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Vital and practical UWI research

Jamaica Observer 2019-02-10 11:34:36

Some people are fond of saying that The University of the West Indies (UWI) is academic and not practical enough. However, this does not seem to be a fair evaluation.

Our view is informed by what we saw and heard during a visit to The UWI Mona campus during Research Days — February 6-8. The event, which is in its 20th year, highlighted the teachings and research being conducted in the faculties of Medicine, Engineering, Humanities, Law, Social Sciences, and Science & Technology.

We have long known that most of the medical practitioners in Jamaica are trained at The UWI, and the University Hospital of the West Indies is, arguably, the top hospital in Jamaica. The UWI is also famous for its work on small developing economies, regional economic integration, and preferential trade arrangements. More recently The UWI has done important work on climate change and sustainable development.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover a wide range of valuable research which is the basis for policy and technical applications. For example, research has revealed that the Caribbean should prepare for more severe natural disasters and longer periods of drought.

In addition, Research Days exposed us to studies on sugar cane, jackfruit, bauxite soils, sickle cell incidence, risk of prostate cancer, hypertension among Afro-Caribbean people, sweet potato, star apple, the Upper Rio Minho watershed, and diaspora networks in international business.

What is not appreciated is that some of this research becomes the basis for public policy in Jamaica. For example, research on child health, development and behaviour was the basis for the National Strategic Plan for Early Childhood Development 2008-2013 and 2013-2018. In this regard the work of Dr Maureen Samms-Vaughan deserves special mention.

Similarly, research conducted by Dr Karl Aiken over the last 20 years contributed to the Fishing Industry (Special Fishery Conservation Area) regulations of 2012.

This points to the importance of The UWI as a source of research but more significantly it emphasizes the importance of scientific study. The problem is that research is seriously hampered by a profound shortage of funding and the general underfunding of The UWI and indeed the institutions of higher education and public sector research centres.

It is not good enough for Jamaica to spend a paltry 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D). Developed countries such as China and Israel spend two to four per cent of GDP on R&D.

However, as we reported and discussed last week, there is some encouraging news. Dr Nigel Clarke, the minister of finance, has announced that the Government will make funds available in the national budget for 2019/20 for the pursuit of research and development, and effective September 2020, the Government will take R&D spending into account in the calculation of the country's GDP.

Although the allocation, as stated by Dr Clarke, will be modest, it is a start. It can make a difference if it can galvanise and sustain research, particularly in areas where huge and expensive equipment is not needed and if it can be used to mobilise complementary funding from international sources.