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R&D driven entrepreneurship needed

Published: 
Monday, January 4, 2016
Science and Society

T&T finds itself, once again, on the wrong end of decreased oil revenues. Calls have been made for tightening the dhoti and belt as the ship of state attempts to weather the economic storm.

The evergreen diversification challenge will naturally raise itself head, even more loftily. That is, until energy prices rise again, as they will surely do in a few years. And, as has been the historical case, then efforts at diversifying the economy loses steam and become diffused or abandoned. Of course, if history is anything to go by, we will again find ourselves in the same monkey pants at the next price trough.

It is being predicted that energy prices will be depressed for a few years. But economists can be like meteorologists and astrologists so that one can safely predict that their predictions are well…just that. Recall a few decades ago it was being predicted that the world was running out of oil. Well, now it is awash with oil. See technology can and will continue to disrupt the economic order. Some will win and others will lose. 

There is a saying that there is opportunity in chaos or if you wish, every dark cloud has a silver lining. So as a country, we should seize this opportunity with vigour and intent and really set about diversifying the economy. The strategy cannot be based on “parlour entrepreneurship” that abounds in the country. 

That is a sink for foreign exchange. We need to develop sources of forex and or reduce its outflow. We thus need to develop products and services that can exported and improve productivity and efficiency to maximise the returns on imported plant, equipment and materials. For this to happen, R&D must be given significantly more than lip service or token funding.

R&D funding in T&T is presently abysmally low. It is less than one half of one per cent. The knee jerk reaction to recession, real or perceived, might be to further cut back on the already measly allocation. That should be avoided as R&D driven entrepreneurship offers us a clear path to economic prosperity. For this to happen, it goes without saying, that a proper strategy and implementation plan needs to be developed and maintained. 

It must be recognised that diversification cannot happen overnight and will only occur with sustained effort. What this means is that its benefits will not be experienced in the short term but rather in the medium and long term. Further there must be a strong and vibrant collaboration between academia, industry and the state.   

Several elements of the innovation and entrepreneurship chain presently exist. Unfortunately, they are either not connected or weakly so. In fact, the “national innovation and entrepreneurship system” is best described as fractured. This needs to be addressed urgently. Duplication must to be eliminated as far as possible and a framework to harmonise and focus the efforts of the key players is sorely needed.

One key player is the tertiary level education system. Research activity must be emphasised. The focus, at the undergraduate level also, should be on problem solving as opposed to simply examining for certification purposes. Our students must be endowed with the ability to define problems, collect and analyse the relevant data and propose workable solutions. This will allow them to innovate or create new products and services and to improve productivity in the work place. 

All projects and research theses, as far as is practically possible, must aim at having an impact on society by either solving an existing problem or creating and innovating with the intent to spawn businesses and or improve existing ones. 

The mind set of students regarding education must change. Education must be seen not only be seen as a means for certification but also one for business creation and self-independence.

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