Saturday, January 5, 2013

Some challenges of science in the developing world

I spent yesterday talking to staff of the chemistry and physics departments at the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Last year academic staff at all Sri Lanka universities were on strike for several months demanding greater government investment in education. [See this article from the Economist].

The challenges of teaching science are formidable. These challenges include:
  • The poor English of students, particularly those from rural areas.
  • The limited availability and ongoing maintenance of even basic lab equipment such as pH meters and mass balances.
  • Complex government and bureaucratic rules and regulations for importing chemicals, spare parts, and equipment. So even on the rare occasions when funds are available actually acquiring the desired equipment or consumables can be problematic.
  • A lack of fundamental understanding of the basics, even from students have performed extremely well on Cambridge A-levels exams. It seems some students prepare for these exams by just memorisation of answers to past exam questions.
  • Poor attendance at lectures.
  • Limited instrumentation for even basic chemical and structural characterisation of samples.
  • Limited (or very slow) internet access for both students and staff.
In spite of all these obstacles staff are proud of the job training their students. Each year about half of their graduates go to Ph.D programs in the USA. 
Australia is considered a less desirable destination because of the limited funding it offers to international Ph.D students and the absence of graduate level course work.

Staff also persevere with research, somehow managing to publish papers in international journals. Often this relies on international collaborations [usually via the extensive network of expatriates in the West] to access instrumentation.

Unfortunately, few Ph.D graduates return to Sri Lanka, preferring to take jobs in US industry. There are many vacant faculty positions in Sri Lanka universities. The salary of a Full Professor was recently increased to slightly more than US$1,000 per month.

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