myself will run the race of writing rubbish papers and spending funds to become senior academics. The administration, lacking ability to as little as twitch a muscle, will continue to embitter the juniors to get back the satisfaction it gave the embittering seniors. The non-academics and the students are hardly recognisable from one another, separated by a thin red line and enveloped by a thick one.

It is true that a few isolated faculties, schools and postgraduate institutes are doing their service to the nation notwithstanding. But a true university system as a corpus cannot be sustained for long by a few organs spared of the malady and functioning in isolation. Professor Ranjith Senaratne, in a series of articles in your newspaper in May last year, begged for a change, and I myself implored in response (on 22 May 2006), adding more items to the agenda.
The society at large is happily going back to the intellectual Stone Age (albeit armed with Industrial Age tools); we have already gone back well past the Axial Age. The way – the only way – out of this mess for our country is through politically de-mothed universities with a liberal, scientific attitude and a cultural nobleness. Are they up to the challenge?

The missing link

The missing link is not to educate politicians about science – to think so has been our mistake. It is to elevate the standard of the kshatriyas who join the political foray, and to divert their efforts to ‘the second paradigm’. To do this, we must first raise the intellectual standard of the polity itself, and divert them towards the second paradigm too (and by this is not meant cheap Marxist propaganda which, if anything, is the antithesis of a scientific attitude). That in turn can be done only by our intellectuals, exemplified and led by the universities, and aided by a media that is up to the challenge. The crucial step is to bring about a change in people’s behaviour, and the key, I should think, is with social scientists.

This is how I would re-write Professor Ileperuma’s article in view of the big blunder inherent in his last sentence.

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