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In Support of an indigenous research facility

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Let me first of all applaud Phillip Jackson for his article in the Midweek issue of the SEARCHLIGHT calling for an indigenous research facility. I was going to say that his article was timely, but really his call is something that is overdue. I read his article about an hour prior to getting down to write this weekly column. Although I have not had time to fully digest what he has written, I am nevertheless compelled to give my support.{{more}} His arguments in favour of such a facility, his articulation of the problems retarding local research, and his view of what should constitute the components of the facility are quite sound and hopefully would set the ball rolling in an effort to meet his call. Let me assure him that he is not moving into unchartered territory. When the decision was taken to remove the idea of non-campus countries from our vocabulary and to establish the University of the West Indies Open Campus, as someone who was involved in the process, one of the things I highlighted was the need to create an intellectual environment within the countries that were to comprise the Open Campus. This was one of the advantages the campus countries had over us. But even before that, discussions were held through the School of Continuing Studies aimed at facilitating research in the then non-campus countries by undergraduates doing their research papers/projects and graduates selecting their thesis topics based on issues relevant to those communities. The problems that were highlighted by the academic staff with whom these discussions were held were ones identified by Phillip -inadequate data and facilities, and the absence or lack of information about the expertise available in different areas needed to supervise these students. One of the ideas which Heads of the different Schools of Continuing Studies had undertaken to pursue was the establishment of a data base of the expertise available in country. I am not sure how much has been done in this area, but a number of other things had overtaken it.

I made the point above to let Phillip know that there is support for this idea even from among some of those same members of academia at the University campuses who had encouraged their students to undertake research in the campus countries. Many of the students themselves being aware of the difficulty of gathering data at home and the lack of support mechanisms have opted to take the easy way out. So the call made in the article should be strongly supported. But the argument presented goes much further than simply facilitating an environment where students from these countries could do research on issues of relevance to the countries. To what end is all of this geared? Phillip provides an answer that should be compelling to governments and others interested in the development of the country. He provides the context in which we can view this; “The pressures of globalization and neoliberal economic paradigms necessitate a focused indigenous approach to knowledge building and institutional strengthening with a view for creating wealth through sustainable niche products and services. Even as we contemplate the global forces and dynamics, we must know, understand and quantify the local variables so we can adequately define our possibilities, anticipate the trends and position ourselves accordingly as we chart the course to our optimal future.”

The case is made even more convincing when he makes the point that our country is ‘grossly understudied’. “We generally lack a critical mass of knowledge of the various aspects of our country to allow for meaningful, sustainable long range strategic planning and intelligent resource management. Even where studies exist they are mostly scattered and unorganized.” It is fitting, too, that in building the case he makes mention of the brain drain. This needs to be emphasized for graduate students in particular, having written theses on subjects relevant to another country would be tempted by the opportunities that would naturally come there. The ‘critical knowledge gap’ as he describes it between ‘campus and non-campus countries’ cannot be seen in isolation for we all acknowledge that what we in the region lack in natural resources, we need to cater for in building our human resources. Today we speak about knowledge as a critical component of development, and so concern has to be expressed about the prevailing knowledge gap. In the Eastern Caribbean we take pride in the stability of the EC dollar, but this is not something made for all times and cannot be seen in isolation for even now we have to be concerned about the pressures on the American economy. The stability and strength of the EC dollar have to be based on something. The falling fortunes of our banana industry and the pressures on the tourism industry should make all of us concerned. We talk about a knowledge-based economy as the path to the future. We have to begin to position ourselves along this path.

Phillip did not only speak convincingly about the need for greater local research, he went further and identified what he felt were support mechanisms for the indigenous research facility that he sees necessary. Here is where the discussion now needs to be focussed in an effort to fine tune and add to the support mechanisms and to plot a path toward that end. I can assure him that he will find strong support from the University of the West Indies Open Campus and from members of staff of the University of the West Indies, many of whom recognise the existing knowledge gap . One of the initiatives taken by the Vice Chancellor of the University is to suggest that lecturers who happen to visit any of these so-called ‘non-campus countries’ make themselves available for delivering public lectures or participating in other ways that will help to build that intellectual community. This is obviously not the same thing that Phillip is calling for, but it will help in developing links and in getting them involved in the creation of the indigenous research facility. I hope other persons rally around this call and help to move his ideas forward. In the Caribbean we are never short of ideas for doing things. Where we fail is in our ability to transform them into concrete action. A challenge is thrown out. We must take it up and move toward building that indigenous research facility.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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