Against the backdrop of the usual noise associated with political campaigns, a serious message may have been missed this week when the GraceKennedy Foundation renewed its commitment to research work at the University of the West Indies. The foundation funds research activities through the Carlton Alexander Chair in Management Studies and the James Moss-Solomon Chair in Environmental Management.
Chief executive officer of GraceKennedy, Senator Don Wehby, said the UWI must be known as a centre for solutions and a leader in promoting innovation and innovative thinking.
Increasingly, society is looking to tertiary institutions, like the UWI, to use their enormous human resources to bend the curve of technology in the 21st Century and deliver greater opportunities for economic growth and development to future generations.
As Jamaica faces challenges in social justice, health, agriculture, climate change and other areas relevant to national development, it is imperative that new research be undertaken to find ways of mitigating the impact of these challenges on society. These decades-old obstacles throw up numerous opportunities for academics to demonstrate the reach and impact their work can have.
Research is an expensive business and will not flourish without appropriate and consistent funding. Most of the research in tertiary institutions comes from external sources, including philanthropic organisations and private-sector entities. For these investors, it is assumed that they would be keen to measure the success of their investment by effective outcomes.
The results of such research cannot just be displayed during exhibitions at a designated time each year. This new knowledge gathered through research must be used in policy development. The results of research are critical in influencing development of policy, helping to shape legislation, and even to alter behaviours that are found to be detrimental to the common good.
It may take some convincing to get politicians to understand the science behind the research work, and even harder to get new policy implemented. However, we now have a minister of science and technology in Dr Andrew Wheatley, who has qualifications in biochemistry and chemistry and is a research scientist.
It may, therefore, be left to him to work with the scientific community to convey the idea of research-based evidence by demonstrating to his parliamentary colleagues how the findings were tested, debated and reviewed before achieving consensus.
Recent pronouncements by Dr Wheatley that Jamaica is not lagging in scientific research have been challenged by a letter writer to The Gleaner. The reader, who describes himself as a Jamaican with a scientific background, who has left the island to pursue opportunities overseas, decried the fact that “large-scale investment in scientific research is lacking”.
He suggested that there needs to be a scientific research culture in Jamaica. He lamented the lack of funding as one reason why persons passionate about science have become discouraged.
It is indeed a fact that for the country’s research to serve the community well and command global attention funding, it is critical to provide qualified academics and procure equipment and infrastructure to facilitate their work.
Traditionally, policymakers tend to be heavily influenced by what is popular rather than evidence-based research, and this is why research-informed evidence is not assigned the place of importance it deserves in policymaking. It is time to bridge that substantial gap between research and policy.