Late last week, eight research grants were awarded to teams of academic staff at the University of Guyana. Called the University of Guyana Science and Technology Support Project (UGSTSP), the grants were awarded by the Ministry of Education, as part of a US$10 million ($200 million) credit from the World Bank. By no means was the entire sum handed to the eight researchers, though if this were the case it would be great start.
Instead, as was divulged previously, the US$10 million is also to be used to upgrade laboratory facilities and infrastructure in the faculties of Agriculture and Forestry, Natural Sciences, Technology and the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. These faculties are to be provided with essential scientific and multimedia equipment to advance science education and research. The campus’s drainage system and its internet network among a few other areas were also targeted for enhancement under the credit facility.
The fact that this offer from the World Bank had been on the cards, but was not taken up by the government in a timely manner was ventilated during protests at the Turkeyen campus, which began nearly two years ago. These protests sought to bring attention to longstanding issues concerning the dilapidated state of several of the university’s facilities, the consistent late payment of staff (lecturers included) and the non-remittance of such taxes and insurance payments required under the law to state agencies. It should be noted that the last two issues have remained unresolved and are currently the basis of a lawsuit filed against the university by two unions representing academic and non-academic staff.
Meanwhile, according to statements made at the time of the handing over of the grants, they would be used for research in line with Guyana’s low carbon development strategy as well as broader research at the university. It was revealed that the eight teams would be made up of 21 academics and among the projects they would be involved in are mangrove forest carbon storage potential; the culture and propagation of edible mushrooms on different organic substrates; the impact of artisanal and small-scale mining on biodiversity in Mahdia; the effects of educational intervention about ‘Bush Medicine’ on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of pharmacists and physicians; the effects of Momordica charantia (Corilla) on secondary and primary cancer and the use of solar generated steam power in the university’s thermodynamics laboratory.
That these and other research projects are to be undertaken is a huge step forward for the University of Guyana. The debate on research, or the lack of it at UG has been ongoing for a number of years. But the bottom line is that UG has always been more of a teaching institution then one geared to research. And while both produce results there can be no substitute for the pro-action involved in research and its impact on development and advancement.
While research is constantly being undertaken by the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST), which is situated at the Turkeyen Campus, the IAST has a small staff and cannot therefore do the quantum of research that is needed. In any case, there is a direct correlation between the quality of university studies and research, not to mention the benefits that would redound to students/graduates and the country as a whole.
Sustainable development advocate and economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs notes in his book, What is Sustainable Development? that many of the greatest technological advances in the past 50 years relating to computer science, the internet, fibre optics, genomics, aerospace and other areas were generated in universities, as well as in laboratories. And he points to the link between research and attainment of higher education. He also notes that aside from training (teaching) to provide countries with a skilled workforce, not to mention their own continuity, universities can be critical in “national problem solving” – in helping society identify and grapple with issues such as poverty, disease, energy, climate change and others that require tailored solutions.
One can only imagine the sense of pride and accomplishment that imbues an entire nation when it doesn’t have to look to expensive international consultants for problem solving but can have answers provided by qualified nationals who would have done the research. There is a lot to be gained therefore by government not treating the university with suspicion and distrust or as a hotbed of discontent and agitation and instead supplying it with the necessary resources so that it can make a difference.