Across the globe another technological revolution is shaping up. The new revolution is termed Nanotechnology – controlling and manipulating matter at atomic scale for economic and social benefit. Unlike other industrial revolutions, this is open to anybody who has a sense of importance and an understanding of science and technology. As capabilities increase in leaps and bounds and the information revolution creates a "flatter world", the right mindset can grab these new opportunities offered. Globalization has its positives and negatives, but as this process is nearly irreversible, it is important that we take up the positives and capitalize on them.
More than 70 countries in the world have their own nanotechnology initiatives. Today, Sri Lanka has joined in this with its own initiative, but the leadership given to this initiative by key decision makers is still weak. One wonders why this is the case. Why are we so conservative when it comes to innovation and risk taking, which is a characteristic that sets nations apart?
Country’s can, and should,
benefit from technology…
Sri Lanka had, unfortunately, failed
to benefit from earlier technological revolutions in any meaningful manner.
While Information technology has transformed Bangalore in India, in Sri Lanka, we
are still only thinking in terms of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO)
opportunities. Forays into biotechnology have created millionaires in India.
India’s richest woman started her industry with extracting enzymes from papaya.
In Sri Lanka, much of our fruits go to waste – close to 50%! This is far from
ideal. We still have tussles over plastic crates when we know that it is useful
and can transform agriculture.
Sri Lanka over the years has
maintained a poor percentage close to 0.13% of GDP into research and
development. Much of that again has been spent on salaries and general
expenditure, with the result that the scientific infrastructure has fallen
grossly behind globally competitive standards. The poor state of equipment and
services and the non-availability of essential tools have stalled progress in
Science in Sri Lanka. If we are to benefit from a new opportunity, some bold
decisions are needed and it needs to come with commitment from the highest
levels of authority.
Commitment to nanotech
In fact, in developing the National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), these pre-requirements were met. Strong
decisions often cause opposition as well, and it is instructive to hear the
voices of Scientists as well at times. Continuous dialogue and all-round
contribution by way of results was what got the nanotech initiative off the
ground. With the country poised to take off after 30 years of terrorist
conflict, the NNI is quite important. The country has a choice, as one
scientist said, of ‘becoming a smart country or a screwdriver economy’.
It was felt at the National Science
Foundation (NSF) and the Ministry of Science and Technology that Science should
be channeled for national development and that the emerging arena of
nanotechnology offers an exciting opportunity. The NNI in Sri Lanka is an
interesting case of a group of enlightened Sri Lankans abroad influencing an
equally enlightened group of individuals in Sri Lanka to consider the emerging
field of nanotechnology as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to forge ahead in
economic development. The idea and the concept were well received by the
Ministry of Science and Technology (now the Ministry of Technology and
Research) along with the NSF which spearheaded the drive with the blessings of
the H.E. the President. In fact, the President was briefed in detail quite
early by a visiting Scientist whose presentation received his full attention.
This prompted a Cabinet paper cementing the commitment by the Sri Lankan state
to this cutting edge project. The presentation to the President took place in
November 2005, after which the NSF took a key role in moving the initiative
forward. The support given by the Head of State was vital for the initiative to
take off and this should be acknowledged.
The Cabinet memorandum titled
National Nanotechnology Initiative was presented to the Cabinet by the
President and the Minister of Science and Technology and the approval given on
23rd August 2006. The objectives were to generate a critical mass of personnel
supported by the necessary facilities to innovate at the national level. To
promote nanotechnology based research and develop industries and to attract
best Sri Lankan expertise, both here and abroad, was an objective from the
inception. Today, the government has allocated 50 acres of land for a
‘Nanopark’ and helped in setting up Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology
(SLINTEC). The NSF has already finalized the National Nanotechnology Policy,
which would be presented to the Cabinet shortly.
Sri Lanka’s opportunity
The national nano initiative’s main
emphasis is to strengthen the competitiveness of the local industries, add
value to national resources, and developing human resources to meet the needs
of the industry. It is quite clear that esoteric research is not the aim, and
rapid economic results are expected. Speed and the efficiency are closely
monitored. Towards the end of 2011, a news item from the USA noted that the
global nanotechnology industry output is set to reach US$2.4 trillion by 2015.
Even with the global economic recession and dampened enthusiasm in many
sectors, the global market for products incorporating nanotechnology is
projected to grow at an annual growth rate of 11.1% between 2010 and 2015 to
reach this value. As of 2011, a total of 175 different types of consumer nano
products have been identified in nine different sectors. The Emerging
Nanotechnology Project of the US Woodrow Wilson Centre records around 1345
products of nanotechnology in the general consumer segment. This should be
exciting news for Sri Lanka. The planning community should be interested in
knowing more, supporting more and embedding more of this type of innovation-led
endeavours in future planning We are about to discover that Sri Lanka is a
‘treasure island’ in this ‘nano era’.
The objective of giving Sri Lankan
science a new lease of life and adding pride to the label ‘Made in Sri Lanka’
would hopefully be an outcome of the country’s nanotechnology drive. But its
realization, in any meaningful manner, needs the engagement and commitment of
all players in the economy, especially the key decision makers.
The Institute of Policy Studies is a
partner institute in a regional study on ‘Nanotechnology in South Asia:
Building Capabilities and Governing the Technology in India, Pakistan and Sri
Lanka’ supported by the IDRC, Canada. IPS is looking at the socio-economic
impact of nanotechnology for Sri Lanka.
(This article is open for discussion at http://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics)