Initial investment for the funding agency will come largely from the region’s diaspora scientists, from corporate sponsors, and from development banks.
A week-long trip to the Caribbean in March was more business than pleasure for MITelectrical engineer Cardinal Warde, who spent his spring break courting potential backers for the region’s new science funding agency. The Barbados native is cofounder and interim executive director of the Caribbean Science Foundation (CSF), which launched last fall to promote “the aggressive development of Science, Technology and Innovation” in the tourism-dependent region.
This summer Warde will make stops in London, Toronto, and other enclaves of the Caribbean diaspora to solicit contributions to the $13 million operating budget that the CSF has set for its first three years. “We will put the bulk of our money into entrepreneurial projects,” he says. “We need to pick the low-hanging fruit. The most expedient way forward is for us to let the developed world continue to do the basic research, which is expensive, and we’ll use [that knowledge] to get products to market quickly.”
Other top CSF priorities include reforming the region’s precollege science, technology,engineering, and math (STEM) education curricula and forging collaborations between university researchers and business owners in the Caribbean and abroad. The foundation also plans to dole out academic scholarships and to develop STEM education outreach efforts such as science fairs, TV programs, and exhibitions.
RIPE FOR HIGH-TECH R&D
Funds for the CSF will be directed to projects in member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the regional political alliance that comprises Haiti, Guyana, Suriname, Belize, and the 11 independent English-speaking island nations of the West Indies. Bound by a shared history and culture, CARICOM countries also share a postsecondary educationalinfrastructure built around the University of the West Indies (UWI), which has campuses in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados. In recent years CARICOM has also been moving toward a single-market, single-currency economy.
Warde says the Caribbean region is ripe for high-tech R&D in drug development that exploits the region’s rich biodiversity; renewable energy, given the area’s high exposure to the Sun and to trade winds; and information technology. “There’s no reason why Google couldn’t have been invented in Barbados,” he says. “It doesn’t take a lot of resources, manpower, or heavy equipment to start a software company.”
Instead of relying on government support, the CSF will seek investment from regional development banks and from an organization that is mobilizing the 75–80% of college-educated professionals the World Bank estimates were born in the region but are living and working elsewhere. The Caribbean Diaspora for Science, Technology, and Innovation (CADSTI) was created in 2008 by Warde, other diaspora scientists, and scientists in the region. In addition to money, CADSTI will also provide technical and business advice to Caribbean researchers and entrepreneurs. Membership won’t be limited to individuals born in the Caribbean, says Warde. “Anyone who wants to help” can join.
Businesses like Welectricity, based in Saint Vincent, will be eligible for the 15–20 “phase one” grants that Warde says will be offered once the CSF raises its first $1 million. Welectricity’s social Web tool, which tracks energy usage in the home, won a Best Idea for the Millennialaward in the GE Ecomagination Challenge last year. In addition to capital, Caribbean entrepreneurs need access to external experts and markets, says Welectricity founder Herbert Samuel, who belongs to the Caribbean Research Innovation and Entrepreneurship Network, an online community with more than 400 members. “[We’re] isolated from a lot of things that are needed at the critical early stage—adequate funding, suitable technical resources, and a significant network of enthusiastic early adopters and evangelists.”
Trinidad and Tobago native Nicholas Fuller, a physicist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York, says he’s interested in serving as a CADSTI consultant on the implementation of solar panels. “I think there’s a lot more we could be doing to optimize the efficiency of solar farms in one or more locations in the Caribbean.” Fuller volunteers as a mentor for the UWI–IBM research scholars program, which annually selects an undergraduate student from UWI’s electrical and computer engineering departments for a summer internship at IBM.
Stephon Alexander, a cosmologist at Pennsylvania’s Haverford College who also hails from Trinidad and Tobago, says the launch of the CSF and CADSTI has inspired him to revisit plans he drafted 10 years ago for a Caribbean theoretical sciences institute modeled after the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. “It’s cheap to do that kind of science,” says Alexander.
“The real Achilles’ heel for the Caribbean [countries] is that they don’t have enough scientists on the ground,” says Khotso Mokhele, former president and CEO of South Africa’s National Research Foundation. It was a 2006 report commissioned by the United Nations Educational,Scientific and Cultural Organization and CARICOM and authored by Mokhele that catalyzed the formation of the CSF. “The Caribbean diaspora is so huge that [CADSTI] could make a major contribution to science and technology in the region if they properly organize themselves,” says Mokhele. But the university system, especially graduate research, also needs more support from the region’s governments, “or the [diaspora] model won’t work,” he says.
Regional universities and other existing scientific organizations can help get the CSF off the ground, says Harold Ramkissoon, a UWI professor emeritus of applied mathematics who also cofounded the CSF and sits on its board. For example, “If CSF gets funding for scienceeducation projects, it could delegate [coordination of those projects] to Cariscience [a network of the region’s university research departments] or the Caribbean Academy of Sciences,” he says. The CSF has offered a spot on its board of directors to the Caribbean Council for Science and Technology, which coordinates CARICOM’s science and technologypolicies.
Warde says he hopes to meet with the CARICOM heads of state to present his case for the CSF as a means of diversifying the region’s economy. “Our economies in the Caribbean are like a stool with one leg,” says Warde. Countries like Brazil and Singapore “are eating our lunch. They’re gaining market share by developing advanced devices and products that are based on science and technology, and I think it’s time we do something about that.”