Opinion Column On A National Science Strategy

December 3, 2013

[Opinion column written by Jonathan Starling]

We Need A National Science Strategy

In the most recent Throne Speech the Government made reference to a number of key ‘national’ strategies, such as a proposed National Agriculture Strategy and a National Gender Policy. These are welcome initiatives, and in many ways long overdue.

What was conspicuously absent however was a renewed commitment to science and an initiative for a National Science Strategy.

The release of the SAGE Commission’s Final Report somewhat underlines this omission, where, on pages 95-96, on the section regarding privatisation and outsourcing, suggests that the eight research positions within the Departments of Conservation Services [DCS ] and Environmental Protection [DEP ] be ‘eliminated’, research equipment divested and research outsourced, with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Studies [BIOS ], the Bermuda Zoological Society [BZS ] or foreign entities suggested as possible consultants for research.

Problems with outsourcing science

While the SAGE report makes some good points here, namely that research be done ‘independently and without influence’ and that BIOS can, indeed, do much research at reduced rates compared. What it doesn’t do is explain why entities such as BIOS can undercut the price of ‘in-house’ labour, or whether such options would truly be ‘independent and without influence’.

BIOS provides world class science and has world class scientific minds and resources at its disposal. However, they are able to do this science ‘on the cheap’ thanks to a heavy reliance on graduate student labour who are paid at US wages unsustainable for long-term residence in Bermuda. It should also be noted that BIOS has exemptions to work permit policies. This information was no doubt familiar to the SAGE Commission, with the Commission’s Chair also serving as the Chair of BIOS.

Additionally, BIOS scientists are generally only here temporarily, with the field stations like BIOS being essentially ‘training grounds’ for young researchers to ‘cut their teeth’ over three to five years before pursuing tenured positions at overseas institutions. As a result, any local experience gained is then lost after a short period.

As such, outsourcing of such research to BIOS risks a long-term loss of human capital from Bermudians, with it being impractical to support Bermudian scientists and retain such knowledge and critical thought locally.

BZS does generally has the capacity for long-term commitment to Bermuda, but does not have the resources at the moment to adequately cover the full scope of research required.

It is not that there is no interest in science amongst Bermudians – there are plenty of our people who would love to pursue such a career. But it is the case that there are too few opportunities on island to retain Bermudian scientists, especially given the unfair advantages that entities such as BIOS possess.

A better alternative?

It is true that there are risks regarding independence and influence of having our research conducted ‘in-house’ in the form of the DCS or DEP. However, losing this capacity risks losing local scientific capacities for Bermuda, with private entities like BIOS being subject to their own challenges regarding independence and influence.

A far better solution would be the formation of a National Science Directorate, funded similarly to other independent and autonomous public organisations such as the Ombudsman and the Auditor General. Such a National Science Directorate would be freed from concerns regarding independence and influence, while also ensuring that Bermuda retains indigenous scientific capacity and not be subject to a scientific brain drain.

Science as a new or complementary economic sector

As we search for alternative economic sectors to complement our ailing IB and tourism industries, science offers a potential source of innovation and employment. While we have a comparative advantage for biological sciences already, there is no reason why we cannot also seek to develop capacities in the realms of physics, mathematics, chemistry, meteorology, geology and engineering.

Such capacities could support our existing industries [such as risk modelling, as well as our recent forays into the space industry ], as well as open up new, so far unknown, economic paths. Coupled with a Science Centre, it could also bolster our tourism product by offering an additional attraction; or combined with our existing Bermuda College serve as a potential attraction for hosting some international students.

A National Science Strategy

In accordance with creating a National Science Directorate, we need a National Science Strategy to not only encourage science within our school curriculums but to also identify the key research areas [along with ‘blue sky’ science ] that we know we need. We would be able to develop and adapt technologies specifically suited to small island states, be it in areas such as renewable energy, hurricanes or even agricultural technology to improve our food security.

With the growing reality of global climate change and all the challenges and opportunities it presents us with, the question really must be that of ‘can we afford not to develop our scientific knowledge and capacities’?

The late, great, astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote that science offers humanity a candle of light in our demon-haunted world. He noted that ‘the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before’. Today, almost twenty years since he wrote those prophetic words, they are more true than ever.

As a society we cannot afford to lose trained Bermudian scientists, nor can we afford to be scientifically illiterate, even if we are not all to be scientists. While the store of knowledge and facts that science today has is important, and we would do well as a society to improve our collective knowledge of them, the essence of science, which we cannot afford to be without as a society, is be actively engaged in critical and sceptical thinking. A society well versed in the essence of science is a society that is able to effectively hold its government to account and to adapt to changing socio-economic circumstances with the flexibility required to succeed.

A call to action

Bermuda needs both a National Science Directorate to conduct independent and impartial research and retain Bermudian scientists, as well as a National Science Strategy to develop our collective scientific literacy.

Government can facilitate the development of a National Science Strategy by creating a directory of all known Bermudian scientists, at home and abroad, and engage them and relevant stakeholders [such as BIOS, BZS, DCS, DEP, BUEI, Bermuda College and the Bermuda National Trust ] in an initial consultation process. This would provide the foundation for developing a National Science Strategy, including the setting up of a National Science Directorate to facilitate research and the fulfilment of a National Science Strategy.

- Jonathan Starling has degrees in Ecological Economics and Urban and Regional Planning, and is well known in the online community through his Catch-A-Fire blog, which he has maintained since 2007. He ran as Independent candidate in C#20 Pembroke South West in the 2012 General Election.

Read More About

Category: All, Environment

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

Articles that link to this one:

  1. 2013 Media Articles | Vote Jonathan Starling | January 11, 2014
  1. Spot-on says:

    Supports what I’ve been saying for years. Morgan’s Point should not be a tourist resort, it should be leased to a conglomerate of worldwide Universities to build and administer one of the best sustainability research centres in the world. Not only do we need to import smart folk, we should be using them to instill the same level of intelligence in our children.