By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Professor Error Jansz, former Director of the Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, and later Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, recently published his autobiography. The title was interesting, and the book in fact proved fascinating. Though some of the scientific detail was beyond me, what emerges is a total commitment not only to the research capacities of his students, but also an anxiety that the research should be used productive. Given that with so much potential, and such impressive staff, the CISIR has not contributed much to productivity, I would suggest that the human story that emerges in the book should be studied by Sri Lankans concerned with our current failure to have built on the educational excellences of the past – if indeed any such exist.
A perceptive analysis of the book by Prof Liminiga, the former Director of a Swedish university programme that worked with the CISIR over many years, notes that Jansz suffered throughout his career because ‘you had your roots in a minority community combined with being successful in your work, “too good” and thus creating jealousy. Perhaps it should be added also that you have always been honest and straightforward, not a “yes-man”, which didn’t make it easier for you.
Jansz himself thinks the last two reasons are the salient ones, and says that ‘being of an ethnic and religious minority played a role only on a few occasions by a few extremists’. In the present climate that is a problem that will I suspect get worse, and it is vital that government institutes a pro-active policy of promoting the involvement at all levels of all communities in public institutions and programmes. But in terms of the experiences described in the book I think Jansz’s analysis is accurate, and it is his failure, or perhaps incapacity, to blow with prevailing winds that caused him such anguish.
The episode that seems saddest in the book is the manner in which his appointment as Director of the CISIR was not renewed, despite what he describes as support in a World Bank report. This relates to one of the maddest elements in the Sri Lankan administrative system, which is that, even within the same government, one Minister does not continue with what his predecessor did. We have no system of handover briefings.
There should be some participation of Ministers in such handovers, though the bulk of the information should be held and passed on by the Secretary. However, given that our Secretaries are not Permanent, and are liable to be changed when Ministers change, even the ones who stay on do not see their area of responsibility as one which requires continuity, and therefore coordination with each succeeding Minister.
With the advent of the Premadasa government in 1989, Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as Minister of Industries. He was a victim of the problem I have noted, in that all the good work he had done as Minister of Education was rapidly undone by his successor. Contrariwise, I heard he did a good job at Industries as well (the classic technocrat who fails however when promoted beyond his capacity, like Erhard in Germany) so I was sorry to read about the problems at the CISIR. However Jansz suggests that these were largely because of the State Minister, who seems to have been in charge of the place, and also appointed a Chairman who, I had heard from other sources too, was quite unsuitable. Jansz has a splendid description of ‘a criminal lawyer. He wanted to discipline some of the CISIR staff, which I daresay had some merit, but apparently would not differentiate how this should be done for criminals on the one hand and technologists on the other’.
He replaced Milinda Moragoda, who was it seems mature in his approach, though he had no first hand experience of science. His predecessor was the distinguished scienties Prof Sultanbawa, but during that era the practice of treating positions that required intelligence and understanding as simply sinecures that brought favourites perks became entrenched. Sadly, Minister Wickremesinghe’s main contribution (assuming he is the Line Minister described) was a determination to divide the CISIR, so he was upset when the Chairman ‘said that science and technology were inseparable’. I am surprised that the Minister did not understand this, since of his bright perceptions previously was the academic nature of our educational system, which prevented practical applications and also general employability.
Jansz seems to have been relatively happy at the University to which he moved after leaving the CISIR, and even though there was the usual backbiting endemic in I think all university systems, but particularly so in ours with its political dimensions, he also enjoyed the opportunity to pursue a range of research interests. Chief amongst these was palmyrah, and I could only wish the impressive work he describes had led to better use of this remarkable tree. Certainly, as I have noticed in Jaffna, his contributions have been widely welcomed.
The book is full of work with plant products that could be better exploited, ranging from Aloe Vera to Manioc. Unfortunately there seems to have been no effort at coordination with industrial development, even though the CISIR came under the Ministry of Industries for several decades. Now, under its new name, it is under the Ministry of Technology and Research, which will make it even more difficult to ensure practical outcomes.
This is however essential, given rising malnutrition levels in this country, arising not from poverty but from a lack of awareness about sensible dietary habits. Given too the crises that regularly hit our farmers, the latest being not enough storage facilities for paddy, the sooner we move into value addition the better. For this purpose the findings of scientists such as Prof Jansz should be employed, with a coordinating agency to ensure identification of projects to pursue, and methods of funding them or developing private public partnerships.