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), which he chairs, have done a great job over many decades.

What is, however, debatable, in the absence of better evidence – though we fervently wish that were the case – is that Jamaica is on the cusp of science and technology taking off. Or “Science 2.0,” as Dr. Lyew-Ayee wrote in a message to this journal that celebrates November as Science and Technology Month. “We are building on the strong legacy of the leading pioneering scientists in Jamaica’s history,” he said.

There are, indeed, inspiring legacies of science and technology in Jamaica. There is the work of people like animal geneticist, Thomas P. Lecky, who raised cattle that thrive in hot countries, or of Albert Lockhart and Manley West, with their pioneering efforts, nearly half a century ago, in medical marijuana. Or SRC’s anonymous researchers, who help perfect processes that improve people’s lives and bring products to market.

But important and significant as these are, Dr Lyew-Ayee will no doubt admit that Jamaica’s achievements in science and technology are far from sufficient for the island to take full advantage, as Prime Minister Andrew Holness hopes, of the ’emerging fifth industrial revolution and being competitive in the new global economy.

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

A LOT CAN BE DONE

Which doesn’t mean that nothing can be gained or saved from the current circumstances. A lot can be done. However, simultaneously with a push for research and development within the existing infrastructure, Jamaica needs an urgent focus on developing an ecosystem for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

On doing more and better with what now exists, this paper believes the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), a state-owned and largely taxpayer-funded institution, should be mandated to return to its core (it is now offering a wide range of social science degrees), with the aim of getting back on track to become an elite polytechnic focused on R&D and innovation.

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

A previous decision to allow pension funds to invest up to five per cent of portfolios in start-ups was positive, but insufficient. It may be possible to devise tax schemes that encourage businesses and wealthy individuals, even when they are not seeking to bring specific products to market on their own, to invest in the research and development efforts of research institutes. Developed countries, mostly through the private sector, spend up to four percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development. Recent data for the Caribbean, including Jamaica, is not available, but some estimates suggest that the region’s spending in this area is half of one percent of GDP.

In the long run, Jamaica’s success in science and technology, and ultimately in research and development and innovation, rests on having a group of people equipped to operate in these fields. That starts with a good STEM education system. Which is not currently the case. For example, in this year’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exam, only 37 percent of nearly 20,000 Jamaican students passed math, a core subject for science and technology. Many who passed passed with the lowest grade. This is after many of the test-eligible cohorts were barred by their schools from testing on the grounds that they had failed the cutoff.

PROBLEM

It’s not primarily the students’ fault. Jamaica has long had a problem with teaching math and science and retaining competent teachers, as evidenced by the Orlando Patterson Commission report on the transformation of the Jamaican education system.

The commission found a “critical shortage” of quality STEM teachers, as well as technical and vocational subjects. β€œThe shortage is repeatedly highlighted as an immediate link between the number of STEM-skilled high school students in a globally competitive workforce,” the commission said.

While Jamaica’s classroom push-out problem is universal, STEM teachers go faster, usually to better-paying jobs in the private sector or to teach abroad. “Between the 2014 and 2015 academic years, nearly 500 math and science teachers left the public secondary school system,” says the Patterson report, delivered 13 months ago. “At the start of the pandemic, Jamaica lost approximately 390 teachers between September 2019 and January 2020.”

A government program to offer STEM scholarships hasn’t worked as well as hoped. The recruits don’t like the terms of their bonds and don’t find the pay particularly attractive. Even as it continues with this and similar initiatives, the government must fundamentally rethink and reconfigure its approach to STEM education.

For example, Prime Minister Holness has pledged to build six STEM specialist high schools. He, as part of a new approach, should call on the private sector and other organizations and foundations to be key partners in this scheme, including by funding the building of their institutions, recruiting staff and subsidizing their salaries, and participating in the overall running of the schools. . These elite institutions will not only help train a future cohort of scientists and innovators, but they can become laboratories for best practices in STEM education for other schools.

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