Monday, March 21, 2011

The sea came inland beyond the usual limits and damaged huts and fishing boats on shore.!!!

Supermoon high tide causes damage, panic

March 21, 2011, 10:13 pm

High tide, created by the Supermoon effect, damaged some boats and huts in Talaimannar yesterday afternoon and spread panic among area residents.

One fisherman in the area, Sudharshan, speaking to News said that the sea came inland beyond the usual limits and damaged huts and fishing boats on shore.

The fisherman said that navy officers had later advised people near the sea to move away till the tide settled. However, he said that they needed urgent assistance as their huts were damaged.

The Disaster Management office in Mannar said that the high tide was caused by the Super-moon effect and that a few huts were damaged after the sea came some 50 feet inland.

The ‘super-moon’ is a natural phenomenon when the moon is closer to Earth, during which there is increased gravitational pull, creating higher tides.

On Saturday night, the moon was closer to Earth than at any time since 1992 - just 221,567 miles away. It meant it was around 14 per cent bigger and 30 per cent brighter than typical full moons.

The reason for this was a phenomenon called the ‘lunar perigee’. The moon’s orbit around Earth is not a circle, but an eclipse.

At its closest approach - the perigee - the moon appears brighter and larger in the sky. When it is furthest away - the apogee - it is smaller and dimmer.

A lunar perigee occurs once a month. However, next week’s perigee coincides with a full moon - a combination of events that happen just once every two or three years. (News

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Promoting research in our universities: a critical examination..!!!

Promoting research in our universities: a critical examination

March 8, 2011, 7:07 pm

Peradeniya University
By Panduka Karunanayake


Recently, there were some news items and feature articles on research in our universities. They all concurred that research is important for national development. There was tacit acceptance that much of the responsibility for meeting the national research output requirement should be borne by state universities and their academics. It is, furthermore, now common knowledge in academic circles that serious consideration is being given by those at the top level in higher education to linking financial incentives or disincentives for academics to their individual research ‘productivity.’

Indeed, the prevailing belief there appears to be that university research will constitute the make-or-break factor in the nation’s future, or at least in its industrial development and economic growth.

This essay hopes to critically examine this issue, focusing on laying a broad, inclusive groundwork for discussion.

What is research (for)?

Never mind how the word ‘research’ is defined in dictionaries – what matters to us ought to be what it amounts to in reality. In reality, research is a strategy that achieves certain ends and we should see it in terms of these ends. Therefore, the question "what is research?" Is it better if it is reframed as; "what is ‘research’ for?"

As far as the universities are concerned, research is an indispensable activity – but what is it indispensable for? This in turn depends on what a university should be.

If there is one universally accepted definition or description of ‘the university,’ then it must be one that incorporates the idea of the disinterested pursuit of truth. Different organisations might pursue truth with their own ‘interests’ in mind (e.g., religious organizations, industrial organizations), so that what an organisation might discover as the truth during its pursuit is assessed in relation to the values it holds. Hence, a truth that conforms to these values is flaunted, while a truth that does not conform is suppressed, ending up in a secluded part of its archive, accessible only to those who are so indoctrinated with the values that they will not squeal on it to the outside world. The university, on the other hand, is willing to go where the discovered truth takes it – hence, the disinterestedness of its pursuit. It is the knowing of the truth itself that the university values, not how such a truth may or may not serve sectarian interests.

It is not very important here to attempt to solve the esoteric problem of objectivity. Even if a totally objective representation of reality (and therefore, disinterestedness) is not possible, we still have to solve the practical problem of conceptualizing reality in a manner where the subjectivity is not so great as to compromise its reliability. The elimination of such levels of subjectivity will demand that the pursuit of truth actively and aggressively hunts out and exposes ‘interestedness’and eliminates them from the pursuit. Therefore, the disinterestedness is no longer an esoteric, ‘academic’ matter – it is a matter of immense practical importance, because it ensures the reliability of the truth that the pursuit yields.

In general, various interests that flaunt or suppress different truths do so because they possess controlling power in society and would want to see this power unchallenged – they want to preserve the status quo. The danger of this approach is that society will not make the best decisions when tackling the uncertainties of the future. As a result, its future is compromised. Even the powerful, sectarian interests themselves will suffer in time, because it will suffer when society itself suffers generally, and in any event the elite status in a society keeps changing hands from one group to another with passing generations. (As sociologist Vilfredo Pareto observed, "History is a graveyard of aristocracies.") In the end, the selfishness of successive, changing elite formations will forever compromise the future of society.

This is why the disinterestedness of the pursuit of truth is important to society’s future, including the future of even those who resist it. And that is why the institutional autonomy inherent in the idea of the university is an important investment for the future – the future not of the university, but of the society.

India’s celebrated philosopher-statesman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan summed it up thus:

"Conformity has been the dream of despots…The ideal of the university is the promotion of liberty of mind or freedom of thought. It has little to do with the protection of privilege or call for conformity…"

But how does one ensure such disinterestedness? By critically examining the process of the pursuit of truth, until all (or as many as possible), of its inaccuracies and ‘interests’ are exposed and eliminated. This critical activity is what it likes to call research, and the doctoral thesis epitomizes it. That is why in the university, research has been described as ‘the engine of critical thinking.’ It is for this purpose that the university values research; the gift that such research gives society is the reliability of the truth in the face of an uncertain future.

The university is society’s intellectual compass – not its computing machine.

What is research not?

Seen in this way, research is not innovation. What the industry wants from the university is actually innovation or development, not research itself – it simply wants to find technical solutions to the problem of enhancing profit. It might call these activities ‘research,’ and these activities might consist of certain components that are in the technical domain hard to differentiate from research as we generally know it. But as far as the university is concerned, the primary interest of innovation is application or profit, not the truth, and therefore it lacks disinterestedness. Research ensures reliability – innovation ensures utility.

Industries are not inherently evil organizations seeking to suppress the truth and convert society into some kind of an ignorant entity, as perhaps some religious organisations may be. But industries would at best not care what the truth is if it does not enhance profits (e.g., how the biopharmaceutical industry ignores the so-called ‘neglected tropical diseases’), and at worst, wants to suppress or hide it from society if it might damage profits (e.g., the tobacco industry). This means that even if the university does not carry out any such research, it must still perform the important task of determining, on behalf of society, the societal implications of research or innovation.

As Indian anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan, referring to the issue of transfer of technology from developed countries to developing (or underdeveloped) countries, wrote:

"The innovation chain as a structured sequence is an attempt to link science, technology and society through the sequence of invention, innovation and development (or diffusion). To quote text book officialese, invention represents the creation of a scientific idea and its initial visualization as a technological product; innovation is the upscaling and commercialization of an idea; and diffusion its eventual absorption or distribution into the wider society…In a geographical sense, science originates at the center and development occurs at the per-iphery…The civics of (transfer of technology) represents a policy map, a model of hegemony, a vision of knowledge and a metaphor for democracy. Science and democracy play out their repertoire of possibilities within an innovation chain. There is a sense of pre-empted futures here because in official visions the alternative to development is not alternative development, but museumization and marginalization."

It is the great fear of becoming ‘museumized’ or marginalized in an ever-changing world that drives us into this innovation chain and the clutches of this hegemony. We are like the driver who accelerates, rather than brakes, when he sees the traffic light change from green to amber. We are so anxious about being left behind that we forget to reflect on where we are heading – we are scrambling for speed at the expense of direction.

In that context, I would leave the reader to decide the serious nature of the following suggestion, which was part of a recent article on university research ("The role of the private sector in university research in Sri Lanka" by Dr Jayaratne Pinikahana: ‘The Island’, 23 February2011):

"Once the university-private sector research forum is established, the academics who are keen to pursue research along the lines demonstrated by private sector representatives have the opportunity to design a few projects with a representative of private sector. In the end a panel of experts from both organisations can review the merits of the applications for funding and finalize the successful candidates" (my emphasis).

The suggestion here is in effect to hand over the university’s prioritization process to the expediency of finding research funds, hence handing over research direction to the dictates of the industry.

Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that universities should not take part in university-industry innovation projects. The society needs its industries. The industries need technologically sound solutions to its problems. The universities can and ought to help the industries find them. But this is innovation. It is not the research that the society needs – even if it wants it.

Furthermore, it is not partnerships, be it university-industry or public-private, which are objectionable here – mutually acceptable sharing of risks and benefits is clearly advantageous to both parties and to the nation in general. What is objectionable is the increasingly commanding and consuming nature of partnerships in the university’s worldview, so that it is relegated to being the industries’ research wing.

Continued next week