Camille David

Anybody familiar with the Castries-Gros Islet corridor would know that a bus ride after work can take you at least an hour. After a hard day at work, passengers are normally eerily quiet and for the younger generation- normally immersed in cell phones and other electronic gadgets perhaps catching up on events of the day with friends.

Depending on where you seat, you could hear the chatter of older folks catching up on office gossip or others may simply lean their heads to whatever side of comfort to take a quick nap in the false hope that this will reduce the journey time. The ride which is not more than a fifteen-minute drive during off peak hours may seem very long with the traffic and the driver negotiating his way or taking the back roads to escape the congestion.

Last Friday I had the most remarkable experience as a passenger. I overheard a very interesting conversation about the developmental challenges facing small island nations. The unusual participants- a man who appeared to be in his late sixties with a pronounced half-baked British accent and from his demeanor one could tell he had spent a considerable amount of his adult life in the UK and a native St. Lucian, tellingly in his mid-twenties. The duo sent a commanding hush across the bus with the driver tuning down the music to absorb the discourse. The conversation grew heated at times but remained very interesting and highly opinionated. I was tempted more than once to join the conversation but I could not gauge how the participants would welcome an outside opinion. I had plenty to say and I know my take could raise the temperature in the bus. At one point my mouth muscles began twitching in want of saying something but luckily, no words came out.

Conversations like these are often heard at the dinner table, the street corners, the pubs or wherever people assemble. Often, people blame their government, the system and their colonial past for what they perceive as slow pace development in the region. Aspirations of having modern Caribbean societies among the youth are higher than ever putting government under increasing pressure to deliver glamorous projects to appease frustration. As younger people leverage more and more influence on the election process, it is likely that larger scale development projects will be embarked on. During the years following World War Two (WWII), the breadth and goals of some scientific projects were so large and encompassing that the term big science emerged. Big Science rocketed research interaction with society given the need to satisfy the knowledge-driven economy which became more connected and diffused.

Increasingly, scientific advancement came to rely heavily on large scale investment projects funded by governments or special interest groups. The idea leapfrogged many nations from mere agriculture economies to manufacturing giants and gave way to the dawn of the modern industrial era. Across many nations, millions of people were lifted out of poverty, became home owners, as sustainable jobs became more and more commonplace. Some historians have referred to the era as post war economic boom because of the massive social, cultural and political transformation across so many countries. Humanity entered an era of postmodernism, decolonization, spiralling consumerism, and more integrated economic systems facilitating knowledge exchange. In the United States for example, the middle class grew by leaps and bounds and spread out to suburban areas. In fact many cities of the south including Miami, Atlanta and Houston emerged as an indirect result of the big science movement.

I listened intensely rolling my eyes from side to side to gauge whether the rest of the passengers were irritated or amused. It was difficult to tell but I imagined the piercing nature of the arguments was bound to command a listening ear. I wondered for a moment why some countries came to embrace the concept, transform their economies and social class while others remained on the sidelines entrenched in poverty. I reflected deeply on the discussions, what if they were both right? Or worse, dead wrong? Can the big science approach revive lethargic Caribbean economies today or are we perpetually bound to the realms of little science? Can transformational change bring sweeping reforms across the Caribbean leading the way to the dawn of “green economic prosperity”?

The man who had years of experience living in the UK brought his point across with sufficient clarity. From his well-constructed rebuttals, at least I thought so, you would agree that he had arrived in Britain in the heart of the big science era, although his voice went from low to high pitch and his accent somewhat laughable, I will admit. Whenever his voice became irregular, nearly everyone would come close to having a burst of laughter. He enriched his argument with personal stories- how he had seen small businesses transformed, creating lots of jobs. The manufacturing boom raised living standards and created the need for foreign labour- himself a beneficiary of several immigrant programs which emerged in the Caribbean. On the other hand, the experience of the young man was unmistakably more limited. You could tell that his grasp of the industrial revolution was rudimentary but what impressed me was the passion and conviction with which he brought his points across. In fact, heads would nod in approval whenever a solid point sank in.

The big science idea took off because it was cultivated on very fertile ground against the backdrop and push for major systemic reforms. Following WWII, most advanced countries reeled on economic bankruptcy. There was a deep interest to rebuild and grow economies. Today, a number of Caribbean countries after decades of single digit economic growth, devastated by hurricanes and storms, and a global financial crisis which exposed the region to debilitating shocks-a seemingly close enough parallel and arguably, somewhat of a fertile ground for big science ideas to germinate, is as close as it gets to postwar Europe. Yet the driving force that catapulted actions is less apparent today as they were then. Lifting the region out of poverty will require effective deregularization, massive private investment programs, boost of direct foreign investments and bold technological applications to take the lead in green energy technologies and the creation of sustainable jobs. Patriotism and nationalism-drivers of big science projects following the war, accounted for much of this success. Sadly, patriotism is fast disappearing in the region, at least from my perspective, driven not by instability, but migration of talent to greener pastures. The impact of migration on development can be dire if not worse than the impact of war. The problem in the region is that no one is taking note of the debilitating effects of migration on development and what that means for scientific applications and investments.

The dilemma for the Caribbean is that each small island and society is becoming increasingly individualistic and is losing the collective will and conviction that can transform the region into one common economic space. Ideological strains are far too common, too contentious and pursued on very narrow political agendas. Compared to the post war era, there emerged a near-complete consensus against strong ideology and a belief that technology and scientific solutions could be found to most of humanity’s problems after the war. Sadly, there is still too much faith in politicians and too little investment and belief in science and technology as the drivers of change. All societies have advanced because of technological investments. Modernism, if it is to take a foothold in the region, must be advanced and sustained by science and technology.

The extended period of transformation and modernization also involved an increasing internationalization of economies. France by the 1980s for example, had become a leading world economic power and the world’s fourth-largest exporter of manufactured products. It became Europe’s largest agricultural producer and exporter, accounting for more than 10 percent of world trade in such goods by the 1980s (Boltho, 2001. Journal of Economic Issues 35 #3). Integrating Caribbean economies through managed deregulation processes is a first order action that must be undertaken. Caribbean integration efforts need a boost of energy to harmonize markets, define a brand new policy initiative and pathway towards our rightful place on the global market. Unless and until this is done we will not internationalize the region.

Although the industrial revolution emerged as a consequence of brutal human intolerance that gave way to war, a green industrial revolution by contrast should be fortified by human ingenuity, integration and a collective desire to forge a new destiny within a rapidly changing world threatened by climate variability and change. The relative stability of the region provides the most fertile political grounds on which to germinate new ideas and ideals. One case in point is the relative macroeconomic stability and fiscal and monetary discipline imposed by the Central Bank of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States- an action that have deepened economic integration among small islands of the union, though this is not nearly enough. In the 1950s, industrialization took off on top fresh rubbles left behind from almost a decade of war. The prospect of industrial greening of the region by comparison, can be fueled by a vision and desire for economic prosperity, one where the Caribbean can take ownership and leadership. But after decades of decolonization with the freedom to charter our own destiny, we are losing the momentum to keep pace with the needs and aspirations of our own people. Small minds, smaller and fast disappearing prospects of true Caribbean unity is the dividing wedge that separate poverty from our collective prosperity. This can change. This must change.

Finally, how prepared is the Caribbean for the knowledge race- are we going to be spectators or participants? Do we intend to shape our own destiny or let the rest of the world carve out a future they deem best for us? Positioning the region to take the competitive lead will require systemic reforms that will improve the investment climate. Reforms in whatever form, should aim to grow small businesses into medium size enterprises and medium size enterprises into conglomerates. The ideals of big science and post WW11 reconstruction and economic reforms was a strategy for war ravaged countries to reclaim leadership. We in the region should create our own agenda for leading our economies from the shadows of colonization to the limelight of modernism.

Now, as all this thoughts raced through my head, I realized I was not in a dream but actively being a silent participant in a live public discussion and which either way you look, hinged on the big science idea and the dilemma of the present day Caribbean challenges. Suarez-Villa (2003) summarizes it this way “The benefits of big science for economic growth and national innovation become more pertinent if we look at how it contributes to the knowledge-based economy and current changes in market capitalism towards so-called “technocapitalism”. She further argues that at the heart of technocapitalism are private and public enterprises that rely heavily on research and innovation—in contrast to industrial capitalism, which is production-driven. Making this palatable to Caribbean policy makers would be one of the greatest ideological victories of our time.

Just as I was about to unrestrain myself and seize the moment to make my point aloud, the bus came to a stop, my stop. I walked off the bus slapping my forehead with my palm, not with complete regret but with a missed opportunity to make my point. At least, I consoled myself that these issues, which were buried deep down in my head, are now being discussed openly.


About the Author:

Camille David is a professional scientist having graduated with a PhD from the State University of Massachusetts. He has specialist skills in the areas of land-based impacts on the nearshore ecosystem, water quality monitoring, coastal zone management and planning, sea level rise impact assessment, data analysis and interpretation, project management and reporting. Dr. David has worked both in the United Kingdom as a Flood Hazard Research Specialist and in the United States as a Technical Associate with the Coastal Systems Analytical Laboratory of the University of Massachusetts. Presently, he is employed with the German International Cooperation (GIZ)as a marine expert focusing on climate change adaptation across eight countries within CARICOM.His experience also spans science communication and application of policy. He is passionate about the environment and growing up in the nature island of the Caribbean inspired him to develop a keen interest in protecting the environment. He holds a bachelor’s degree (Honours) from the University of the West Indies and a Master of Environmental Science (Honours) from Middlesex University in London, United Kingdom. is an interactive environmental website dedicated to raising awareness and promoting of sound environmental stewardship. The scope of our discourse encompasses a broad range of topical environmental and sustainable development issues.