Space Science for the betterment of the nation | Sunday Observer

Space Science for the betterment of the nation

Prof. Chandana Jayaratne

Astrophysicist, Prof. Chandana Jayaratne was inducted as the 74th General President of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), on Monday (15). Prof. Jayaratne, in an interview with the Sunday Observer explained his plans for SLAAS, under this year’s theme of Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development.

Established in 1944, SLAAS is the premier organization for the advancement of science in the country. Prof. Jayaratne says, SLAAS has sister organizations in other countries. One example is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in USA.

Currently, SLAAS has over 10,000 members. However, Prof. Jayaratne adds they are yet to assess the active members, although they believe there are approximately 3,500 active researchers in the country.

The vision of SLAAS is to be a scientifically advanced nation. The mission is to promote, support and foster scientific endeavour and technological innovation in an ethical, humane and sustainable manner for the benefit of the people of Sri Lanka.

Advancing technology and labour dynamics

Prof. Jayaratne says, this year’s theme, Space Science and Technology for Sustainable Development, has been selected in line with the vision and mission of SLAAS.

“Science and Technology should play an integral part in the process of advancing from developing to a developed country. It should be used to ensure the well being of the people and improve living standards,” he says.

The Prof. notes, Sri Lanka earns FDI mainly through the labour markets, and right now the labour market is diminishing, and at the same time, Sri Lankan labour is more expensive than that of Bangladesh and China, which will reduce the country’s income through these avenues, in time to come.

“At the same time, technology and space science is coming into the picture, for example, Singapore has taxis and buses operated without drivers. In China, they apply fertilizer to farms, using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs). Therefore, the need for labour is minimized,” he says.

Prof. Jayaratne says, technology replacing manual labour is necessary for the development of a country, and the Science and Technology Advisory Committee (STAC) of SLAAS advises the Government on the steps to be taken in this regard.

“This year, we are targeting to develop policies on certain areas, in line with the ideas of the Minister of Science and Technology, Susil Premajayanth,” he said. Prof. Jayaratne notes: Automation and integration of technology into existing systems is important to counter labour shortages in the country.

There is a population of 21.5 million in Sri Lanka, and approximately 20,000 scientists are needed to cater to the demand of the country. However, only 3,500 researchers are available at the moment, which acts as an obstacle in the country’s progression to a developed nation.

“Invention and innovation should be incorporated and new things produced and sold to earn money for the nation. We are trying to focus on research and advise the Government on areas where research is necessary,” he says.

Inculcating a scientific culture among school students

Prof. Jayaratne blames the current shortage of scientists on the university system, where approximately 70 per cent of students study Arts subjects. He adds that there are periods where more Arts graduates are needed and periods where more science graduates are needed. But, this is the time the country needs more scientists.

“We have to study these trends, to find out why more students are not following the science stream, when the country needs about 17,000 scientists. We have to conduct a comprehensive study and advise the government, otherwise the nation will perish,” he says.

This year, to celebrate seventy years of independence SLAAS is holding a mega event in December, to showcase 70 years of post independence achievements in science and technology. SLAAS will also be starting a journal on science and is planning an international interdisciplinary conference on the frontiers of Science and Technology.

SLAAS also conducts programs to promote and inculcate a scientific culture among the student population. “The Popularization of Science Committee travels to different districts of the country and conducts science lectures, quiz programs, nature diaries programs, poster competitions etc. Also, there are astronomical observations, night camps and so on. There are also other committees that carry out scientific lectures, workshops etc,” he says.

Prof. Jayaratne said a science conclave is introduced to bring budding scientists in schools, into the science stream, and provide an opportunity for students with science projects to display their research, models and posters.

“Sometimes, these students do not receive adequate instructions and details on scientific concepts from school teachers. Therefore, these events will provide students with an opportunity to interact with the scientists in the country. There will be seminars held for these students as well,” he says.

In addition, Sri Lanka Inventors Commission will support to establish 500 or more school inventors associations this year, with a special unit of this federation established in SLAAS.

“This is done to encourage students towards invention, in order to facilitate long term development of the nation, Prof. Jayaratne says.

He notes that in USA, there are school level projects, where simple satellites using ping pong balls, referred to as PongSats,are sent up to the atmosphere by students. He emphasizes that this level of scientific experimentation is needed at school level, because without space science, one cannot survive in the future.

“In five or ten year’s time, 60 per cent of the lucrative jobs will be lost due to automation and development of IT. If, as a country, we don’t have this knowledge, we would lag behind. This is one aspect the SLAAS is trying to promote among the populace, the knowledge in IT and space science.”

Speaking of the school education system, Prof. Jayaratne says, they follow Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education system, which will be developed in the future, to cater to the demand of scientists in the country. He says, the ignorance of students on available career paths hinders the development of the nation. “The students are brainwashed by parents and teachers in many cases and think there are only engineering and medical streams.

Therefore, there is a surplus of these professionals and in time to come they will have less jobs,” he says.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Education will soon estimate job specified requirements in the country to assess how many doctors, engineers, teachers and so on, are needed. Then, the education system has to be adjusted according to these needs, Prof. Jayaratne says.

The Prof. notes, areas such as space missions will be addressed under this year’s SLAAS theme. “As a board member of the Arthur C Clark Institute, I know that two nano satellites are being developed. One is being built in collaboration with Japan and the other with Russia. They are very small, but subsequently, with that experience, we can build a bigger satellite,” he said.

Prof. Jayaratne says satellite information is essential to take early decisions in certain situations.

Cutting edge scientific research

“One such area is drought monitoring. Some of this information is collected via satellites and there is a prediction of a shortage of food by 2020.

Therefore, our own satellites are essential since one can’t collect all the required data from satellites from other countries,” he says.

Therefore, the satellites will be specifically designed as per the requirements. The purpose of these satellites is drought monitoring and prediction of harvest, he said.

“The ability to predict the volume of harvest early enables to import them in advance. This would be possible in one or two years,” he says.

Speaking of the need for cutting edge scientific research in the country, Prof. Jayaratne emphasized the importance of working in collaboration with the private sector.

He says, the SLINTEC nano technology institute brought about 25,000 scientists who were abroad, to Sri Lanka, adding that it is a private public partnership.

He adds that rules and regulations in the government sector thwarts innovation. Right now, research grants etc are given for targeted outcomes, he says. “This discourages cutting edge scientific research, with no specific outcome.

Also, Government auditors expect immediate returns, but in scientific research sometimes there is no result, simply because it is research. We have to spend on fundamental research, but sometimes results are not guaranteed,” he noted.