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