Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Advancing Sciences at a Time of Tsunami

An unprecedented interest in Earth Sciences has been generated by the Tsunami in Sri Lanka. Indeed, Sri Lankan scientists are writing feature articles, appearing on television, testifying to parliamentary committees and so on.

The failure of earth scientists to warn of Tsunami and earthquake risk has been legitimately queried. The shortcomings of the sciences in Sri Lanka are well known
- the sciences have been underfunded and marginalized for too long - the ministry of science and technology estimates that barely 0.18% of GNP is spent on sciences whereas a bare minimum of 0.7% is recommended
- scientists work without proper support or facilities such as proper libraries, grant schemes or time for research
- scientific bodies such as National Academy of Sciences, Sri Lanka Association for Sciences, Intitute of Physics and such are given far too meager support from the state.
- bad governance of scientific institutions sometimes by scientists has undermined work
- promotion schemes within Universities have been designed by administrators that undermines academic merit
- slower promotions in the Sri Lankan technical services lets junior administrative officers overrule senior scientists and engineers.
- science and technology investments in Sri Lanka have been Colombo-centric with perhaps a satellite in Kandy - these facilities are too remote from the populace - as a result science and technology does not garner broad support, input or the vitality.
- in the regime of micromanagement of projects by foreign debt and grant managers, scientific services are reflexively sought from overseas, thus undermining local scientific and technological development.

In addition, there has been a failure in earth sciences in Sri Lanka. Universities and related institutions have taken steps far too slowly to deal with the growing environmental and earth related problems in Sri Lanka. There are just few good signs all of which we of the Sri Lanka Meteorology, Oceanography and Hydrology Network have been able to document over the last six years.

Long-term preparedness and mitigation of future disasters cannot happen with a robuts and vital local scientific and technological advance. They cannot be served by those in foreign metropolitan centers. The local and have been neglected for too long - the responsibility of course are not only that of the scientists but also the administrators, policy makers and debt managers.

At the same time, Sri Lanka has become a focus of scientific studies, of those concerned with the Tsunami. Much funds are being generated by foreign scientists and Sri Lankan scientists serve in the role of local guides who do not have intellectual lead in the efforts. This is unfortunate as expertise on the Tsunami shoudl be developed locally - for it could be one of the few fields that remain open to Sri Lankan scientists to make a contribution of international repute.

It is in this context that its best to present this proposal for advancing physical sciences in Sri Lanka. In actually fact, some Prof. Lakshman Dissanayake and myself have been working on this proposal for a year. In fact, this was the last document that I was working on December 25th. This was cleaned up for my visit to Trieste which had been planned a year back to review possibilities of plans to advance physical sciences in Sri Lanka and to explore possibilities for cooperation between ICTP and my own institution. Here is the draft proposal. It is designed mindful of current conditions to foster some excellence in a few places in Sri Lanka.