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Sunday, 27 March 2011

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To spur development:

Dynamic national research policy, the need of the hour

Academic and research communities in Sri Lanka demand more facilities and resources for research programs. Heeding this request, the Government granted a considerable salary increase for the academic and research staff in the last Budget proposed for 2011.

Prof Ranjith
Premalal de Silva

There is no doubt that a higher allocation from our National Budget is required to promote research in the country and due recognition should be extended for the local research findings applicable for the development of the country and improving the living standards of our population. However, some inherent weaknesses embedded in our research culture prevent us reaching the expected targets in research. I wish to develop the discussion highlighting one important research question which has been addressed in a variety of approaches yet having no conclusive answers to resolve the issue.

It has been recorded that Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) has been prevalent predominantly in the North Central Province and also in the North Western, Eastern, and Uva Provinces during the past decade although the exact history of occurrence is largely unknown. The aetiology of the local disease has not been established and unscientific speculation often aggravate the problems and bring more suffering to the people.

Looking at the number of research studies conducted on this problem at the expense of public funds and the uncertainties in the research outputs which are delivered as solutions to the same aggrieved people who funded (public funds) these research programs undeniably demands for a careful revisit to our research agenda, methodologies, and approaches. It is disheartening to note that other than a few scientific facts derived from the past patient statistics or background studies, no proper scientifically accepted outcome has resulted from these studies.

Agricultural sector

Being a country with a predominant agriculture sector (13 percent of GDP), it is distressing to note that farming communities seem to be the most vulnerable or affected group of this unfortunate calamity. Quoting the social value attached to the affected group as an agricultural community, a large amount of national wealth has been exhausted on research to discover the causative factors for CKD. It is not even established whether only the farming communities are at risk and if so, why. The findings of the research conducted can be summarised as below:

* Excessive quantities of naturally found Fluoride in the ground water used for drinking could harm the kidneys leading to CKD. This argument is further supported by the prevalence of dental fluorosis in the same geographical extent. "If teeth can be scaled, kidneys can easily be scaled or damaged by high levels of fluoride in water" seems to be a valid hypothesis for testing.

* The use of Aluminium pots and utensils for cooking could lead to interactions between aluminium and fluoride in ground water creating toxic substances which can harm the kidneys leading to CKD. This also seems to be a valid hypothesis.

* Heavy metals from agro-chemicals and fertiliser residues dissolved in ground water used for drinking could be deposited in the kidneys and alter their normal functionality, leading to CKD.

* The presence of toxic-producing blue green algae in the drinking water, mostly from surface water sources, could lead to the poor performance of kidneys, resulting in CKD.

* Cadmium contamination via the food chain due to the consumption of fresh water fish in tanks and reservoirs could be detrimental to the proper functioning of kidneys.

* Water-borne pathogens or micro-organisms present either in surface water or ground water could produce toxins damaging the kidneys leading to CKD.

* Consumption of poor quality illicit liquor for prolonged periods could also lead to destruction of vital organs such as the liver and kidneys.

* In the saturated zone, radio-active minerals such as Titanium could be in suspension and the consumption of ground water from deep aquifers could result in these minerals, releasing radioactivity within the body, thus damaging the kidneys.

* During the era of LTTE oppression, as an act of bioterrorism (e.g. the case of the Balkan Endemic Nephropathy) our water sources could have been polluted with substances which could damage the normal functionality of kidneys.

Research methodologies

A careful re-visit to research methodologies shows that none of these hypotheses have been tested using statistically valid samples so that the results can be generalised to a set of conclusive findings. It is required for us to explore the reasons for poor performance of our research initiatives.

In my opinion, there are a number of contributory factors that result in the poor performance in our research. Most of the research institutions are headed by individuals who have either very little or no exposure to genuine research culture. Administration of a research institution can only be successful when the head of the institution can set examples for the identification of overall research priorities, innovative research agenda and guidance, quality controls and statistical validity, maintenance of research ethics and relevant clearances.

The institutions in agriculture, industry and service sectors providing research grants and set national research priorities in related disciplines are also victims of appointments for their top positions with individuals who have no sense of research or experimentation.

Large sums of research funds are disbursed through these institutions without proper assessment of the national research needs and technological platforms. Some of these institutions which are supposed to provide guidance for overall national research focus and policy of the country are not even in a position to prepare their own corporate plans without outsourcing the task as a very lucrative consultancy, costing the institution heavily. Research grants are awarded to poor quality research proposals submitted through pre-arranged agreements thus siphoning out public funds for the benefit of those who have personal affiliations.

In addition, our research and academic community is also responsible for the poor research outcome in the country. Today, most of the research problems are multi-faceted and hence require multi-disciplinary research teams to formulate research action plans. However, most of the researchers are engaged in research either individually or with small teams having the exposure in the same discipline.

In most of the technology-related research problems, the responsible underlying social realities are often ignored or not given due prominence. The misconception among some researchers that a person with doctoral degree qualifications has got the licence and is competent to conduct research in any discipline, irrespective of their specialisation, prevents much needed collaborations in research activities.

Research proposals

Most of the research proposals set out for funding are based on popular global themes and not related to national research needs. Climate change, gender discrimination in society, bio-diversity and sustainability, ethnic or social migration issues are some of the common research agenda adopted for most of our research.

In reviewing our recent national research experiences, it is obvious that most of the research programs that are classified as sectoral research and inter or multi disciplinary research are mostly reflected only in the theme of the research programs but not in their actual context.

National research priorities should be devised based on the need for resolving our own issues and the funding should be curtailed for research having only academic interests and merits. For example, the allocation of a considerable proportion of the national research budget for basic research in nano science should not be a priority for us. We should rather explore the avenues through our research for application of nano technology for national development initiatives.

In reviewing the national research literature, another common observation made is the colossal budgets allocated for research which only confirms already known universal facts in our localities. Some of the researches are domain specific or domain limiting and having no general applications except authenticating pre-conceived conclusions in the mind of the researcher.

The targeted achievements in these research are scientific recognition of personal glory of individuals rather than national expectations.

In the research, attempts are made to prove a hypothesis rather than testing it with the data. Data mining to prove the expected results are also commonly found in our research programs thus satisfying the donor of the funds for research.

Inherent weakness

Another inherent weakness in our research culture is the unwillingness to share data and information and also poor communication of the research findings. Access to data collected using public funds is denied to research programs aimed at wider public benevolence.

There is also no mechanism among institutions to share data and information for mutual benefit. Publication of research findings is very weak in our research communities, probably due to language barriers. Ad hoc research initiatives are common and very little comprehensive research programs have been implemented in the country.

Publication in international referred journals require statistically valid data collection, analysis and interpretation and also to be presented in an organised structured manner acceptable in scientific writing. Statistics is Greek to some of our researchers and hence their work cannot be submitted for a wider readership.

Researchers should also realise the need for absorbing parallel developments in science into the research programs. The solutions implemented yesterday with brilliant results may no longer be the optimum or the best solution for today, in the light of new developments in an allied discipline.

Self criticism, willingness for peer evaluation, interest to participate in peer discussion et al should be inculcated in our research groups as positive attributes of a good researcher.

In spite of all these limitations and weaknesses identified in our research communities, one should not overlook the fact that research communities including academia in Sri Lanka represent the highest intellectual group of the country endeavoured to support national development activities.

Most of the academia are involved in research without expecting any special remuneration for their services for the country.

While acknowledging the fact that the research opportunities should not be viewed as self-esteemed limitless academic exercises with little national significance, it must be emphasised that the academia and research community deserves due recognition from the society and sufficient remuneration and a fringe benefit package to ensure sustained research initiatives are launched for the betterment of the country.

The writer is Professor of Agricultural Engineering, University of Peradeniya and former Director of Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute.

 

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