The Missing Link: Research and Innovation

This is another magnificent moment for The UWI. As the region's premier research academy, it is situated at a critical crossroad in the development of the regional economy.

A core function of universities in the past two centuries has been their direct contribution to the productive transformation and competitiveness of economies. These processes are driven by the recognition that economic growth can be planned, attained and sustained with the invitation and deployment of university-level inputs into the wealth-creation process.

This realisation has resulted in the rational response of investing greater sums of capital in the university sector by the state and private participants in the economy. In postcolonial economies like these in the Caribbean the matter of raising the quality of the social capital in order to attract and energise higher levels of capital investments is an even greater imperative for the university sector.

The sluggish recovery of Caribbean economies from the 2007/2008 global financial recession is now evident. The English-speaking sub sector is the most sluggish of all. This is the sector that hosts The University of the West Indies and has been the recipient of its greatest output over the last 70 years. It is here that the evidence shows most clearly that a shortage of critical skills for economic development, more so than capital shortage, continues to be the principal constraint on innovative economic activity.

While it is true that economic sluggishness in the region preceded the global financial recession, and has survived it, becoming an endemic economic feature, the business of UWI economic researchers has been to identify and assist in removing these constraints. On all our campuses this concern has been the principal passion of professors in the relevant disciplines.

Driving our economies out of the doldrums and into the mainstream of global economic recovery is our top strategic priority. There is no competing objective. Other objectives are residual and contingent. Social justice matters, for example, in our contexts, are intricately bound to economic prosperity. Unless the region doubles its economic growth performance in the next few years many social gains will be reversed and lost.

The University has correctly adopted a posture of responsibility and accountability in this regard. But arguably, this has long been its location in development discourse from the time of Sir Arthur Lewis, its first Vice-Chancellor, through to Sir Alister McIntyre, the region's preeminent trade and development economist.

There have been many conceptual positions on the matter of achieving economic growth and sustainable development from the 1960s to the 1990s—the time span identified with the finest work of these UWI giants. With regard to both theoretical implication and practical application, The UWI's input into the positive growth trajectory has been there all along, impactful and measurable.

There is now an urgency about this moment. Frustration with failure to attain even moderate levels of economic growth is palpable. For this reason, it is critical that the academic community be seen with its sleeves rolled up, and doing its share of the heavy lifting. There is consensus on this matter; and there is convergence in the thinking of academia and industry. It is just a matter of aligning and focussing entrepreneurial and intellectual action in the sophisticated fashion found in postmodern economic cultures.

This is another magnificent moment for The UWI. As the region's premier research academy, it is situated at a critical crossroad in the development of the regional economy. Knowing the specific details of the juncture will require quality research and clear thinking.

In effect, this is the third stage in the development of Caribbean global economic competitiveness. The long colonial period was the first phase. It was characterised by the price competitiveness of primary products. Moderate average economic growth was achieved— though deploying enslaved, indentured and other forms of oppressed labour.

The UWI is part of a series of networks aimed at crafting a new, more holistic vision for Caribbean development. As the region's leaders work to identify a coherent plan of action for collective progress, it is important to continue to make the process of discussion inclusive: encouraging the contribution of students and other Caribbean youth, as well as stakeholders from different sectors of society.

The second stage witnessed the transition from primary products to the hegemonic financial services and tourism sectors. The new economy provided impressive rates of economic growth in the early postcolonial economies. The region was able to compete at the levels of both price and quality. In this stage there was a gradual improvement in living standards, though, in general, poverty remained endemic as a result of very extreme income distribution.

This third phase will be associated with research and innovation, driven primarily by application within academic-industry alignment. This is how the tertiary education sector can come to the fore. This is the University's moment to engage industry and impact productivity and competitiveness. The search for greater market share, for both established industries and startups, will be through innovation that is research-driven. The discourses around economic sustainability have suggested general agreement around the role of the University.

It is for these reasons that The UWI's five-year Strategic Plan 2017–2022 is entitled 'Revitalising Caribbean Development'. It seeks to situate the academic community precisely at the core of the commercial convergence. In centering the need for greater 'alignment' of industry and academia, it calls for agility in a tripartite arrangement of State, private capital, and advanced human resources. Such partnerships suggest radical access to research funds in order to promote the culture of innovation in production.

Three principal pillars - Access, Alignment and Agility - are represented as the ‘Triple A' concept that defines the Strategic Plan. It calls for the creation of technology parks as places of convergence where entrepreneurs and academics seek to industrialise research findings.

The migration of academic research into the boardrooms of industrialists, producing the commercial convergence, should be established as a normal aspect of productive living. The presentation of such a proposal to the Economic Growth Council of Jamaica, for example, and the preliminary planning at the Penal-Debe site in South Trinidad, and the creation of a software technology centre in Bridgetown, Barbados, represent the University's dedication to the importance of this thinking and the integrity of its actions.

These developments constitute the University's commitment to the search for new engines of economic growth. Funding the academy to enable its performance will be a critical first step. Without adequate funding, important first steps cannot be taken with any certainty and the opportunity lost to connect the missing link.

The challenge, thankfully, is not staggering. The creation of dedicated infrastructure within the University's ecosystem in order to integrate the processes of innovation, enterprise, and investment is within the available resource capacity of governments and the private sectors. The use of available university buildings for incubator projects and startups can be actualised with skillful reallocations. The provision of such dedicated spaces is a tried and proven global strategy.

A top priority of the University, then, is to devise methods to migrate the mountain of manuscripts and other forms and expressions of research and innovation out of the faculties and libraries into the interior of enterprises. This is as vital a step as those taken to fund the research in the first place. The silence of the silos must be breached for faculties and factories to emerge as classmates in the wealth- creation culture. Corridors that customarily divide must be converted into causeways for concerted action between old and new actors willing to create value for the future.

The normalisation of this physical interface and mental encounter will serve to eradicate residual tensions that still exist between academia and industry. Such doubt is but an ancient relic of a much misunderstood past in which the University was derided for allegedly harbouring hard-nosed communists and producing cohorts of unproductive soft-sofa armchair socialists. The hatchet is buried and the hammer is in hand to partner in building diversified, competitive, resilient economies for the 21st century Caribbean.

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles,
Vice-Chancellor, The University of the West Indies