Linking Guyana’s economy with STEM education

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Dr Lorraine Sobers has 18 years of experience in the energy sector. She is a Reservoir Engineer and lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. She is also the Project Coordinator for CO2 Emission Reduction Mobilisation Project and a Junior Fellow of the Caribbean Policy Consortium.
      • “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today,” – Malcolm X.

By Lorraine Sobers

If education is the passport, then the visas in this passport represent access to specific destinations and outcomes. In today’s column allow me to direct your attention to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) “visa” and supporting sectors necessary to access a technology-based business development for Guyana. Guyana’s development will be able to take off with befitting education of nationals alongside policies that support the generation of new opportunities.

Energy expert, Professor Anthony Bryan estimates that Guyana can earn about USD$ 200 billion from the oil and gas sector in the next 25 years with over USD$ 120 billion from current production sharing agreements and royalties. Many have voiced concern about the need for careful management of this bountiful windfall. Guyana is a developing country that desperately desires to implement sweeping upgrades to several sectors including transport, energy, communication, health care, agriculture and education. In particular, education has been identified a linchpin of continuous socio-economic development of the country.

The opening quote from Malcolm X summarizes the third instalment of the Transforming Guyana Series, hosted by the Guyana Business Journal and the Caribbean Policy Consortium under the theme “Education and the Oil & Gas Windfall”. Panellist, Professor Cardinal Warde, executive director of Caribbean Science Foundation, advocated for investment in STEM education from primary school onwards. This ‘visa’ he suggests will allow access to technology-based skills, products and services that can contribute meaningfully to the Guyanese economy. Government investment is needed in modern laboratories, teacher training programmes, equipment and public engagement to establish STEM as a significant contributor to the Guyanese economy in the energy sector and beyond. Guyana will benefit from STEM education that converts petrodollars into a diverse, competitive, resilient economy.

In their 2019 paper “Creating a STEM-based Economic Pillar for the Caribbean: A Blueprint”, Warde and Shah outlined the role of engineers and scientists in the economy by observing that these professionals can use higher level mathematics and analytical skills “to design, research, and invent new technologies… and start technology companies that build globally competitive products”. However, this is not a widespread practice in the Caribbean region.

They noted that: “Caribbean engineers and scientists are not yet sufficiently involved in projects on the forefront of innovation, for example: (a) finding the optimum design of low-power circuits for the next generation of cells phones, (b) finding more clever ways to encode signals so that we can pack more voice or video content into an assigned bandwidth in the electromagnetic spectrum; (c) designing the next generation internet; (d) designing new computer models and software systems for weather forecasting…”

There are opportunities available at various skill levels within STEM not just for scientists and engineers. There is a real need for technicians to repair and maintain device, machinery and complex systems found in traditional engineering fields, such as chemical, electrical mechanical, petroleum and industrial engineering and, in emerging fields such as biomedical engineering, bioelectrical engineering and computational biology.

Can emerging Guyanese technocrats, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists be innovators, inventors and disruptors without the capability and confidence to do more than copy and paste? Certainly cannot. Guyana will miss many, many opportunities if there are not enough STEM graduates trained to think critically and develop innovative solutions that lead to new business development.

It can be challenging for gatekeepers and decision-makers at the helm of leadership to realistically evaluate the potential of new ideas. Further, Caribbean investors can be risk-averse to investment in innovative technologies that are not made in the US, UK, Japan, China, Germany and the like. Rapid growth is needed in STEM companies working in Guyana to provide real opportunities that translate technical expertise into other industries.

There have been calls for the Guyanese diaspora to fulfill the anticipated needs of the rapid growth and development underway. “The Guyanese Diaspora” report published in 2020 by the Center for Strategic International Studies gives some indication of the current situation:

Almost 90 percent of Guyanese nationals with a tertiary-level education and 40 percent of those with a secondary education emigrated from Guyana between 1965 and 2000…Based on these statistics, Guyana is thought to have one of the highest levels of “brain drain” of any country on Earth.”

The report also identifies challenges to engaging the Guyanese diaspora on the part of the government: “very limited resources… to pursue organized engagement efforts with the diaspora community has been at times perceived by the diaspora as indicative of government indifference and even of poor treatment by government officials responsible for diaspora issues.” And secondly, on the part of the local Guyanese population: “Diaspora members’ trust and willingness to engage in Guyana are undermined by continuing ethnic conflict, political and economic instability, and corruption... “

Professor Leyland Lucas, Dean, School of Entrepreneurship & Business Innovation at the University of Guyana, highlighted several elements needed for Guyana’s development. Firstly, in this post-COVID-19 era, there is greater accessibility to knowledge transfer with international researchers and the Guyanese diaspora. In-person Sabbaticals, institutional visits and new hires can be expensive. However, with greater use of online connectivity for education and business, affordable, impactful STEM knowledge transfer can be achieved.

Secondly, angel investors and venture capitalists can fill the funding gap not covered by banks and other traditional financial institutions. However, a third and critical element is needed to make this a reality – supportive legislation and policies in the banking and finance sector that facilitate new business development. To access capital, Warde and Shah suggests solutions such as engaging angel investor networks and venture capitalists within the region and the diaspora, establishment of a Small Business Innovative Research and Development (SBIRD) programme, similar to the successful US Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programme and, seed funding for existing companies that may wish to relocate to Guyana. Fourthly, Professor Lucas advocated for business incubators developed in collaboration with the University of Guyana that leverage new finance instruments.

The preceding discussion shows that the interconnectivity among sectors cannot be ignored. STEM education can become the means to achieving sustainable socio-economic development for Guyana through technology-based entrepreneurship.

Education may be the passport but it cannot also be the aircraft, fuel and engine all at the same time. The impact of STEM education is intricately linked to policies, legislature and spending in other sectors such as business and banking. Guyana’s oil and gas windfall must be strategically invested with consideration for the interconnectivity of the various sectors and the people it is meant to serve.

Though not often portrayed as glamorously as high-powered lawyers and heroic doctors, the simple fact is, engineers and scientists create more jobs. Robust STEM education leading to the development of innovative, viable STEM-based businesses is the path that will take Guyana forward in the 21st century.

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