By Neville Trotz
Dr Neville Trotz served as Dean, Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Guyana and Director of the Institute of Applied Science and Technology at Turkeyen, Guyana, before becoming Science Adviser to the Commonwealth Secretary-General (1991-1997). He is currently the Science Adviser to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, based in Belmopan, Belize. Dr. Trotz served as a member of the group of scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008 in the capacity of a Review Editor for Chapter 16 on Small Island Developing States in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).
Guyana, like most developing countries, suffers from a lack of Science and Technology (S&T) capacity so necessary for its development. Though our political directorate over the years has been to some extent aware of this latter fact, few have been able to allocate the resources necessary for maximising the contribution which S&T can make to the achievement of their developmental goals. Here in Guyana we need to address as a matter of urgency the lack of the necessary scientific and technical capacity for transformative change. Given the severe shortage of the financial and physical resources necessary to support the development of this capacity we need to think “outside of the box” to see how we can maximise the use of the meagre resources at our disposal. The following are some random thoughts that I would like to share with my Guyanese counterparts with the hope that it provokes some thought and action to address the parlous state of our S&T capacity.
Training of science teachers
I have always questioned the suitability of the UG four year programme in the Natural Sciences Faculty for training science teachers for our secondary schools. What that programme does is to produce scientists who we then ask to teach. Moreover most students who complete the science course opt to pursue a career in private sector, industry etc. where the demand is high and where salaries and benefits are better. The present system requires the student to carry a major (Maths, Biology, Chemistry or Physics) for four years and a minor for three years with the other credits covered for two years maximum. I suggest that one does not have to study a subject at university level for four years to be able to teach it at Advanced Level in the secondary schools. A teacher’s Science degree should have the student carrying a major for three years at the most and another science subject for two years. The First year will consist of the usual mix with mathematics being one of the electives. The other courses will be electives from the Faculties of Education, Arts (use of English, Caribbean History, Communication skills) so that at the end of four years you would have trained someone who could teach their major at Advanced Level and at a push, their minor science subject also at Advanced Level but definitely their minor and another science subject (which would have been covered in the First year) at ordinary level in schools.
Timing of UG semesters
Why are our semesters coincident with those of the overseas universities? Can we not shift our system so that instead of being closed at this time (for the summer) we have a June to August semester? Then we may be able to organise a well structured programme that allows for some of our talented overseas science Faculty to provide services to UG. Are we so tied to our present system that we cannot reorganise our time to facilitate inputs from our diaspora? Incidentally this sort of arrangement can lead to the development of strategic partnerships with key overseas institutions to which our diaspora belong,
Parlous state of our teaching laboratories in schools.
We need a strategic approach to this problem and cannot wait until we have resources to bring all school laboratories up to speed. So let us in the first instance be selective and focus on making those laboratories that are still functional – Queen’s College (I am presuming that it is!), Bishops, Saint Stanislaus College, President’s College , St Roses, Richard Ishmael Secondary, Anna Regina, Berbice High etc. (we should try to find at least one or two schools in each region and ensure that we also address the parlous state of our hinterland schools) — and upgrade these facilities so that they have the minimal installed capacity to provide students with the necessary basic facilities for learning. These can then be used as facilities for the region/district where students from schools without such facilities can be taught. Such facilities once established should be fully utilised — with proper scheduling there should be no such thing as an idle lab. with a “free” period.
Re the teachers. It is obvious that quite a lot of teaching takes place outside of the formal system by both teachers inside and out of it. We need to pull this person-power together as the pool of expertise that would maximise the utility of the physical resources provided. Here one may need to incentivise participation by providing some concessions – above normal subvention and maybe tax free earnings for a period say of three years to be revised at the end of that period. We are dealing with an emergency here so we will need bold imaginative action for transformational change. This way too you may find a solution to the private lessons syndrome that seems to be the order of the day. I am somewhat heartened to hear a suggestion along these lines i.e. greater compensation for Science teachers as an interim measure, from the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, Sir Hilary Beckles. For the teaching there are also many “retired” scientists who I am sure would throw in their lot. Laboratories at the University are not excluded from this scheme of things and “summer science camps,” where we could also encourage diaspora participation are a possibility.
We are talking about a Green Guyana, but are we imbuing our younger population with the technical skills required for such a transformation? Where are our technical skills for the installation and maintenance of renewable energy systems – photovoltaic arrays, solar water heating, wind energy systems (there is talk about a wind energy system at Hope Beach)? If we are looking at adopting energy efficient measures across the country, where are our energy auditors and technicians capable of installation and servicing of energy efficient devices in our homes/office/factories? Are we teaching our young graduates from our agricultural school the elements of organic farming and the techniques of protected and no till agriculture and drip irrigation to meet the challenges and opportunities arising from our changing climate? Are we preparing the ground to provide the range of skill sets that would be required for the exploitation of our recently discovered petroleum resources? Here we need to enlist the capacity that resides in our Technical Institutes, Trade schools (Port Mourant), Guyana School of Agriculture and of course the University of Guyana. City & Guilds have already developed syllabi which are geared towards imbuing young artisans with these skill sets e.g. wind energy installation & maintenance, Photovoltaic and solar water heating installation and maintenance. As a matter of urgency we need to revisit the curricula of these institutions to ensure that they are imparting to our younger generation the skills and knowledge necessary to cope with a rapidly changing national and global landscape.
Research and Development
Fortunately Guyana has the core institutional capacity to address the issue of Research and Development in the Institute of Applied Science and Technology (IAST), the National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute and the University of Guyana. However for this to be effective, these institutions must be better resourced. Research and Develop-ment support must not be seen as a drain on scarce resources but rather as an investment in the future. Since its establishment more than three decades ago, the focus of the IAST has been and still is on the full exploitation of our Natural Resource base. What is required to take advantage of some of its output is an enabling environment for the commercialisation of some of its research findings. This is a challenge with a risk averse private sector and the absence locally of such enabling instruments as venture capital. Under these circumstances one should consider enabling our technical institutions to have the facility of initiating some action through the development of fully costed investment profiles which can then be presented to private investors. The research institution should also be able to enter into joint venture activities with interested private sector entities where they may use their Intellectual Property as equity. The latter is an attractive proposition in that it can help address the longer-term sustainable financial support for our research institutions.
One final thought. Guyana is well endowed with massive deposits of high grade silica. During my tenure at IAST we had these deposits tested abroad. One such trial was carried out under a UNESCO programme at the Technical University at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. Here it was determined that our silica was crystal glass quality and several crystal pieces were manufactured using the local material. This could for instance form the basis of an excellent high end manufacturing opportunity for the Linden area particularly if the Tumatumari facility comes on stream as it will be very energy intensive. One other assessment pointed to the fact that our silica was of optical fibre purity. Another possibility which we explored in more recent times with the University of Trinidad & Tobago was a feasibility study of the use of Guyana’s silica and Trinidad’s cheap energy to produce silicon for the photovoltaic industry. All these are examples of the possibilities of R&D for the utilisation of our natural resources. Indeed we coined a phrase at IAST that posited that “our sand resources are a gold mine”. Hopefully with some resolve and full support for scientific Research and Development we can reap in the years ahead maximum benefit from the judicious exploitation of our rich natural resource base.