Prof. Gehan Amaratunga Daily Mirror spoke to Professor Gehan Amaratunga about the environment necessary for innovation, research and development in science and technology in Sri Lanka. He notes the weakness in the university system and the renewed interest from the coporate sector to invest in innovation. Prof. Amaratunga is the head of the Electronics, Power and Energy Conversion (EPEC) Research Group within the Electrical Engineering Division of the Cambridge University Engineering Department and Chief of Research and Innovation at the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology. He will deliver the Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture tomorrow (15) at the IESL Auditorium, Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 7. Excerpts of the interview
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Q: The Ray Wijewardene trust supports innovation, what is your assessment of the innovation climate in the country at the moment?
The title of the lecture I am to deliver is “Being Ingenious at the Nanoscale”, and what many people may not understand is that the root of the word engineer comes from the Latin word “ingeniare” and the French word for engineer is “ingénieur” which has the same roots as the word ingenious. Therefore an engineer is someone who creates something ingenious. In this light Ray Wijewardene is very much in this vein; someone who thought of things laterally and outside of the box. In Sri Lanka, therefore there should statistically be no shortage of people who think about things ingeniously. Therefore there needs to be a focus on the recognition and the facilities necessary for these people to create.
I think it would be fair to say that Sri Lanka is lagging behind when it comes to having a culture which celebrates innovation, through reward and recognition and investment in those who are ingenious. Having said that I think that Trusts such as the Ray Wijewardene Trust and mechanisms being put into place by the National Science Foundation, the emergence of small venture capital funds and the innovation contests being held at Universities such as Moratuwa—is creating a climate or an eco-system which is recognizing innovation and ingeniousness and trying to exploit that commercially.
Q:There are legal frameworks and economic incentives necessary for individuals to consider innovation as a secure career. To what extent do you think Sri Lanka has this framework in place? And what needs to be done to improve it?
One of the biggest problems within the framework is the fact that it is not possible for university academics to actually form a private company and keep his job at the university. Therefore I think that the University Act needs to be amended to allow for university academics to be entrepreneurs. This has been my experience in the UK as well and also for small companies to work out of Universities as well, not under subsidy but as some commercial venture.
Intellectual Property Rights is everything to a small inventor, because as long as you have a framework that does not recognize, your invention as a legal right and ownership aspect—someone can just take it and do something else with it or just regard that you invented it because you have no commercial capability or clout.
We have the ability to apply for patents in Sri Lanka and get patents, but it is not a rigorous system of examining patents in Sri Lanka, therefore while we are a member of the World Intellectual Property Organisation which recognizes the filing date in Sri Lanka, the award of a Sri Lankan patent does not give you a lot of confidence. This is because it has not been properly examined against all other inventions in the world.
Q: Even if a patent has been obtained in Sri Lanka that invention does not hold much clout internationally, because of the weakness of our system?
Yes, this is the case because of our system. The international system will recognize that you were the first to invent something because of your filing in Sri Lanka, but merely because it passes the test in Sri Lanka does not mean it will pass the examination system in another country.
Q: How would you suggest this problem be rectified?
More investment in intellectual property, having skilled patent attorneys—who can help people draft patents that are internationally acceptable, there is a gap there in the Sri Lankan legal framework. On the other side there needs to be patent attorneys that work on these patents and look at similar inventions elsewhere and decide whether this is a grantable patent or not.
Q: You mentioned the importance of Universities in the process of innovation. Recently the Sri Lankan University system went through a tumultuous period demanding for more investment in education. Which areas do you think need to be rectified in the education system for there to be a more productive environment for innovation?
The challenge for Sri Lankan Universities is to actually become universities, because essentially they are now teaching houses—which take graduates and put them out. They are more like Colleges rather than Universities. Universities are primarily led by academics that engage in primary research for purposes of discovery but also for the use in a whole gamut of things. Until you have research-centric universities, you will not have world competitive innovation.
There are initiatives to encourage research in universities. I wouldn’t say that investment should be targeted only into the sciences and engineering—I think if the university system is encouraged to have a research centered approach we would find that, of course there would be more investment going into them not just from the state but also from the private sector.
Some would argue that it is the government’s duty to protect research in the arts, where there will not be any commercial investment. One must not underestimate the importance of research in the arts—because academics are the arbiters of interest free thinking. We need to have the resources and the research to understand the complex social problems we are facing, for instance the prison riot that took place. If we don’t have research to understand criminology and justice—it’s not good for society either.
Q: You emphasized the importance of research and along those lines one of the main criticisms of the Sri Lankan education system, both at secondary and tertiary level, is very theory based. Where the system is churning out students unable of practical application, what has been your experience working with local students, in this regard?
I studied entirely in the UK during my higher education, but I have Sri Lankan research students who come and work with me in the UK. Of course I am selective; therefore the students I pick to come and work with me are not necessarily the ones who get the best academic grades or first class honours. These things do not make a brilliant innovator; it just means that you are a good exam machine. Success at examinations is a necessary condition but it is not a sufficient condition. I have found that the students who have worked with me have been very good ingenious innovators.
The problem with our system is that there is a cultural element to it and an economic element to it. The economic element is that when you are under resourced, you try to bring everybody to some level of basic understanding; this is stacking them up and force-feeding to give them a basic skill level. This does not provide space for everyone to think laterally or question what is being delivered—that is provided in a luxurious system, where there are smaller classes and more individual attention. It is economically challenging to provide this, but that is not something being faced by Sri Lanka alone, it is the same problem being faced by India and China, even richer countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan have the same problem of “received learning”.
Received learning is where you learn and then you regurgitate what you have learned and this is the system by which you prove that you have learnt something. That does not mean that you are innovative or creative. Culturally, I think that our tradition has been that one does not question authority, so even if you don’t understand what is being said or think that it does not make sense you do not question it. Therefore there is a need to cultivate a culture that questions and is irreverent rather than reverent is also important for the development of innovative thinkers.
Q: On that element of culture and the necessary environment for innovation to thrive, there is a need for the corporate culture of the country to be developed. What is your assessment of the attitude of corporations towards investment in innovation?
I think that we are at a cross roads. Due to the economic climate and also the war our corporate sector was not really investing in areas that were to do with technology and innovation; they were in services or exporting and importing. Right now what has happened is that there is a longer horizon that people are looking at and corporates are starting to invest, in not research but as least development. They are trying to have a technology of their own so that they can have a competitive position in the market.
I am involved with the Sri Lanka Institute of the Nano-Technology which was formed by the government and five corporates, those involved are; Brandix, Hayleys, Dialog, Lonestar and MAS. These companies invested somewhere around Rs. 50 Million in a research institute, for research in an area that was of interest to them, in terms of giving them market competition globally. I think that that was a very good indication, it started in 2008 and discussion happened in 2006 during the period of the war.
Now what has happened is that the government has given the incentive for a triple deduction, let me explain this. If a Sri Lankan corporate, which pays tax in Sri Lanka (not a BOI corporate) invests one rupee at a public institute, a university or a research institute, they get three rupees off their tax bill. The government, instead of taking tax and redistributing it, has said to the corporates “you decide what you want to do, with the tax money that you pay to us”. I think that is a very innovative way of kick starting research in the corporate sector. I think there are a number of corporates who are trying to take advantage of that and engage in research and more technology—I think it is changing, which is why I say we are at a crossroads.
Q: You have been involved in the development of high energy solar cells. Sri Lanka has been talking about becoming a green energy hub. What do you think of the initial steps that have been taken by the government to further this goal and what other areas need to be looked at?
In terms of solar and wind there is a lot of opportunity for Sri Lanka, one may perceive that it is high capital cost to invest in these areas, but it is not. If you do the numbers very carefully, with regards to a fossil fuel burning plant and look at the continuing feed of fuel over its lifetime and you factor in environmental costs, in terms of the carbon dioxide emitted, then solar is much cheaper.
However solar energy should not be viewed as a cheaper option, but as a better option—and the investment return will be over a long period of time. The most
important thing to remember is that you are not relying on a constant source of fuel, which is not only unreliable but is also unpredictable in terms of prices.
Q:Can you give us a summary of what you will be talking on at the Ray Wijewardene Memorial Lecture?
I will speak about being ingenious at the nanoscale and one example I will use is light. Light has wavelengths of about 300-400 nanometers, to about 1000 nanometeres, that is the visible spectrum. A nanometers is one billionth of a meter (1×10−9 ), if you make objects which are smaller than the wavelength of light, what happens? Most people would think that the light wave does not interact with these things which are much smaller than a single wavelength, but they do in fact interact and they do something called “scattering”. Scattering allows you to have sources of light, which are actually smaller than the wavelength of the light that you are dealing with—because they are interacting with the light and then they respond to the light. This is the concept of what is called “meta materials”, this is where you have a shroud and around you, you have these meta materials and the light comes and refracts and scatters around you and you become invincible. Therefore an invincible shroud is no longer science fiction and this is being researched and we will soon see applications of that.
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