Let us focus research on what we do best

“There are some things which we in the Caribbean will do best...and there are some things which only we in the Caribbean will want to do!” These are the words of Nobel laureate in economics, the late Professor Sir Arthur Lewis.

Our small, struggling economies in the Caribbean need to focus on areas where we have demonstrated we can be world beaters, and as such develop a body of knowledge championed by the scientific research and innovation in our region.

Some developed economies in the world have dedicated at least 2% of gross domestic product to research and innovation, with Japan leading the field on 3.2%. This compares to just 0.13% in the Caribbean.

Areas of proven strength

This gap in investment must be narrowed, and more specifically by investment in our areas of already proven prowess as well as other areas that show particular promise for generating intellectual property rights.

This is not in any way to be misconstrued as an attempt at stifling curiosity-driven endeavour and research, as it is still important to nurture these where there is evidence that they are bearing fruit.

However, the main support ought to be in the areas of already proven strength with the plan being to enhance and codify the knowledge that underpins our excellence in culture, sports, tourism, hospitality and music.

These activities are in need of proper scientific study. They need codifying, they need the knowledge base to ensure reproducibility and sustainability while allowing for adaptation and enhancement.

Juxtaposing this need against current trends in graduate study and research among the leading tertiary institutions in the English-speaking Caribbean, there is a disconnect between our acknowledged strengths and the average pursuits undertaken by students.

Programmes offered in leading tertiary institutions include humanities and education, medical sciences, pure and applied sciences including agriculture, social sciences, including development studies, law and engineering.

Lost opportunities

It is quite clear that the research and graduate pursuits of students at these institutions do not relate to the areas of acknowledged strength and that will predictably reduce the region’s potential to capitalise on these niche areas.

That means the region will be engulfed by the sheer weight of a globalised marketplace and its competitiveness. That speaks to lost opportunities for our leading minds, which should be huddled around these areas of pursuit.

It also signals a loss of productivity and innovation in areas that we can champion as opposed to competing with developed economies that have a large cross-section of minds as well as a critical mass of expertise to bear on the subjects outlined above.

In fact, this situation leads to frustration for our scientists and innovators, who have inadequate infrastructure, insufficient equipment and funding and are yet expected to take their place at the round table with the world’s best.

The trends in graduate study for pure and applied sciences, agricultural sciences, law, business, social sciences, engineering and computing, and humanities and education, seem to be driven by the expected rate of returns on the money invested in gaining graduate education rather than trying to fill a need in the information gap for more learning in aspects of Caribbean life and branding.

It is this earning opportunity that appears to drive the selection of graduate pursuit rather than a requirement to convert tacit knowledge into codified behaviour and understanding. This therefore threatens the sustainability of the very core of Caribbean life and the aspects that make it of interest to the wider world.

It will require governmental support to encourage research in specific areas and the money to fund this activity has to be made available and accessible to the best minds in the region.

You will note that I say in the region rather than just of the region, as I believe that these research efforts are best conducted in the region itself. This not only ensures the right settings and contexts; but also the juxtaposition of young minds will serve to interest and encourage scientific endeavour in the desired areas.

Basic education

The dilemma, however, is even deeper, as while we focus here on graduate and tertiary level education, students emerging from schools are weak.

A report from the media centre of the Caribbean Examinations Council indicates that in 2009, only 66% of candidates in the Caribbean Secondary Examinations achieved satisfactory grades in an overall of 36 subjects.

The top 10 subjects where students scored satisfactory grades include physical education and sport, electronic document preparation and management, theatre arts, integrated science, food and nutrition, home economics management and information technology, with English (low 50%) and maths (40%) at the bottom end of the top 10.

This implies that in 26 (72.2%) of the 36 subject areas, less than 40% of candidates achieved satisfactory grades. In other words, the majority of our secondary level cohort is not up to the standard required for tertiary level education.

(Note that this failure rate is among those chosen to sit the examinations. The Jamaican data suggest that only some 20% to 30% of the cohort is allowed to sit the exams in English and maths.)

Thus the overall picture at this level is dismal and indicates much wastage of human resources through lack of educational achievement and opportunity.

It is also important to note that the World Bank report of 2003 indicated that for the average worker to cope with technology in the workplace, s/he will need at least 12 years of formal schooling – that is, to the threshold of the tertiary level.

What is distressing is that in a survey in 2006, Vanus James et al indicated that the average worker in the Caribbean is ill equipped for the workplace. In Jamaica, the average number of years spent in school is 7.5; in Trinidad it is eight years and in Barbados nine.

This suggests a grim picture for the future of the Caribbean. Where there is an inadequately educated population and workforce, the productive capacity of a country is restricted and the prospects for development are blighted.

Jamaica, which represents some 42% of the population of the English speaking Caribbean, has just 63% of secondary school students enrolled in years 10 and 11 and only 31% of the student-age population enrolled in tertiary education.

The economic and social survey report of 2007 indicated that 74% of the Jamaican labour force had neither certification nor training. Some 63.4% of Jamaica’s population were 15-24 years old. Many were unemployed and not undergoing any training. Of this group, only 25% attained up to grade nine education. Further, in this age group 26.2% of men and 7.9% of women were illiterate and innumerate.

Entrepreneurial spirit

It seems that tertiary level educators will need to salvage a significant number of the failing secondary level cohort by assisting them to improve their performance, interesting them in the acquisition of skills pertinent to the needs of the country and so recruiting person-power to meet the needs of the workforce.

It is clear too that the tertiary level needs to focus on training teachers who can enter the lower levels to ensure absolute competence in core areas such as English and mathematics as well as to encourage acquisition of skills that will prepare students to function whether in an employed setting or self-employed entrepreneurial activity.

While we yearn for science, technology and innovation as a driving force for development, we cannot afford to leave behind the vast majority of young minds that, if identified early and properly coached, could emerge as significant contributors in various areas of competence and interest.

In addition, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Caribbean will further drive them to look into areas in which there are competitive advantages for the region such as popular music, sports, tourism and hospitality, food and drink.

The desired development of niche areas can be achieved, tertiary-level graduates can be involved in research and innovation, workers can hone their skills to competitive levels, performers can adopt and adapt world-best practices and boost their achievements.

And so we come full circle to Sir Arthur Lewis’ statement with which we began: “There are some things which we in the Caribbean do best and there are some things which only we in the Caribbean will want to do.”

Indeed, we must study these areas, innovate and enhance them, protect and codify our intellectual property and contribute to wealth creation in the region.

* Professor the Honourable Errol York St Aubyn Morrison – OJ, MD, PhD, FRCP (Glasg), FACP, FRSM (UK), FRSH (UK), FJIM, FICD – is president of the University of Technology, Jamaica. In 1992, at the University of the West Indies, he was appointed professor of biochemistry and in 1994, professor of endocrinology. In 1999, he was made pro vice chancellor and dean of the School for Graduate Studies & Research at the University of the West Indies. He was seconded as president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Jamaica Limited from June 2005 to December 2006. Morrison has been advisor to the Pan American Health Organization, chair of the North American region of the International Diabetes Federation and has served on several editorial boards of international journals. In 1999 he received the Gold Musgrave Award, Jamaica, for outstanding services in the medical sciences; and in 2001 the Order of Jamaica for distinguished services in biochemistry, medicine and the voluntary social services. In 2006 he received the Queen’s Gold Medal to the British Commonwealth through the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health for his services in medicine and medical education throughout Jamaica, the Caribbean and internationally. In 2009 he was inducted as a fellow of the Jamaican Institute of Management. In 2011 he received the doctor of laws honoris causa for outstanding services to education, and in 2013 he was inducted into the fellowship of the International College of Dentists.

* This article is based on reflections at a forum of the International Association of University Presidents in January 2014.