Memoirs of a Boffin

Annex 1: Science, Society and the Future

A public lecture delivered in the Umana Yana, Georgetown, Guyana on 11th. August, 1976 and broadcast by Guyana Radio. I find that it still expresses my views on science and its application to external aid.

As some of you may know, I am here on behalf of UNESCO to do what I can to help the National Science Research Council and the Government to formulate a National Science Policy. That work is still in progress and I am not going to anticipate its outcome this evening.

Rather, I should like to make some observations on the nature of science and scientists, their role in society today and in the future and, in particular, their relevance to Guyana at this stage of rapid social, political, economic and, we hope, appropriate technological development.

I shall hardly be able to avoid some things that will appear to relate to a science policy for Guyana. If I do, please remember that these are personal observations and in no way represent the policies or intentions of the National Science Research Council or the government. It is the independence of my remarks that will give them any little value they may have.

Let me say at the outset that, when I use the word "science", I shall generally mean all the activities scientists and technical people generally indulge in; not only research but new technological development, the observation and classification of data, the adaptation of existing technologies and, indeed, any activity in which scientific and technical skills are used.

In some languages the word "science" is synonymous with knowledge. Traditionally, a scientist is one who seeks new knowledge with complete honesty and objectivity in his theoretical and experimental investigations. He designs an experiment with economy and, often, with elegance; he defines accurately the boundaries within which the experiment is valid. He has a precise knowledge of the limits of error of his observations, measurements and computations and makes sure that the experiment itself does not interfere with the system under study.

These are the fundamentals of scientific training which characterize the "scientific approach". In a school science course it is far more important to teach these principles – this approach – than it is to teach the details of any particular branch of science. Mind you, speaking as a physicist, I naturally believe that these principles are more comfortably assimilated by means of a physics course.

The scientific method applies to much more than scientific research. It pervades all scientific and technical activities and, occasionally, one wishes it would spill over into some other less disciplined disciplines.

A scientist has an obligation to society either to make original discoveries which add to the sum total of human knowledge or to contribute in practical ways to the social, economic or environmental well-being of his fellow men – or both. While the popular image of a scientist is the former, only a very few have the creative ability to make original discoveries – that is to do 'pure' scientific research unrelated to practical problems. It might be a fraction of one percent or as much as a few percent of those who have an advanced scientific training. The percentage chosen depends on how you define originality. In some countries there is a popular misconception that nearly all those who are scientifically trained have this creative gift. Believe me, the majority of them have not and would be better occupied teaching full-time or doing applied research in a technical team than trying to do original academic research.

On the other hand, creativity is a precious thing to be nurtured wherever it is found. The means to recognize and encourage it must be present in the schools from the lowest level onwards. The means to support it must ultimately exist in the university or research institute, otherwise the country risks losing a valuable, irreplaceable heritage.

But the great majority of the scientifically-trained will fit in my second category – that of applying science to social, economic and environmental progress. This is the urgent need in Guyana. It does not generally involve the discovery of new knowledge, but rather the application of existing knowledge.

The application of science requires many kinds of people with different qualifications, including those who have studied science in school, the graduates of the government and industrial technical institutes, those who have received technical training on the job and university graduates, including those with higher degrees which represent increasing specialization. Today, science is such an enormous subject that to acquire expertise in depth, at the graduate level, it is essential to specialize. While I believe that in the early stages a science course should be integrated, there will always be some argument about the point in the educational system at which the transition to greater specialization begins.

In my experience, science and technology provide one of the most exciting and rewarding careers it is possible to have. There are so many ways in which a person with this kind of education can help the development of his country. Let us look at a few of them: First of all, there is the pure, academic scientist, making discoveries in his laboratory. This is the picture most people have of a scientist. This career, as we have seen, is only open to the creative few. More common are the laboratory teams experimenting with new processes, new devices and new products related to industry, agriculture, environment, resources and so on. Much of the output of the scientific institutes will be from this type of activity and I hope that we shall have an opportunity later to examine some of the needs and opportunities in Guyana for this kind of work.

One of the principal ways in which the scientifically and technically trained can contribute to the country's development at its present stage is by teaching these skills to others. When we look at the areas in which there is already an evident need for greater scientific and technological support we shall see that the demand exceeds the supply by a wide margin. It seems to me that there is at present a serious shortage of scientifically and technically trained people and of the infrastructure to use them. It is a shortage that will become more acute as time passes unless drastic measures are taken. Teachers of scientific and technical subjects at all levels are in the front line of the war against this shortage. The scientific and technical output of the educational system will not increase until more teachers with appropriate qualifications are available, together with the facilities to enable them to increase the student population and to avoid turning away any eligible student who applies for admission.

There are many other opportunities for the scientifically or technically trained to contribute to society. While some may seek administrative or management training as an additional qualification, traditionally scientists have been reluctant to enter managerial, executive or political occupations. I think also that their counterparts in these professions are some times reluctant to see them there, because they can be uncomfortable bedfellows – always asking why and demanding absolute objectivity and a scientific approach. But nowadays, when so many features of our lives are dependent on science and technology, scientists must become involved in the policy and decision-making processes. Throughout the world, too many decisions on matters that deeply involve science and technology are made by those who know very little about it.

In a report for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Dr. Harvey Brooks wrote about the necessity for involving scientists in the government policy-making process; I quote:

"The problems faced in government decisions are characterised by the increasing connectedness of various sectors of policy. Policies formulated for one sector of government responsibility may have important consequences, particularly in the long run, for the achievement of goals that lie in other areas of responsibility. This interconnectedness of policies is incompatible with the purely vertical structures of most government organizations. Horizontal connections between these vertical structures at several different levels are necessary.

These considerations are particularly relevant to science policy for two reasons: First, science and technology are inherently future-oriented, long-range activities and they cannot respond effectively to goals that constantly change with political fashion or with shifts in public attention. Second, long-range planning for all the many interacting sectors of government responsibility demands a base of knowledge and data that can be acquired and interpreted only through science, including the social sciences. The acquisition of this knowledge itself requires planning beyond the time-horizons of traditional political thinking. Thus, science policy and long-range social and economic planning are closely bound up with each other and require the same type of thinking and perspective."

The situation described by Dr. Brooks demands inevitably that more scientists and engineers seek careers in widely interdisciplinary and policy activities which have not hitherto been regarded as obvious careers for them. The involvement of more scientists directly in the solution of social, economic and environmental problems is, in my view, an inevitable social development and one in which Guyana has considerable opportunity because of its relative freedom from institutional constraints and from set patterns of behaviour in the scientific community.

Another very important occupation for scientists is the transfer of scientific information and technological capability from abroad. No amount of incoming information is any use unless there are the resources to select it, comprehend it and turn it into action. In science and technology, the minimum requirement to achieve this capability is a viable group of scientific and technical workers actually working in each specialized field in which information and capability is to be transferred. This requirement alone is enough to justify the maintenance of a small research group in every science-based subject that is relevant to national development. Let me explain why:

It is safe to say that only a very small fraction of the world's science and technology will originate in Guyana, or in practically any other single country. Canada, for example, spends over $1 billion a year on science and technology and soberly estimates that it originates less than 3% of the world's information in these areas. Even the United States and the Soviet Union – the giants – are heavily dependent on others. Consequently it is unwise for any country not to tap into the appropriate part of the world's store of scientific and technical information. The problems are not those of availability or accessibility, because millions of words are written, filed and indexed every day; the problems ore those of selection and interpretation.

However, international scientific and technical information systems of particular interest to developing countries are now coming into service, sponsored by major international organizations, including UNESCO. The virtue of such systems is that they carry information on indigenous research in developing countries, such as the countries of Africa, which is likely to be more relevant to Guyana than some of the input from the more industrialized countries. The fact that the index to this information is computerized makes it relatively easy to access.

You hear a good deal these days about the transfer of technology. Too often this means the purchase of goods based on technology, or the purchase of someone else's ready-made technology in the form of reports or plans or blueprints. Technologies from other countries do not automatically serve the needs of Guyana. I would advocate that you seek the transfer of technological capability wherever possible rather than the transfer of technology itself. Only by this means will your own technologists develop the flexibility to meet Guyanese problems with Guyanese solutions, including the use and adaptation of Guyanese materials.

A degree of judgement is always necessary to the "make-or-buy" decision – that is the decision to make something in Guyana or buy it ready-made from abroad. Generally, technology related to small industry, to much of agriculture and fisheries and to many others can be largely indigenous, sometimes after help in transferring the technology. However, large technology – the design of huge turbines and electrical generators, resource satellites and so on is not appropriate for development here and, as in most countries, probably never will be.

Perhaps at this stage we should look in more detail at some of the areas of national development to which indigenous capabilities in science and technology are now applied or will be needed. Take agriculture for instance. I know that your government places great emphasis on producing more and better foods. Where does science and technology come in? I will take a few random examples from my limited experience of your country. All crops are susceptible to improvement in quality and yield. Such improvement depends not only on the genetic development of the new varieties that thrive in Guyanese soils and climate, but their protection from disease and pests. Once the crop is destroyed it is too late to begin to discover what destroyed it; that will not recover the economic loss. A continuous research effort is essential to anticipate the problems and to prevent crop losses. Major damage to the sugar crop, for example, could have a disastrous effect on the economy. Only a continuous scientific alert can avoid it.

Last week was nutrition week and I was encouraged to see so much excellent publicity on the subject. There was great emphasis on the need for more protein in the diet, particularly of children, and the possibility of obtaining this more efficiently from a combination of vegetable proteins, rather than from animal protein. Feeding animals is a wasteful way of converting vegetable protein. New and improved sources of protein will only be found by research on native plants. This research is most effectively done in Guyana, but it needs more scientists to do it.

In your climate and under the present conditions under which food is transported from the fields, there are substantial losses due to physical damage and decay before the food reaches the market. Some fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to this than others. The development of a suitable, simple post-harvest technology to facilitate the packing, handling and transportation of these products could very well be much cheaper than increasing the area of cultivated land to make up (and increase) the losses. But this depends upon the development of the best techniques for handling these particular products under Guyanese conditions over Guyanese terrain. It would normally be one of the jobs of a food research institute. It needs people with scientific, technical and social science training.

Once the food is delivered, some of it goes to processing plants. As food production increases, these will become larger and more important and may well have export significance. There is likely to be a continuous need for new and improved food-processing techniques as well as for the development of standards for fresh and processed foods and the capability to test the foods against these standards. These are scientific and technical activities.

On the engineering side, the development of multi-purpose agricultural machinery, which can be used year round might be worth considering. At the moment, single-purpose machines sit rotting for the greater part of the year. Furthermore, engineering projects in drainage and irrigation will become necessary as more land is developed for cultivation.

In summary, taking agriculture alone, scientists and technicians are needed in drainage and irrigation, animal and crop development and protection, nutrition research, harvest and post-harvest technology and food processing and standards. You could ask yourselves whether there are enough of them in Guyana to do all that is necessary today.

Similar considerations apply to fisheries. While the industry now is concentrated on shrimps and ocean fish, the culture of fresh-water fish appears likely to increase in importance as the interior is opened up by projects like the Upper Mazaruni Dam, which will create a huge fresh-water lake. What kind of fish will flourish there? Only a scientific study will provide an answer.

In Guyana, as in all other countries, a watch must be kept over the encroachment of pollution, contamination and over-fishing of the waters that produce the fish, and to the establishment of pollution-free standards for the final product. More scientists are needed for this, also.

Guyana is rich in natural resources, not the least of which are in its forests. The scientific classification of the varieties of wood and the properties, potential treatment and applications of each variety is, I understand far from complete. To my mind it would be an essential background to an expanding industry. The scientific study of reforestation will only be neglected at the cost of future generations.

Bauxite, of course, dominates the scene in non-renewable natural resources. With sugar it is the mainstay of the country's economy. I was delighted to have the opportunity of seeing the new research and development facility of Guybau on my visit to Linden and even more pleased to hear that it will be looking at product diversification in addition to improving the existing product.

Other mineral resources are often, I understand, found in the form of low-grade deposits. How do you exploit these resources? Moreover the exploration and classification of Guyana's mineral resources is far from complete. For further exploration, modern technology such as remote-sensing by satellite and aircraft – while totally inappropriate for development in Guyana – could nevertheless be tapped into at minimal cost and might well assist the exploration process that is proceeding. The technique also has application in oceanography, forestry and agriculture. It is very clear that further scientific and technical effort would be necessary to expand the development of non-renewable resources.

While large industry can generally afford to support its own research and development on a viable scale, small industry rarely can. Therefore, in most countries, there are industrial research, development and testing establishments which serve groups of small industries, to help them with their technical problems and to advise them on processes and products. Often considerable benefit is derived from a group of scientists, technologists and, particularly, technicians in this kind of central activity. Allied to this there is often a technical information service to help industry. Among other things, the information service presents the results of scientific and technical work relevant to each industry in layman's language and calls the industries' attention to the use of simple, appropriate materials and processes. It is just one more way in which science and technology can serve development needs. I have been greatly encouraged by the realistic approach of the Guyana Manufacturers' Association and the Guyana Small Industries Association to the discussion of these problems. Also by the intention of the National Science Research Council to establish a national laboratory to assist with these and many other problems.

The imaginative and at the same time realistic development of an integrated health delivery system in Guyana will place demands not only on medical and para-medical personnel but also on those with scientific and technical training, including some with systems planning capability. The manpower demands of this sector alone must far exceed the present supply, because of the very special combinations of talent required. Research on tropical diseases and their carriers will place further demands on the limited resources.

We hear a great deal about energy these days with the rising price of oil and gas. Like Canada, Guyana is blessed with great rivers which offer the possibility of hydroelectric power. The Upper Mazaruni Development will not only tap a few hundred megawatts of that power and supply it to industrial and urban users, but it will open up a huge area of the interior to development. Many aspects of that development will depend on indigenous science and technology. Not the least of these will be the environmental and social changes caused by the creation of a huge lake and the resettlement of communities. The scientific studies of these questions will need to be done long before the dam is built, if the risk of environmental and social problems is to be minimized. I was privileged to be present last evening at a meeting of the Upper Mazaruni Development Authority at which the problem of resettlement was being discussed. I was greatly impressed by the deep human concern that characterised the discussions.

The Upper Mazaruni development has implications for all the areas I have mentioned up to now. – agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mineral resources, health as well as transportation and communications. All these are problems related to the particular region and would ideally be tackled by Guyanese scientists and technologists who have a sensitivity to the needs of their own country that is not easily acquired by others. Only the technology of the dam itself and the associated electrical generating equipment can usefully be imported as unsuitable for Guyanese development alone. The rest calls for indigenous effort.

But, coming back to the question of energy, even when the dam is finished and feeding electricity into the land lines, there are many regions it will not affect. It is economical to run power lines only into highly industrialized and urban areas and, possibly into rural communities en route. But, for the rest, other much smaller sources of power are needed. It is here that the opportunities for indigenous technology exist. – an expanded charcoal industry, the revival of the use of fuel alcohols distilled from native woods are two science- dependent areas which would fit in with Guyana's self-sufficiency policy. At the same time, the local development of small solar or wind-energy units, large enough to serve a farm or a small community, is well within the bounds of possibility.

All these opportunities for the application of science and technology are going to place extraordinary pressure on the whole system of science education – a pressure that is already most evident.

None of the opportunities for the application of science and technology to national development can be taken without trained people, as everything depends on having the teachers, the buildings and the equipment to meet the needs in time. It is always extremely difficult, in any country, to alert the educational system to the future manpower demands of industry and government and, of course, of the schools and universities themselves, in time to control the size and nature of their output to match these needs. The delay in the feedback system is the time it takes to educate a scientist or technician plus, sometimes, the time it takes to train a teacher. In the face of the growing needs and the length of the educational process, some form of crash programme might well be necessary for scientific and technical training, while longer-term studies of the system are in progress. I feel sure there are many agencies which would be glad to provide assistance in order to achieve a period of rapid growth in scientific and technical education. Unless this rapid growth takes place, by whatever means, a science policy has very little meaning.

Finally, I should like to say a few words about the world in which Guyana is developing. Even a country like this, which already has a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency, has essential interdependence with others.

It is a cliché that science transcends national boundaries and it is a common experience that foreign relations are easier in science than in any other subject – except perhaps cricket! The exchange of experience in science and technology with other countries in similar latitudes and in a similar state of development can be rewarding. For example, a small group of East African countries are cooperating in the development of small solar power sources, which might be of great interest to Guyana.

But, I was thinking rather of the problems which have a world-wide effect – problems such as population growth and the attendant shortage of food which will place great pressures on food-producing nations; problems such as pollution, which do not always observe national boundaries; problems such as man-made or natural climatic change. The last could be particularly significant in Guyana.

The earth's climate is always fluctuating. The changes are due in part to natural causes. We do not know the extent, if any, to which they are also accidentally man-made.

There is inadequate understanding of the reasons even for natural climatic changes and there is urgent need to assemble the facts from past climatic records, world-wide, as far back as possible.

There are many signs of change towards a new world climatic pattern, although not all climatologists are convinced. There has been a steady but slight cooling of the earth's average surface temperature over the past thirty years. But even this slight drop has reduced the growing period in middle latitudes by a week or ten days. Even worse, a cooler climate means a more variable climate. Extremes of hot, wet and dry weather become more likely on a regional basis. You have experienced a most unusually long period of wet weather, while Britain has experienced its longest and hottest spell of dry weather in recorded history. Canadian weather, which is characterised by being always unusual, is even more unusual than usual this year.

Other examples are the tragically prolonged drought in the Sahel region of Africa, the repeated droughts in India, the hot dry summer of 1972 in the Soviet wheat fields and both unusual droughts and floods in parts of Africa, Australia and here in South America.

It is possible that anomalies will continue. At the moment the world is quite unprepared to cope with them.

The sugar crop and other crops in Guyana could be seriously affected by such climatic changes, not only directly but by virtue of the different diseases which might attack them under different climatic conditions. It is this kind of reason that makes participation in world climatic research worth while and agricultural research essential. Close links with world science and technology will minimize the unexpected.

I have spoken mainly from the point of view of science and technology, but I want you to leave realising that I appreciate fully the importance of the integration of science and technology in the social system. Guyana is in an excellent position both in spirit and in practice, to ensure that scientists, social scientists, economists and others work together as an integral part of the development team.

There are many science- and technology-based subjects I have not mentioned: housing, housing materials, oceanography (which is very important in view of your low-lying coastal plain), hydrology, communication, transportation, roads, road materials, vehicles – I could go on. However, this was intended to be an indicative, not an encyclopaedic talk. I feel sure all these subjects will receive proper consideration as a science policy becomes integrated in the new development plan.

It only remains for me to thank all those who have patiently and generously given their time to discussions during my visit. To Ministers, to many officials of various ministries, to members of Guybau, Guyanco and Guystac (including its component bodies), to the Upper Mazaruni Development Authority, Government Technical Institutes, the Industrial Training Centre, the Guyana Manufacturers Association, the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers, to various faculties of the University of Guyana and especially to the Ministry of Economic Development and the National Science Research Council.

I should particularly like to thank the Chairman of that Council, Dr. Irvine, my host Secretary-General Dr. Pat Monroe and the dedicated staff of the National Science Research Council who have borne with fortitude the extra work my visit has thrust upon them. Thank you all for your hospitality and your patience.