The proportion of high tech products in the global market is increasing e.g. Telecom – US $ 1662 billion, Electronics – US$ 1200 billion, IT – US$ 1073 billion, Biotech – US$ 73 billion and Nanotech US$ 147 billion per year in the period between 2005 to 2007. Making ICT the core of the Knowledge Hub is a good step. While it facilitates the transfer of knowledge it does not generate new knowledge. It is through the other high tech advances of knowledge, like Nanotechnology, that Sri Lanka can add value to its raw materials and industry.
If Sri Lanka is to penetrate this ever growing market she must improve the quality of her products. That can be done only through high technology. Therefore DM Business met with the Senior Minister for Scientific Affairs, Professor Tissa Witharana to find out how Sri Lanka has fared in ushering high technology to its advancement.
Q: What has the government done to achieve this ambitious target?
Sri Lanka Institute of Nano Technology (SLINTEC) under the Science and Technology Ministry established when I was the Minister in partnership with the private sector has already applied for five US patents using Nanotechnology to enable Sri Lanka to develop an industry that would add 250 times to the value of raw Ilmenite for instance by producing Titanium Dioxide. By this we will gain US $ 8 million each year by exporting Ilmenite whereas now spend US $ 12 million to import Titanium Dioxide for our paint industry. This is why Sri Lanka has remained economically poor.
How could Sri Lanka penetrate substantially the global market for our non traditional exports and how long have we to go to achieve this target?
Goods and services produced in Sri Lanka have to compete with those from abroad in both the local and foreign markets. If our products fail to be sold then our enterprises will collapse and we will be defeated in the economic war. To outsell goods and services from abroad, ours must be of a better quality and cheaper. This outcome depends mainly on the technology that is employed in the production process.
Q:Research, studies and surveys that contribute immensely to the industrial development are lacking in Sri Lanka, why?
The poverty gap between rich and poor countries is a technology gap. Robert Solow of the USA won the 1987 Nobel Prize for Economics in recognition of his research which clearly established that the USA became the leading economy in the world because of the technological advances resulting from scientific research and development and innovation. Investment helps by generating technology.
Technological revolutions (waves) have been the basis for economic development. UK, Europe and the USA advanced on the basis of the Industrial Revolution. South Korea and Taiwan caught the Electronics and ICT Revolutions in the 1960 – 1980 periods. China, India and Cuba have caught the Bio technology Revolution. Sri Lanka missed these waves of technology. That is why while our per capita GDP was US$ 320 as against US$ 84 for South Korea in the 1960s. In 2009 our per capita GDP had gone up to US$ 2200, whereas South Korea exceeded US $ 20,000 (being nearer US $ 30,000).
South Korea invested 3.2% of its GDP for Science and Technology and R&D while Sri Lanka only invested 0.13% of the GDP. As a result South Korea obtained over 5,000 US patents per year in the last 10 years while Sri Lanka only obtained 1.8 patents per year. This was reflected in the fact that Sri Lanka had only 1.5% of high technology exports while Korea had 75%, Thailand had 27%, Singapore and Malaysia exceeded 50%. That is why these countries have been able to capture foreign markets, and also generate more income for their own economies. High Technology products lead to much higher profit and is the reason for these countries to emerge from poverty and become rich.
Q:As a leading scientist and a senior government minister what you suggest for Sri Lanka to fill this gap?
I appreciate the support of National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC) in arranging the five-year strategy to be presented and discussed at the sixth Biennial Conference on Science and Technology (BICOST VI) held in Kandy from July 16- 18 2010, which provided useful input in to the final document. I thank all those who assisted in the preparation of this strategy, particularly Prof. Sirimali Fernando and all the members of the Task Force.
This 5 year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy based on the National Science & Technology policy adopted by the Cabinet of Ministers in 2009, designed to enable the country to takeoff economically and help the government to achieve the development targets both at national and village levels. For this, the four stakeholders – the government, the administrators, the scientists and the entrepreneurs – will have to work together. With the necessary determination and commitment we can win the “economic war”.
Q:Even though, we add value and improve the quality of our goods and services how are we going to face the challenges coming from other countries?
For Sri Lanka to improve its economy to bring prosperity to its people and become the ‘Wonder of Asia’ as stated by President Rajapaksa, it is imperative to appreciate the fierce competition our goods and services have to face today in the global market. This could be worse in the decades to come. This competition has to be overcome if we are to win the economic war. This demands the infusion of technology and innovation to make our products and service capable of overcoming the competition from goods and services from abroad in the open market.
At this most opportune moment that Sri Lanka is facing since independence it is imperative that we recognize Sri Lanka towards the ‘Asian Rising’. The scientific capability within the country has to be of world class.
It is imperative that we recognize standards in the areas that Sri Lanka has the competitive edge, for the goods and services developed by our economy to be able to outsell those from other countries.
Whilst the Science and Technology (S&T) policy adopted by the Cabinet in June 2009, identifies the generic S&T capability necessary for Sri Lanka it is necessary to specifically focus on the priority needs for rapid economic development in the next five years so as to help double the per capital GDP by the year 2015 as envisaged by the President. This strategic plan primarily focuses on achieving this objective, taking cognizance of the current status of S&T in the country. It presents a rationalized and prioritized course of action, based on the National S&T Policy.
The vision of this strategy is to make Sri Lanka a leader in knowledge, creation and innovation in Asia by establishing a world class national research and innovation ecosystem which will generate the necessary strategic, sustainable innovations and technologies to win the economic war by focusing on areas of co-competencies and resource linked opportunities whilst upholding sustainable principles and preparing our people for a knowledge based society through improved scientific literacy.
Q:Can you kindly elaborate on the five year S&T plan of the government that expects to achieve its development goals by 2015?
To meet these goals it is extremely important to have an efficient system to actively harness innovations and technologies to generate and improve products and services to contribute towards doubling the per capita income and the GDP in an equitable manner by increasing the high tech value added exports and the production for the domestic market.
The five year science and technology plan has envisaged in increasing the high tech value added exports from 1.5% to 10% by year 2015 through the Advanced Technology Initiative.
To achieve a marked increase of import replacement by strategic production and social activities in a competitive milieu through enhanced and focused research and development and to develop a dynamic technology transfer platform for wealth creation through the Techno entrepreneurship Initiative.
A well established, dynamic and resourced world class National Research and Innovation Eco-System and establishment of a system for efficient and coordinated S&T Governance is required in addition to attract, build and retain the strategic human capital needed to make Sri Lanka a leading knowledge and innovation hub in Asia.
We need to create a comprehensive, world-class research and innovation system through a well planned S&T infrastructure and services modernization initiative and facilitate International Partnerships in promoting high end technology and research. An effective framework is needed to prepare the people of Sri Lanka for a S&T knowledge society. Further it is necessary for an implementation of the “Science for All’ initiative to attract students at all levels to science
Awareness should be created of the potential of Technology, research and development and innovation in industry and businesses. Sustainability principles must be entrenched in all spheres of scientific activities. And strategic competitive advantage must be ensured with differentiation to achieve economic sustainability in all scientific activities. It is necessary to ensure environment sustainability in all areas of work and ensure social sustainability in all activities.