Oh my feet are warmer than my head: Confounding physics in Sri Lanka

A nation that does not create new things will not rise! So said Munidasa Cumarathunga, one of our great poets and scholars. About 74 years later with another year coming to an end we are looking at the state of our state and see the truth of this statement. He was saying this when there were no MBAs and Innovation Management case studies and well before our independence. Our path over the ensuing years riddled with politicking, corruption and conflicts have unfortunately meant that we have not lifted our fingers to create but to argue and only in pointing fingers, and most of the time to no avail.

I was spending some time in a science centre which was a place full of babies and parents. They do bring their young early and breezily to science centres and I am sure those toddlers really have no clue about what happened with Issac and the apple but I am sure the parents see a purpose. Of course, this did not happen in Sri Lanka as we do not have any such places to go. I was fascinated by an experiment the demonstrator showed to children – demonstrating that the head is warmer than feet! The rationale is that the brain inside consumes so much energy and that is the reason for that physical fact. I thought about whether we can check whether one had any brains or not by a simple measurement on the go! 

As we have been checking temperatures pointing sensors at the forehead for the last three years an interesting dataset must exist in quite a few places. You may exactly need not have temperature readings of the lower anatomy as biophysics is clear. The lesson, of course, is we human beings are scientific species though on this island of ours we run it with quite a low scientific literacy. Perhaps that is exactly the reason 74 years later we only have the declaration of bankruptcy to boast of after we had the chance of managing ourselves. 

The year 2022 is mercifully coming to a close but without any control 2023 is about to start. Nature perhaps had the last lesson of the year for us first by demonstrating how someone else’s mistakes can throttle our respiratory system and then a deluge demonstrating that just because there are at a higher elevation there is no escaping submergence when inflows are greater than the outflows even with sharp gradients being present. 

In the absence of scientific literacy climate crisis is falling on relatively deaf years and many are still following the old rules simply driven only by cash flow statements and short-term ROI mindsets. There is an interesting proposal however from Sri Lanka in establishing a Climate Change University. Quite a few who were financially savvy thought that the US mid-term elections would swing Republican because the gasoline prices were up and the democrats were too climate-friendly. The thinking was also present in the local circles. For the first time in the US midterm elections, US voters did give a lesson in politics. Today there is no real need to convince climate science as climate change is doing that itself.

Sri Lanka needs a RISE program where innovation is kept central. Easy to understand RISE as that is what we have as the only option that has hit the rock bottom and appears to stagnate there without much of a plan. RISE should recover – innovate – sustain and evolve with innovation at the heart of the process. As an example of what we should not be doing but still appears to follow with no innovation at the centre is the pledge! Come 1 January the news says that we all would be taking a pledge on contributing to increasing food production – produce the food required by the people to ensure food security! Somehow grow more and we would be out of the woods. However, that had been the picture for the last 74 years – we have been losing much of the production from day 1 of production. There is not a murmur on that issue. 

Henceforth we will be putting much more energy into production and definitely will proceed to lose more as well. Marketplaces would support additional garbage mountains and we know the number has climbed up since the Meethotamulla disaster. What have we learned as a lesson? With my feet perhaps firmly planted on the ground, I am feeling more heat there due to these unscientific processes in the display. I feel the process of brain freezing over when you hear about our attempts to raise ourselves.

The year has also witnessed perhaps the largest numbers in migration. The issue mostly is in the migration of professionals and young graduates. In a recent convocation in which I had the opportunity to participate the numbers that were missing – and not even having indicated receiving the degree in absentia – were striking as well as quite disturbing. Some data that had come out has shown the migration of medical professionals numbering 400 plus over quite a short period. Ensuring a medical professional to the society is a long drone out process involving much investment and this loss in droves is really a national security issue of sorts! 

I am not sure whether we have ever calculated the cost of developing a politician but we certainly have a figure for a medical professional running into over a million per person. It is left to us to understand the impact of a loss even though this value still is a lower estimate. However, I am not sure that these losses are getting serious attention either. If we are to think that these personnel are going to start sending dollars immediately upon landing in their favoured destination we are sadly mistaken. 

2022 has exposed us to many an event. Some pictures of such events even make up TIME’s annual collection of the most significant. Wherever there was violence we have to condemn it strongly as violence should never be a means to an end. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka violence has marred the passage of the nation many times and at times with patches of long periods. In some sense with such a history that we are still up and about is also something worth contemplating. Nature striking us back has been the end game of 2022 which we perhaps should consider more analytically. With a highly fragile economic condition, we are simply not in a position to take on any battering from nature. We certainly need to be much more prepared with the population well briefed on options. 

We were told that in one recent case the emerging scenario was not communicated because the people can get scared – certainly not the best way to manage or face any situation. Early warnings have a purpose and certainly scare mongering is not a reason. The well-briefed prepared populace is an asset and that is what a lesson in disaster preparedness would indicate to us. Enhancing steps in that direction should be a priority activity in 2023 as unpredictability is on the rise. How decision-makers understand current Sri Lanka’s position in the climate risk index is not well known and thus is quite worrying. We know we are quite good at preparing meal packets and distribution but much stronger action is required in demonstrating resilience.

I understand that I am living in a country that had been declared bankrupt! The burden of debt is significant and there is no solution in sight. There is still no real plan visible to reduce the burden either. What we hear certainly is not raising my confidence either but I am not in any mood for desertion or dereliction of my duties either. In that context I almost hear Ronald Reagan’s voice – You haven’t seen anything yet! That is why the dawn of 2023 perhaps is likely to bring in the mother of all challenges. How well we face that year is quite likely to make or break Sri Lanka. The optimist in me feels that the latter is not on the cards for us.

All around us multiple disruptions are seen and felt. In this era of exponential innovation Sri Lanka as an island would not be spared. Environmental, societal and technological disruptions are plenty posing us so many challenges as well as opportunities. Both in business and in politics a different breed of thought leadership is required and both sectors and especially in the latter this is not demonstrated. In the absence of such are we heading for another abyss? The country also needs us to respond to the challenges and not hear us whining and complaining. Just a final comment the media to has to behave in a whole new way in responding to this situation. The coming year will show the stuff that we are made out of, for sure.

Pearl of Expressed Consumption

Sri Lanka as it appears today is never short of events that need fire-fighting, literally and figuratively. 

When MV Xpress Pearl anchored off Colombo the event to unfold was to be the worst maritime incident of Sri Lanka. With the initial reporting of a leak from a nitric acid container and then seeking help to douse a fire, it did not take much time for the fire to engulf the entire deck of the Pearl. 

A couple of violent explosions too rocked the ship, dislodging containers to the turbulent waters. The stricken ship sank as soon as an attempt was made to tow the ship to a safer location outside. For as much as 10 long days a dark plume of smoke and fire was visible. The towing was attempted once the fire was almost absent with only smoke being visible. 

Now the ship – a good part of it anyway – is touching the bottom and salvors hired by the ship ownership are expected to complete this incident by completing the wreck management. When that is going to happen is still into the future, but that is an action that needs to be completed fast to reduce further impact.

Restoring eco-systems

Sadly, the ship sank and opened up the second chapter of this environmental disaster. We are facing this issue in the environmental month in which Global Environmental Day falls. The theme for this year identified by the United Nations Environmental Program is ‘Ecosystem Restoration’ – preventing, halting and restoring degraded eco-systems. Simultaneously the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration is also initiated. 

There have been significant damages to ecosystems by ourselves due to both poverty and consumption and an accident of this magnitude is demonstrating vividly the damages possible to the environment. Thus there is an immediate necessity for restoration of an eco-system – perhaps not one but quite a few. 

As we have read in this column this is a decade with multiple challenges being thrown in and we have to work on all fronts – whether to bring down carbon emissions, nitrogen emissions, reduce soil loss, fight species extinction, etc. as time has run out to seek solutions in a more leisurely manner. 

A decade represents two election cycles and one has to imagine the gravity of the decisions that are required by the leadership as the fight is on to save us from a calamity. Have we understood this situation? Are these events eye-openers happening right at our doorstep? Simply fighting and stopping the fire is not victory.

The X-Press Pearl and its cargo

An unwanted event has caused significant environmental pollution and in many compartments – air, water, sediments, shore line, food web, etc. The pollution is both visible and invisible. It is also short term, medium term and long term. 

The cocktail of chemicals being moved around as cargo has been the culprit. Once the fire consumed the ship the amount of reactions that could have taken place is so many. Some may have neutralised each other but such occurrences would have been only a few. 

The ship is almost new – in fact three months old. She has come to Sri Lanka twice before this journey within those three months. The service is as a feeder vessel moving swiftly from one port to another delivering and picking up cargo. 

The cargo at this juncture makes interesting reading – from frozen chicken feet and scoured goat hair to nitric acid, methanol and lithium electric batteries. Cargo manifest demonstrates what we are consuming in what way! You find raw materials and brand new products as well as used products.

With the incident people are shaken, livelihoods have been disrupted, many a flora and fauna both on shore and at sea had suffered. Any health impacts? When the fire was in full flow with the prevailing wind being towards land, some definitely would have been affected. I am sure at least the use of the inhaler may have been necessitated. It is quite difficult to defend the situation with a low impact and no pollution mindset. I however wish to address this situation in a different way giving justice to the month that we are in.

Cargo for consumption

It is important to understand that everything the X-Press Pearl was carrying was to satisfy our consumption and to meet our ever-expanding demand. These are trafficking of consumption – easy to state but difficult to address as for the economy of today these are journeys of absolute importance. 

Each and every item being traded and on board had a meaning and a utility. The plastic nurdles creating such images of horror across the beaches and in lagoons are bound to support much of the plastic goods and services. Some may have been en route to create gowns and masks, PPEs much in demand for fighting COVID-19. Are we being ungrateful when we point fingers and cry foul for such nurdles displaced not by their choice but because of our action?

The other epoxy resins would be for the electrical and electronics sector. The alkyd resins may be for the paint and coatings industry. The cargo had significant tonnage of plastic materials and we know we are in the plastic age. Each one of these items has a purpose. A quite a number of them had been classified as dangerous cargo. Are we to watch the words dangerous cargo and start blaming a ship carrying such cargo? Some even went to the extent of transforming all that was on board to hazardous waste.

It is instructive to note the assessment of IMO over its global maritime traffic. IMO indicates that nearly 50% of the cargo usually carried by ships are dangerous cargo. That simply demonstrate the vital roles these chemicals support. 

Sri Lanka’s readiness

We have been eyeing the significant flow of maritime traffic off our south shores and always dreamt that more of them would stop with us and give us some business. Readiness to face a chemical accident has tested us and the result of the test has not been good. Well the fault may not be with us in this case yet an expertise that one has to develop is the ability to successfully manage issues before they spiral out of control. This one unfortunately did.

Now that is a lesson that should not be lost on us moving into the future as ships will continue to ply catering to our consumption and needs until the paradigm shift of a circular economy and sustainable consumption become the norms of living.

All these chemicals would have ended up as goods. At the end of their useful life the impacts could occur but in so many places distributed across. What happened here was that all materials in 1,486 containers got lost in a matter of days at a single location. The impact of this concentrated discharge is what is making this event an environmental tragedy. 

The X-Press Pearl had a significant amount of urea on board. Properly distributed these may have given the chance to support agriculture. Right now the Bay of Bengal has a dead zone with an area of 60,000 sq km – almost the size of Sri Lanka. The cause of this is from nitrogen runoff. Years of wrong application practices have contributed to this situation. Now we have directly released a significant nitrogen load to the atmosphere and water.

Up to now we are only viewing with alarm the scenarios of pacific garbage patch and similar patches in all oceans. Our corrective actions have not shown much of a change. These are long-term impacts. The billions of nurdles would have both immediate and long-term impacts.

It is interesting to note that the marine pollution prevention convention actually does not consider plastics as a pollution issue. However, micro plastics is today is an emerging critical problem where we are yet to know all the consequences of our follies in this space. 

An expensive lesson

A ship has given us an expensive lesson. Travelling with a leak on board identified to be of a highly-corrosive and an oxidative chemical begs the question of approval of sea worthiness perhaps from one port to another. Justice on the ownership for negligence definitely is a short-term activity.

The message that we have received in this important month when we gather around and speak much on the environment should be embraced and strengthened. Ten years to save a planet by changing our habits and our way of living is seriously a short time period.


Bring in data, statistics and science, please!

It is interesting and thought provoking when one witnesses backdrop offered during vaccine seminars hosted by Pfizer and their posters. The backdrop says ‘science will win’. I remember writing in March last year that science can deliver but it must be given the opportunity, its abilities respected, etc. (http://www.ft.lk/columns/COVID-19-Science-will-triumph-But-its-ability-needs-to-be-understood/4-697724). To support there has to be the understanding of science as otherwise pseudo-science reign. 

‘Would you prefer speaking to the astrologer to charter your way forward?’ is the big question in our country! Sadly, with many months and deaths later what is coming out and becoming a reality is that many are paying or have had to pay a big price due to decision makers ignoring or due to scant attention given to science. 


The science and COVID-19 did get played out in United States and Joe Biden in his push for presidency was always indicating that he would allow science to make the decision when it comes to COVID. The deadly mistakes of Trump administration due to its scant attention – it is almost difficult to believe this though thanks to communication systems of the day one has heard and witnessed in real time of events in USA – given to scientific decision making resulted in the USA leading in the COVID-19 death statistics. 

One exception of Trump administration was the Operation Warp Speed, the $ 18 billion investment into vaccine R&D and ensuring supply of the vaccine to the nation with advanced orders. One aspect in the USA throughout however was the availability of data, models and communications. The fact that clouded judgment was not knowledge but the strength of political views and decisions over science. Evidences were available but evidence-based decision making was not.

Today USA is marching with mass vaccination with 4 July in view to make a statement with action. However, months of wrong processes means that the hole from which USA has to come out is difficult and tough but USA being USA is definitely fighting the issue with vigour now. 

The size of the hole that they dug for themselves over time was quite big due to wrong policies, politics and attitudes. Brazil having emulated the stance of USA has given its citizenry through poor leadership, disease and death as the first option. 

Read More – https://www.ft.lk/columns/Bring-in-data-statistics-and-science-please/4-717387

Education needs education; learning is missing!

The great social experiment thrust upon us by the virus clearly gave many a lesson too. Those should be factored into a national road map for effective education with the future in mind. The situation in education begs for innovation. It is a system with long lag times and that too requires critical thinking, monitoring, and execution

Education is a great differentiator and an equally capable of being a great social equaliser. How can one differentiate as well as equalise?! Carry out the process well, the results are interesting assets to any economy. 

An economy that uses and values education certainly can differentiate itself from another that has no understanding of its value. Use the opportunities well as an individual and almost all your disabilities disappear and amply demonstrate social levelling. Hope these two simple statements answer the question in some way.

Are we in command with this understanding, is the key issue raised when I state that the learning is missing. Education serving the economy as well as individuals appears to be getting missed in action. We worry about the process of execution of the stages of education but the extraction from the inputs to the stages appears to be missing.

For the public sector education is expenditure, while the private sector understands it as an excellent business sector to invest in. The local economy is gasping for breath while external economies are winning export awards based on educating Sri Lankans!

With the economy in a spin which many feel still quite comfortable with while few others prophesy seriously damaging results points out that our minds perhaps are not exactly capable of deciphering signals clearly either way. The concept of ‘education needs education’ was made with that situation in mind. We know yet we do not know. When the knowledge is divisive the progress realised perhaps is not what you desire.

We teach to send the learned away

We teach to send the learned away. It is interesting to understand the quantum of time spent writing various types of recommendation letters and documents. We hear of advice meted out to those who are finishing post graduate education abroad, ‘please do not think of coming back!’ Such is the state of mind and advice today.

We articulate for the benefit of others considering that as the best business case for the day. Education is seen as a business but not as the great social necessity. Society moves up or down with the quality of this activity. 

A recent seminar held by the Education Forum – SL’s Dr. Sujatha Hewage and Dr. Tara de Mel who have come together due to their sincere interest on the value of education to society and for creating a serious discourse – had a presentation which indicated that the 95% of the State’s expenditure is purely to pay the salaries of the teachers. Now just considering even education as a business, an enterprise that engages in an expenditure only to pay salaries of its members, it is easy to conclude that even as a business it is doomed to failure.

Read more – http://www.ft.lk/columns/Education-needs-education-learning-is-missing/4-715446

Carbon neutrality by 2050: The world’s most urgent mission

COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold. We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality and fragility; instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable path – Pic courtesy UNDP Sri Lanka

As the world marks the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, a promising movement for carbon neutrality is taking shape. By next month, countries representing more than 65% of harmful greenhouse gasses and more than 70% of the world economy will have committed to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

At the same time, the main climate indicators are worsening. While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily reduced emissions, carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising. The past decade was the hottest on record; Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest ever, and apocalyptic fires, floods, droughts and storms are increasingly the new normal. Biodiversity is collapsing, deserts are spreading, oceans are warming and choking with plastic waste. Science tells us that unless we cut fossil fuel production by 6% every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Instead, the word is on track for a 2% annual rise.

Pandemic recovery gives us an unexpected yet vital opportunity to attack climate change, fix our global environment, re-engineer economies and re-imagine our future. Here is what we must do:

First, we need build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality by 2050.

The European Union has committed to do so. The United Kingdom, Japan, the Republic of Korea and more than 110 countries have done the same. So, too, has the incoming United States administration. China has pledged to get there before 2060.

Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for net zero – and act now to get on the right path to that goal, which means cutting global emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels. In advance of next November’s UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, Governments are obligated by the Paris Agreement to be ever more ambitious every five years and submit strengthened commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions, and these NDCs must show true ambition for carbon neutrality.

Technology is on our side. It costs more to simply run most of today’s coal plants than it does to build new renewable plants from scratch. Economic analysis confirms the wisdom of this path. According to the International Labour Organization, despite inevitable job losses, the clean energy transition will create 18 million net new jobs by 2030. But we must recognise the human costs of decarbonisation, and support workers with social protection, re-skilling and up-skilling so that the transition is just.

Second, we need to align global finance with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, the world’s blueprint for a better future.

It is time to put a price on carbon; end fossil fuel subsidies and finance; stop building new coal power plants; shift the tax burden from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters; make climate-related financial risk disclosures mandatory; and integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal decision-making. Banks must align their lending with the net zero objective, and asset owners and managers must decarbonise their portfolios.

Third, we must secure a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience to help those already facing dire impacts of climate change.

That’s not happening enough today: adaptation represents only 20% of climate finance. This hinders our efforts to reduce disaster risk. It also isn’t smart; every $1 invested in adaptation measures could yield almost $4 in benefits. Adaptation and resilience are especially urgent for small island developing states, for which climate change is an existential threat.

Next year gives us a wealth of opportunities to address our planetary emergencies, through major United Nations conferences and other efforts on biodiversity, oceans, transport, energy, cities and food systems. One of our best allies is nature itself: nature-based solutions could provide one-third of the net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Indigenous knowledge can help to point the way. And as humankind devises strategies for preserving the environment and building a green economy, we need more women decision-makers at the table.

COVID and climate have brought us to a threshold. We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality and fragility; instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable path. This is a complex policy test and an urgent moral test. With decisions today setting our course for decades to come, we must make pandemic recovery and climate action two sides of the same coin.

(The writer is UN Secretary-General.)

Read more – http://www.ft.lk/columns/Carbon-neutrality-by-2050-The-world-s-most-urgent-mission/4-710201

Moonshot thinking for manufacturing

 Ranala sulphuric acid and alum plant – Sri Lanka had one acid plant at Ranala and amidst public protest we were very quick to rush to realise the demise of the facility instead of attending to any faults and ensuring continuity with the understanding of the value

Agree or disagree? Ratings appear to come in thick and fast. Our own ratings have placed an alcoholic beverage at triple A (lka). Cheers! The country and the banks however appear to go in a reverse direction. 

Believe in general that we are not at a crisis state, having passed a tipping point of no return. However, also believe that one should take serious note of the issues and address root causes rather than being happy with patchwork solutions. 

One area of significant deficiency is in our manufacturing i.e., the real industry. Take away manufacturing and the economies are unlikely to grow and grow with confidence. We have dabbled with ‘grow to eat’ mindset but never really seriously for a competitive manufacturing position. 

Conditions outside have changed dramatically while we languish with an economy in $ 80+ billion. We are well aware of the structural issues with the economy. The poor plight of our export basket is well known. State-Owned Enterprises engaged in manufacturing sectors exist in quite difficult conditions and when you see the resource platform that they have access to, you wonder why that should be in that situation at all. There is definitely a serious problem. 

From another vantage point that is also a serious challenge and an opportunity. Moonshot thinking comes to one’s mind as the option from a leadership perspective as energising across a wider community is important for a favourable result at this juncture.

Moonshot thinking

The concept of moonshot thinking goes back to John F. Kennedy though he did not articulate the concept. It was what he stated and subsequently the nation achieved that led to the coining of the term. 

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” was what JFK stated in his 1962 speech at the Rice University. 

The race to a moon landing was on and the State was mobilised. Impossible became possible. Such thinking is about pursing almost the impossible, but if done could completely redefine the situation. The need for moonshot thinking is that insinuates that a smaller goal and such an utterance is unlikely to inspire and arouse passion among masses. So audacious goals are a must and the statement has to be perfect!

We see an Operation Moonshot in UK. It is the UK Government’s newly-proposed COVID-19 mass testing scheme, which means 10 million tests per day. In parallel also you see the 1st approved vaccine being applied to a 90-year citizen. The vaccine development too proceeded with speed and the UK setting up a Vaccine Manufacturing Centre. Twin strategies to get back into the business as usual.

Read more : http://www.ft.lk/columns/Moonshot-thinking-for-manufacturing/4-709984

Shaping the future of IP intelligence

Sean Poulley -Senior Vice President, IP Group – Clarivate

A new report examines the critical role intellectual property (IP) plays in enabling organizations to stay a step ahead of disruption—and how Clarivate is realigning its data, technology and expertise to meet the needs of a rapidly changing business landscape. Read it now.

Disruption is not just a buzzword; it’s a daily reality for organizations in virtually every industry. Creative destruction is accelerating as S&P 500 lifespans continue to shrink, requiring new strategies for navigating disruption. Innosight estimates that 50% of the companies currently listed on the S&P 500 will disappear by 2027. What will the survivors have in common? The ability to focus on the right innovations and get them to market faster and more efficiently. That puts intelligent use of IP data at the center of successful business strategies.

In our report, Data unleashed: How Clarivate is shaping the future of IP intelligence, we examine the factors driving the need for a new IP data model—and how Clarivate is taking the lead in shaping the future of IP information and insights. Our goal: to accelerate innovation and bring new products to market faster, while reducing the cost of doing business and mitigating risk by investing in the innovations that matter.

New realities demand a new approach to IP

Business professionals are facing rising pressures from all sides. Digital disruptors are driving a growing demand for data-driven decisions and strategies. The increasing speed of business creates the need to simplify increasingly complex portfolios and processes. Proliferating competitive and security risks demand new, actionable insights. Professionals must meet these challenges with flat or even decreasing resources.

These growing trends are giving rise to new information business models—including cloud-based and “as-a-service” models that put flexible capabilities at users’ fingertips.

At Clarivate, we believe these forces and trends define the future of our business. Business and R&D professionals need easier access to IP data and intelligence in ways that meet their specific needs, in real time. Prepackaged “products” have their place but they can’t deliver on these emerging needs. That’s why Clarivate is moving toward a new model that allows professionals to put information resources from diverse IP domains together in flexible ways to meet the needs of the moment.

Creating productive, personalized experiences

Realizing this new model of IP data delivery requires a combination of advanced technologies, from automated data cleansing to big data analytics to advanced natural language processing and visualization. The result will combine virtual data sources across diverse IP domains—trademarks, patents, domain names, copyrights, legal decisions, competitive intelligence and more—to allow extremely flexible, individualized experiences.


Need to leapfrog but should not be like frogs in the well!

As a vaccine is about to hit the skin, the world may be yearning for normalcy. The virus has changed the way we live for many months. It should have opened up our minds too and that is what makes a winner at the end. We have to ensure that it will not extract a heavy toll from us and that we come out stronger – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

Leapfrogging is a favourite action word we usually use to indicate the desire to move ahead with little bit of speed and jump disregarding the normal to get ahead of the curve, etc. Most of the time in our minds hearing the word may conjure up something big being planned or expected. These days there is no normal situation but only plenty of issues in a highly dynamic setting. 

While the virus is displaying the power of the exponential, being a step ahead is complicated. The relationship between two subjects, epidemiology and economics, and perhaps more between the practitioners could be quite testing. Within the dynamics of this situation and its management so much understanding and awareness has to be present. 

The knowledge and experience required as we move on with the second wave is significantly different from the first wave and the virus too had mutated with time. Of course the situation perhaps was made complicated by what we did not do between the first and the second. This is where the attitude and outlook cannot be like frogs in the well if one is to succeed! There is a responsibility by many in ensuring that we move ahead instead of getting stuck in a state of complacency or bickering. Old answers are definitely not solutions to the current crop of problems.

COVID-19 is seriously challenging all of us

COVID-19 is seriously challenging all of us. We may not indicate all the data and one good reason for that situation is we do not know all the data and what you do not know you cannot tell! However overall we may have numbers and some may actually be coming from a wish list. A fact that we cannot ignore is the necessity of taking decisions with long term in mind yet managing the short term well. 

Across the world COVID-19 is playing havoc and many surely are seriously suffering. However the approach in resolving issues is definitely going to separate winners and losers on a global platform, of course aided and abetted by the virus. As we write we have two candidate vaccines having demonstrated over 90% efficacy. One is by a well-established company and the other a start-up from a University. For the moment the better data though marginally has come from the start up. Coming this far within this timeframe is actually a success considering the typical vaccine development time scales mooted at the initial stages of the pandemic. A third generating vaccine development mechanism has been used utilising advanced technology. There, however, a challenge still awaits of scaling up production and logistics of getting the vaccine to the billions. 

Another observation is the parallel development of factories with the manufacturing methods while the vaccine was under development, which are also a novelty and not the usual manner of development. These steps have dramatically cut down on the established times for vaccine development. Of course some say the head start for the COVID-19 vaccine was actually given by the work coming from the SARS era. 

Another development, the Russian vaccine, even went on to name their vaccine as Sputnik as a reminder to the world on their technological prowess. In innovation literature we have the term Sputnik moment – a reminder to one nation to act fast in the face of strides made by another. This was the situation that developed in the space race between Soviet Union and United States. 

Sri Lanka must understand the Sputnik moment

Sri Lanka too must understand the Sputnik moment. As I indicated in the last column while the country has suffered a precipitous drop in the global innovation ranking the neighbour India has climbed up to be in the top 50. China is well up on the ladder. The use of science and technology has been a characteristic of both these nations. 

China of course did a crash course in S&T engagement and the growth acceleration has been remarkable. While many were seeing a serious drop in economic performance of China due to COVID-19 it has demonstrated to be one country with decent growth numbers at present. Many others are tottering having to display embarrassingly negative economic numbers. We ourselves have not released immediate figures and postponed communications to the year-end. Hong Kong is showing how they are running the system with technology and discipline coupled together. 

Across many countries the second wave management is showing distinct differences from the first. Some countries are of course buoyed by the fact that they are leaders in the race for the vaccine. Of course some methods deployed in management definitely invades on privacy and releases so much data of oneself to the outside. The virus has accelerated some segments of technologies to dominance. Zoom, another startup, has accelerated to have a value almost twice the GDP of Sri Lanka. Zoom is almost becoming the synonym for a virtual meeting!

Read more : http://www.ft.lk/columns/Need-to-leapfrog-but-should-not-be-like-frogs-in-the-well/4-709400

Exodus of scientists from research institutes to join universities: A national malady!

The post of RRI Director is a venerated position both locally and internationally, and the inordinate delay (nine months) and studious silence in filling this post insinuates a well-planned ruse in the pipeline, probably with an ulterior motive to select a stooge, ignoring the time-tested scheme of recruitment 

By J.A.A.S. Ranasinghe

There is a heavy tendency for the qualified and experienced research officers to leave the three key research institutes, namely Tea Research Institute (TRI), Rubber Research (RRI) and Coconut Research Institute (CRI), after obtaining post graduate qualifications preferably at the PhD level in order to join our national universities, lock, stock and barrel, leaving a huge void in the respective research institutes. 

Obviously, one cannot expect the research institutes to deliver the research obligations in the absence of the qualified research personnel and this is a bane of the core weaknesses all the research institutes are confronted with right at the moment. 

Scientists are the bedrock of the research institutes and no crop research can survive in the absence of qualified and experience research personnel. For curiosity purposes, I give the number of vacancies available in the research cadres of all the three crop research institutes as at 1 October 2020 (Table 01).


It is abundantly clear from table 1 that TRI, RRI and CRI are heavily understaffed in all the research positions and their attempts to have the vacancies filled have proved futile despite the fact these vacancies have been advertised on numerous occasions. 

In the case of TRI and CRI, almost one-third (33%) remain vacant which includes Heads of Department, Principal Research Officers and Senior research Officers. The tea sector is the most vulnerable sector that generates billions of foreign exchange to the national coffers. The tea sector will face a debilitating impact in the years to come because of the heavy exodus of its research cadre. 

The sad episode is that the positions of heads of department in almost all three research institutes have five vacancies each at the moment and it is this category that has a distinctive demand from the universities to join their academic staff. The principal research officers of all the research institutes woefully inadequate and it is difficult to fathom as to how these institutes would respond to a calamitous situation, leave aside the normal day-to-day research required. 

The labour outturn of research officers with PhD qualifications is reported to be excessively high in that approximately eight to 10 research officers are leaving the research institutes to take up academic positions in the universities. Regrettably, all research institutes are reported to be on the verge of collapse due to the inability to retain their research officers to conduct research. 

In almost all the research institutes, the research positions are dwindling at a precipitously accelerated rate and it will be nigh well possible to retain them, as universities have resorted to headhunt them at the expense of the research institutes. 

The worst-affected research institute is the RRI where 61% of the vacancies remain vacant, as universities prefer to absorb RRI scientists due to the research background with industrial exposure. The situation is so aggravated that research officers even with two years’ experience in the RRI have been selected by the universities. At this rate of leaving, the research institutes would inevitably get operationally paralysed and research projects will come to a standstill in the years to come.

There has been hardly any attempt to arrest this exodus trend by the institutes, Ministry of Plantation Industries and the General Treasury.  Unfortunately, there has not been any noteworthy effort by the Ministry of Plantation, Salaries and Cadre Commission and the General Treasury to arrest the alarming exodus of scientists. The most unfortunate situation is even the Central Bank Report 2019 has not highlighted heavy exodus of scientists to join the universities and suggested remedial measures to avert this floodgate. 

Impact of monolithic trade unions

It is to be noted here that prior to year 2000, the salaries, allowances and other perks of the research institutes were the second highest next to Central Bank and therefore research institutes were at a distinctive advantage to recruit cream of the cream passed out from the universities to their research cadre. But this scenario changed with the emergence of the powerful trade union of the academic staff of the universities commonly called FUTA – Federation of Universities Teachers Association and this monolithic trade union exercised their trade union muscle in redressing their grievances in relation to salary, allowances and other perks. 

The bargaining capacity of FUTA has been very aggressive and its political affiliations with the governments in power enabled them to enhance the salaries, allowances and other perks surpassing the research staff as a result. The Salaries and Cadre Commission and the General Treasury when granting higher emoluments to university academics were absolutely unmindful of the deleterious impact the research institutes would have to undergo as a result of their short-sighted action and today research institutes have become a victim.

Could anyone just imagine the sense of frustration, deterioration of morale and commitment of the scientists when the academic staff of the universities with same qualifications draw a three-fold increase in their salaries and allowances? This huge salary and allowance anomaly could only be rectified by allowing the same benefits to miniscule staff of the scientists, if the Government has a modicum of decency and concern for the research community. Now that the annual Budget is around the corner it is sincerely hoped that the Government will seriously consider addressing this longstanding grievance.

Age of retirement

Another matter of serious concern is the compulsory age of retirement for the research staff and the academic staff of the universities. In case of academic staff, the age of retirement is 65 years of age whereas scientists will have to retire from service on attaining the age of 60. 

There are a number of scientists who have left the service of the research institutions on the verge of their retirement in order to take up academic appointments. At a time when there is a severe dearth of scientists in the research institutes, it is best that the retirement age of scientific staff also be brought on par with the academic staff of the universities.  

Read more – http://www.ft.lk/opinion/Exodus-of-scientists-from-research-institutes-to-join-universities-A-national-malady/14-709140

Moody’s mood swings to WIPO’s innovation blues: Numbers and letters shocking a system!

The country entered the month of October with the international credit rating agency Moody’s downgrading the Sri Lankan rating two notches from B2 to Caaa1 – combinations of letters and numbers, which I have not much understanding of anyway – giving quite a few reasons. However, though the rating was dipped, the outlook indicated for Sri Lanka was stable. I suppose if understanding markets was difficult enough, understanding capital markets must definitely be tough. 

We cried foul over this swing of the mood of Moody’s towards Sri Lanka. Of course what followed was lots of write-ups on financial instability, debt, debt servicing capabilities, foreign reserves, bonds from Panda to Samurai (definitely sounds quite creative!) to follow, etc. However to me lot of chatter to and fro but with no action on fronts that really matter is not going to help us at all. 

For sure you need to look at the reasons for the perception and address those forcefully. We may say if the weather is favourable there would be some respite – that too is an issue with Sri Lanka now getting ranked high on the Climate Risk Index – and looking for delaying repayments with the lofty title of debt restructuring and rescheduling are all structural and different giveaways would be involved. 

Interestingly now Moody’s has a climate risk data agency too under its belt and their ratings must be getting further modifications. Of course once in the fire perhaps some of these steps are necessary. 

What is sad and indicate the ignorance of our system is the precipitous fall of Sri Lanka that was revealed to the world when WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) released 2020 Global Innovation Index on 3 September. What was seen and heard over Moody’s rating was completely missing over the GII release other than few simple references and definitely no discussions. How many agencies and corporates are aware of this rating is an open question. 

WIPO released their GII for 2020 from New Delhi with COVID-19 raging on the outside. However, India has done them proud by climbing up for the first time to be in the first 50 nations in the innovation league coming to the 48th position. No wonder despite COVID-19 India is still considered to be a favourite with investors.

Sri Lanka slips

For Sri Lanka the result shown was not one that one could be happy about at all. From a ranking of 89 in 2019 the country had slipped to take up the 101st position among 131 countries – a drop of 12 positions. We are sandwiched between The Republic of Cabo Verde and Senegal. The year before on the 89th place we were between Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan. 

The analysis had identified Sri Lanka to be among 11 countries performing below expectations for its level of development. However the analyst must have been looking at the country as an upper middle-income country but that status has changed now at the time of the 2020 report was released. 

In the current 2020 analysis Sri Lanka had scored well in ICT services exports and imports, productivity growth and microfinance gross loans. Not much to say about the whole sphere of science and technology outputs and may be that is not a big surprise.

I think if we take GII more seriously, Moody’s is something just to glance at and go. You do right in GII and Moody’s should automatically follow with good letters! Now something that one can really not serve much in a proactive manner has been raised to a level of eminence. Pity the decision maker who may only think of taking Caa1 to Aaa through debt management, cash flows and monetary means. GII is a concrete metric to look at, reflect on and work on. 

Innovation is key

Consider the journey of Sri Lanka over the years from its start in 2007. We should take up downhill skiing with real medal prospects! To areas where substantive attention should be given we have not done that nor have we perhaps realised the benefits of taking on board ‘innovation’ across all fronts. 

Yes innovation may again be a word that is excellent as jargon but what that embodies is doing something in solving problems and realising a situation significant positive change. Actually the practitioners in innovation just request to avoid jargon and stick to convey more practically what is necessary – work towards significant positive change. Then innovation happens!

The aim of GII is to provide insightful data on innovation and to assist policy makers in evaluating their innovation performance and making informed innovation policy decisions. Overtime GII had been quite impactful. Both China and India have their highest offices taken on the importance of climbing the ladder of GII as the most important! 

We have seen in Vietnam and Philippines their legislation has taken GII as a performance measurement metric. Vietnam’s journey in innovation was a subject of discussion in an earlier GII annual global review. This shows that policymakers are now referring regularly to innovation and their innovation rankings as part of their economic policy strategies.

Read more – http://www.ft.lk/columns/Moody-s-mood-swings-to-WIPO-s-innovation-blues-Numbers-and-letters-shocking-a-system/4-708462