A foundation for science
Two things remain clear about economic development in Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours.
The first is that hit hard by the global financial mess, a mountain of debt, high unemployment and wide fiscal deficits, the economies of the island nations are in poor shape.
Next is the need to reduce the reliance on the tourism industry while positioning the countries to take full advantage of opportunities when good times return.
It’s the last factor on which the two-year-old Caribbean Science Foundation, located at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies, is concentrating its energy.
“A mission of the foundation is to help diversify the economies of Caribbean countries, Barbados included, so as not to have so many of them relying primarily on tourism as a source of foreign exchange,” said Dr Cardinal Warde, a Barbadian who is professor of electrical engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We want to help produce more jobs that are based on science, technology and engineering which we don’t do enough of. We want to help reduce poverty, create more jobs, raise the standard of living of people by helping the countries embrace science and technology to spur economic development.”
And how are Professor Warde, the foundation’s interim director, and its other movers and shakers going to achieve that?
Already, they are pressing Caribbean countries to follow the successful and well travelled path of South Korea, Singapore, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.
“These countries have embraced science and technology. Many of the oil-rich Arab states, for instance, are using much of their money to invest in education and entrepreneurship,” Warde explained.
“These nations are steadily increasing their gross domestic product on platforms of science and technology.
The Caribbean will be left behind if it does nothing.”
He practises what he preaches. The holder of 12 national patents on spatial light modulators, displays and optical information processing systems, he is both a brilliant academic and a keen entrepreneur at heart.
He founded Optron Systems Inc.
in the United States in 1982 and co-founded Radiant Images Inc., which went on to manufacture liquid-crystal micro-displays for use in cellular telephones, digital cameras, computer projectors and television and computer monitors before it was acquired by a Japanese firm.
Interestingly, the foundation is seeking to use the West Indian diaspora to channel resources into the region.
“The resources not only include money but also technical expertise, collaborations between companies in the Caribbean and overseas, universities in the region and overseas, all the possibilities,” Warde said.
“With the money that comes in we will fund some start-up and existing companies on a competitive basis.
We are only interested in companies based on science and technology.”
That’s why the Caribbean Science Foundation, supported by the Caribbean Diaspora for Science, Technology and Innovation (CADSTI) based in Boston, plans to solicit proposals from across the Caribbean and an army of experts will evaluate them from both a technical and business perspective.
“We will then make grants to do feasibility studies. We will narrow them down to a smaller group that might get phase two funding,” he added.
To keep the pipeline flowing with entrepreneurs, the foundation has attracted the attention of ministries of education to get them to change the way they teach science, “to teach it earlier and better”.
That explains why the foundation is working with the Barbados-based Caribbean Development Bank on a teacher-training programme while joining forces with the Caribbean Academy of Sciences that already has an initiative.
“We want to help the academy so that it can put more muscle into its programme,” the professor said.