There are pressing scientific needs, the help of all Guyanese scientists should be enlisted

Dear Editor,

I have read the letters pertaining to IAST and Dr. Naraine and the latest entitled “The issue is the state of science at UG and IAST” triggered a response. I question the author’s belief that UG staff lack qualifications, but agree that the facilities need upgrading and will discuss this later. In the past two years I have recruited three UG students for PhD engineering programmes where I teach and they are doing exceptionally well. I will add that in 2005 at the beginning of Dr. Naraine’s tenure at IAST I did try to work with him and was surprised by his resistance, especially since we were close classmates for seven years at Queen’s College and just a few months before his appointment there he had asked for my input on the state of their laboratory facilities. I respect his professional achievement and would advise the author that being a food physicist does not preclude one from being a chemist and as an academic Dr. Naraine has the flexibility to work on anything.

Mr. Oudkerk wrote a letter on the increase in technical staff at IAST and the procurement of a multimillion dollar GCMS under Dr. Naraine’s leadership. Unfortunately, he failed to give exact numbers and I think this is needed for it helps to paint a picture of the state of science in Guyana or governmental investment in science in Guyana. I would bet that in January 2005 IAST had less than five technically trained staff working in the labs. I would also say that in January 2005 the last major piece of analytical instrumentation purchased was over 13 years old. Again, Mr. Oudkerk can correct these numbers. This is an institution that once had a glass blowing lab, a ceramics lab, an electrical lab, a food science lab, an analytical lab, and the list continues. An institution that got many Guyanese trained in science throughout the world. If in two years Dr. Naraine can increase staff and investment whilst on sabbatical that is more than commendable. One must question what or who is really needed before government investment in our local institutions and organizations.

I agree with the author that maybe there are pressing scientific needs in Guyana other than or in addition to biodiesel and if anything it is here that IAST, under its new leadership seems to have failed to broaden participation of Guyanese (based on their recent letters). Recently I learned that my dad was going to write a letter on this matter, given his initial directorship of the institution. If anything I think he understands the difficulties faced by Dr. Naraine in pushing science and technology in Guyana. Unfortunately, I did learn from Dr. Naraine that IAST’s library containing years of research and reports (work done prior to 1992) was destroyed during the 2005 flood. So, I asked him if Dr. Naraine had ever contacted him to access the institutional memory that helped to create IAST. The answer was no. I asked him if he knew of any workshop or web forum for Guyanese scientists or Guyanese in general organized by Dr. Naraine to prioritize research areas and funding opportunities for IAST. The answer was no. Maybe these are things that IAST can organize in the future.

A few weeks ago your paper reported Dr. Patrick Chesney speaking about biofuels, especially in relation to natural resources use (e.g. water, forests) and I agree that its sustainability must be researched. For those in academia in the US this is an appropriate NSF proposal. The initial push for this thrust by Dr. Naraine is understandable given his research areas in Alberta. One would hope, however, that he can use some of the resources (e.g. GCMS) for other areas of pressing importance in Guyana like quantifying the amount of toxic trace organics leaching from the unlined eyesore of a landfill located in the heart of one of our communities and engineering local solutions to our waste disposal. Or quantify the concentration of pesticides/insecticides/fertilizers leaching from our rice and sugar fields and developing barriers to protect our budding aquaculture industry. I can imagine that many local businesses trying to develop non timber forestry products or other natural products would also welcome a local lab for testing and development (in addition to that at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at UG).

It is a pity that close ties between the University of Guyana and IAST no longer exist for that provided a natural vehicle for student training and research and may have been something envisioned when IAST was located on the Turkeyen campus. Having visited the chemistry labs at UG this past June I would say that the UG staff are more than qualified given the competent level of training of graduates despite the lack of any properly functioning equipment as basic as an analytical balance! Again, one must question who or what under our current leadership needs to be in place there for local investment in something as basic as science education. Hopefully, funding agencies, NGOs and the private sector can contribute to the redevelopment of UG’s labs so that students and faculty can address even more local needs of Guyana. Organizations like WWF-Guianas seem to be leading the way in terms of building capacity in this regard with purchases of two different types of mercury testing equipment for the GGMC and UG. A perfect fit would be reopening of the IAST glass blowing facilities to manufacture retorts for the many local miners rather than just producing biofuels for their generators. One must wonder why this was never done during a CIDA funded GENCAP study in the mid 90s which instead depended on the (short) importation of retorts and ended with a series of reports filed away at the GGMC library.

During the 2005 floods many local NGOs formed to fill voids in terms of assistance, including technical ones. It is possible that new opportunities exist for science in Guyana that may or may not include existing organizations and that take advantage of different sectors who are already informally investing in science like the single, working mother who, in addition to paying a water bill, buys a pump, tank, places muslin over her pipe (filtration), and adds bleach (disinfection) before using. The Guyana Citizen’s Initiative has already started working on community water and sanitation projects with funding from PAHO. For the Guyanese NGOs registered as 501(c) organizations in the states there are funding opportunities available for international economic growth generation activities which could bring resources to Guyana and fill the voids. Lastly, I agree with Dr. Khemraj’s letter on November 1and reiterate the plea for the government’s vision of science and its role in Guyana’s development. On the other hand, maybe this too can become a funded capacity building activity for a local NGO to co-ordinate!!

Yours faithfully,

Maya Trotz