Jamaica can't make it without more research and development

Sunday, November 25, 2018

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Last week, in recognition of the National Medal for Science and Technology and Innovation Awards event, we spoke in this space about the compelling need for funding for research and development (R&D). It is worth belabouring.

One of the lessons of economic history is that the application of science and the invention and use of new technology are key drivers of economic growth because they increase productivity and result in more efficient allocation and utilisation of resources.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain was propelled by a series of transformative technological inventions by individuals using their own resources. The dominance of the world economy by the United States in the 50 years after World War II was based on science and technology in defence funded by the US Government.

It is therefore no surprise that China has risen so quickly since it now generates more scientific patents than the US. The countries that achieved sustained high rates of economic growth and economic development generate scientific and technological inventions.

They do not just adapt and adopt new technology from any and every source but move to generate their own new technology. New science and technology is generated only where and when there is an investment in research and development.

Developed countries and China and Israel spend two to four per cent of GDP on R&D. Jamaica spends less than 0.1 per cent. This is typical of developing countries and is a factor explaining why they lag so far behind developed countries.

It is often argued that developing countries, especially small ones like Jamaica, are too poor to afford R&D and should concentrate on acquiring the latest technology. This is an argument which is intuitively appealing but fallacious.

It is also the antithesis of economic development because (a) small is a problem in some fields but not in most areas of scientific research; (b) adopting the latest existing technology is an attempt at catching up that can never happen because the adopting country never gains a comparative advantage over other countries — this can only happen when a country jumps the queue; and (c) adaptation of technology cannot be a perfect match for local conditions.

We did better in the past as shown by Mr T P Lecky who developed the Jamaica Hope cattle breed specifically for Jamaican conditions. The Jaipur Knee, a prosthetic knee joint, was invented by 25-year-old Joel Sadler, a Jamaican. Dr Henry Lowe has pioneered new cancer treatments.

There are countless other inventions made in Jamaica. Mr Lecky was funded by the Government of Jamaica; Mr Sadler by Stanford University and Dr Lowe by private sources after he left The University of the West Indies.

Jamaica can develop a vibrant science and technology industry. This requires (1) the Government of Jamaica to substantially increase expenditure on R&D to State research institutions and to The University of the West Indies (UWI); (2) University of Technology should focus more keenly on technology; (3) there should be more scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at institutions of higher learning and more attention to STEM subjects at all levels of the education system; (4) increase tax incentives for private companies to fund R&D.

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