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The growth that comes from STEM 

Sri Lanka is a country that has produced a number of scientists, engineers, inventors and mathematicians, and persons like Dr. Ray Wijewardene, Dr. Sarath Gunapala and Prof. Neelika Malavige, among a number of others, have brought fame to the country during the past few decades. They have proved that science and technology, if embraced correctly, can not only bring commercial and scientific success, but can also help the growth and survival of the human race. 

However, at present, even though science is everywhere and is in everyday life, there is a certain gap between the people and science that needs to be bridged. The international community has also recognised this need. 

The World Science Day for Peace and Development is celebrated on 10 November (tomorrow) annually, and it is aimed at highlighting the noteworthy role of science in the society and the need to engage the public in debates on emerging scientific issues. In addition, the International Week of Science and Peace, which takes place every year during the week in which 11 November falls since the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a Resolution in 1988 proclaiming this week officially, focuses on raising awareness on the relationship of science and peace among the public. 

In the modern world, despite science being an integral and unmatchable part of people’s lives, only educational institutions and a handful of electronic and print media teach science. We saw the same during the Covid-19 pandemic – only a handful of media and academics explained to the public, scientific information about Covid-19 in a way that the public could comprehend. 

There is clearly a need for more discourses about science and technology, and it needs to be a normal, everyday discourse. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while addressing the nation recently, stated that a sophisticated programme is being implemented to develop a technology-based education system in the country. He further said that the Government has allocated funds to build new faculties in every university to increase the number of students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, and also to provide an allowance of Rs. 5,000 for students studying in technical institutes. 

Even though the progress of these grand plans remains unknown, what the President spoke of doing is actually a need of the hour. 

In fact, the absence of a proper discourse on science, or what aspects of our lives and of the country are dependent on science, is one of the reasons STEM subjects, despite being taught in schools and universities, have attracted less attention than they should. 

Perhaps, even the issue of unemployed graduates would not have been this severe, had Sri Lanka taken more efforts to promote STEM subjects and create more educational opportunities for more students to enrol in these courses, because the job market for those who graduate in STEM subjects is massive, and is growing. 

It is equally important to talk more about the promising careers based on STEM subjects, because these careers can build the country’s struggling economy as well. Even though it varies from country to country, and from time to time, economists suggest that the job market share for those who have studied STEM subjects could be anywhere between 40% to 70%, and STEM subjects have become a part of fields which are not traditionally identified as STEM subject-related fields. They also project a steep growth in these numbers in the coming few decades, as well as expansion to more fields. 

According to the Export Development Board (EDB), services related to information and communication technology (ICT), business process management (BPM), electronics, construction services, and marine and offshore engineering services, are some of the key STEM subject-related services Sri Lanka exports. 

There is always more room for people and science to get closer, and that collaboration can change lives and nations. We can start by telling the people that discussions on science do not have to be complex or be conducted in scientific jargon that they do not understand, and that it can be as normal as any other part of our daily lives.