Developing a knowledge economy | Sunday Observer
OPA proposals for Sri Lanka’s economic revival after mitigation of Covid-19

Developing a knowledge economy

7 March, 2021

Excerpts from the keynote address delivered by former Federal Minister of Science and Technology of Pakistan, Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman FRS at the Annual Conference - 2020 of the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka (OPA)

Twelve disruptive technologies that can make an impact by 2025 are:-

l Mobile internet, 2. Automation of knowledge work, 3. Internet of things, 4. Cloud, 5. Advanced robotics, 6. Autonomous and near autonomous vehicles, 7. Next-generation genomics, 8. Energy storage. 9. 3D printing, 10. Advanced materials, 11. Advanced oil and gas exploration and recovery and 12. Renewable energy.

The secret of enhancing export is moving forward quickly and retrieving the ability of manufacturing and exporting high technological products.

The fields hi-tech products can be used in are: Electronic, Engineering, Pharmaceutical, and Advanced agricultural practices.

Difficulties for applicability in Sri Lanka:

* Sri Lanka’s workforce is ageing

* High-end training opportunities are limited in the country

* Insufficient numbers of high school graduates who have a background in science and technology related subjects so that they can enter science and technology-related training programs

* Many qualified science and technology workers emigrate.

Economic development through the export of high technology products

Key points:

* Quality faculties in universities.

* Easy access to literature by setting up a large digital library in very university

* Increasing salaries of the academic staff

* Increasing funds for research

* Setting up an education and research network

* Select and train the brightest students in top universities

* Attract them back (the people who have left the country)

* Jobs on arrival

The answer lies in developing a strong Knowledge Economy. It is only through a transition from a low value Agricultural Economy to a Knowledge Economy that we can achieve a sustainable equitable socio-economic development. The goal is to manufacture High Technology products for export.

A report released by McKinsey Global on fourth industrial revolution states that by 2025 there will be a US$100 trillion impact from Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Advanced Robotics, Industrial Bio Technology and 3D Printing.

The ability of countries to manufacture and export products with high technology is the way forward.

To achieve this goal, countries must compulsorily improve their universities and research centers while investing in Science and Technology and innovation.

World Export figures last year show that Singapore has achieved US$330 billion. This was mainly due to their emphasis on the Knowledge Economy. South Korea is also among the leading countries in this respect. Sri Lanka has a long way to go to get into this list.

The Singapore per capita income is US$ 58,500 while the same in the USA is US$ 53,240. Singapore ranks first in the Global Competitiveness Index. In Singapore, the Research and Development allocation is 2% of its GDP which is comparable to South Korea whereas in Sri Lanka it is only 0.1 %.

China sends their talented youth to leading universities in the world. The numbers have increased from a few hundred in the 1980s to around 600,000 at present.

They come back with Doctoral and post-doctoral achievements. They are the force driving the Chinese economy. Singapore also adopted this concept even before China. China’s expenditure on Research and Development is double that of the USA. In 2019, 1.3 million international patents came from China which is four times that of the USA. China has become the world leader in the export of high technology products.

The vision, determination and commitment at the highest levels of leadership in the country are essential to achieve these goals and the ensuing results would be remarkable. To transform Sri Lanka towards a Knowledge Economy, significant investment in Science, Technology and Research is vital.

A high priority must be given to research and innovative entrepreneurship. Collaboration of the Private Sector is essential to make use of Research and Development to produce High Technology products.


Provide opportunities for talented youth in University and Tertiary level education to partake in higher education and research programs in reputed universities worldwide.

The talented youth must be selected by an independent and competent body devoid of any political influence to ensure that best candidates are selected.

The issue of non arrival of some of the students migrating under student Visas should be addressed by implementing a methodology with following mentioned steps to bring such students back to Sri Lanka. Provide the required facilities for Research and Development inclusive of grants for them to conduct research projects in a conducive environment on their return to Sri Lanka.

The private sector must be incentivized to collaborate in these research projects to develop High Technology products. Certain selected candidates should be assigned to private companies before they are sent for overseas programs so that Research and Development can be continued in those private companies on their return. Set up a new organisation to manage, administer and coordinate this process efficiently. This organization should be provided with adequate resources and authorities.

Funding must be provided for the education and training of the scholars and the smooth operation of the institutions engaged in this process. Negotiations should be conducted with other governments and their reputed universities for concessions and scholarships for the scholars sent from Sri Lanka to their countries.

As this endeavour requires substantial financial outlay, it is imperative that the state funding allocation for Research and Development must be enhanced from the present 0.1% of the GDP to required levels. For this procedure a plan of action must be implemented and also should get the private sector participation.

Government should encourage the private sector to invest in Research and Development by way of an incentive-rewarding system.

Implement a system to get back the foreign educated students. Work out a mechanism for them to use their knowledge effectively to our country’s needs

As there is no internet coverage in most of the rural areas as Telecommunication companies do not invest in building towers in rural areas, govt should encourage those companies to develop their network by offering soft loans.

The fact that University ranking methodology is not suitable for Sri Lanka should be looked into by appointing a panel with educational experts.