Arthur C Clarke Institute in Sri Lanka: Time to ask some tough questions!

Read also: 4 Oct 2011: A Tale of Three Telescopes and a Blind News Media

Sir Arthur C Clarke at the ACCIMT in better times


For many years, I’ve been explaining and clarifying to everyone that I worked with the late Sir Arthur C Clarke in his personal office in Colombo, which was completely separate from a government entity named the Arthur C Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. This is not just an institutional demarcation; the latter body set up by the government of Sri Lanka in 1984 and sustained since then with public funding has completely under-served its founding ideals and remains mediocre and unproductive after a quarter century. I have no wish to be associated, even mistakenly, with such an entity.

I remained quiet about this for as long as Sir Arthur was alive, as it was not tactful for me – as part of his team – to criticise a state entity named in his honour. A year after his death, I broke that silence and wrote a media article which was published in the current affairs magazine Montage in April 2009.

That elicited some strange ‘reader comments’ on the magazine’s website — several of which alleged that I was a ‘traitor’ who was out to discredit the hard-working (‘Sinhala Buddhist’) engineers and managers of this institute! I could not fathom how and why the staff’s ethnicity or religious faith was relevant.

Beyond such vitriol, these pseudonymous ‘readers’ never once responded to my specific questions about the public-funded institute’s scientific productivity and public accountability.

Unfortunately, Montage went out of publication and its website, which was located at http://www.montagelanka.com, is also no longer available online. So in the public interest, I’m reproducing my article below, unedited as it appeared in print in April 2009. Alas, I never saved the online comments so those are probably lost forever…

As always, this blog is open to a rational discussion of the core issues raised below, as all the concerns still remain valid. And there are no ‘sacred cows’ in my book!

* * * * *

Published in Montage magazine, Sri Lanka; April 2009 issue (print issue and
originally online at: http://www.montagelanka.com/?p=1476)

Monument for Sir Arthur C Clarke: Time to ask some tough questions

By Nalaka Gunawardene

As the first death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke approaches, Lankans are still debating how best to cherish the memory of the celebrated author and visionary who called the island his home for more than half a century.

Ours is a land where private individuals — and governments –- just love to put up ostentatious and often superfluous structures to honour the departed. We typically don’t assess their cost-effectiveness or utility. Neither do we pause to ask how the person being honoured would have felt about it.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) recently announced plans to launch the country’s first satellite, which is to be named after Sir Arthur. According to news reports, it will be launched into low earth orbit (LEO) at an estimated cost around US$ 20 million.

Would naming Sri Lanka’s first satellite be a fitting tribute to Sir Arthur, universally acclaimed as inventor of the communications satellite (comsat)? Or should a monument to this ‘one man cheering squad for Sri Lanka’ be more rooted in the Lankan soil, where people can see and feel its presence everyday? And, by the way, what about the state technical institute in Moratuwa that already bears the Arthur Clarke name?

Sir Arthur, with whom I worked closely for 21 years as an aide and a decade as spokesman, would surely have wanted an open and frank debate on this matter. He opted for rational, evidence-based decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. He frowned upon grandiose plans made for their own sake, whether their implementation was going be paid for by public or private funds.

Besides, he already had an asteroid, dinosaur species and a geostationary comsat named after him during his lifetime. Topping that without going over the top would be a challenge indeed.

A living legacy

The tussle for the Clarke legacy started within hours of his death on 19 March 2008. He had left clear written instructions for his funeral to be held on a strictly secular and austere basis. He didn’t want any decorations, and explicitly disallowed official involvement by British or Lankan governments.

As this news spread, it fell on me to explain to government officials why offers of a state funeral and other types of state patronage could not be accommodated. This raised some eyebrows and dashed hopes of some who wanted to turn the sombre event into a carnival. In the end, the state appealed for a symbolic radio silence of two minutes to coincide with the funeral.

In the weeks and months that followed, many have asked me what kind of monument was being planned in Sir Arthur’s memory. The answer, as far as the Arthur Clarke Estate is concerned, is none –- and this seems to surprise many.

Yet it is entirely consistent with Sir Arthur’s personality and vision: he never sought personal edifices in his honour or memory. When a journalist once asked him about a monument, he said: “Go to any well-stocked library, and look around…”

That evokes memories of the well known epitaph for Sir Christopher Wren, one of the greatest architects of all time, who significantly changed London’s skyline: “Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice”(“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”). It also begs the question why Sir Arthur chose not to make any mention of the physical entity that already bore his name: the Arthur C Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies (ACCIMT).

Indeed, the ACCIMT is today a perfect example of a good idea gone astray, becoming a disgrace to the very man it was meant to honour. How did things go wrong to the point where Sir Arthur Clarke distanced himself from the Arthur Clarke Institute in the last few years of his life? These thorny questions need to be asked now that we are discussing matters of legacy.

The world was very different, and aspirations were very high, when ACCIMT was established in 1984 by an Act of Parliament to help transfer and adopt modern technologies in five areas: computers, telecommunications, energy, robotics and space technology. The Institute, initially called the Arthur Clarke Centre, was to undertake research and development as well as train technical professionals in ways that would accelerate economic development and advance the quality of life.

Several leading Lankan professionals were associated with its creation. Among them were civil servant (later Minister) Dr Sarath Amunugama and diplomat (now academic) Dr Naren Chitty. In 1985, President J R Jayewardene appointed the eminent biochemist (and his science advisor) Professor Cyril Ponnamperuma as its founder director.

As patron, Sir Arthur had no executive functions or responsibilities, but generously provided advice, guidance and some funding to the fledgling institute. He donated US$ 35,000 received for the 1982 Marconi Fellowship. Just as importantly, he mobilised his far-flung network of international contacts in scientific, technological and engineering circles. The Arthur Clarke ‘fan club’ stretched far and wide -– from the White House to the Kremlin, and from elite academia to geeky Silicon Valley. Carrying this unique calling card, ACCIMT had access to a global reservoir of goodwill, partnerships and external funding.

Tragically, despite this head start and advantages, the Institute reaped little benefit. While it did show some early promise, it has failed to consolidate itself as a credible and productive technical institute. Its founding aim of becoming a centre of excellence for the developing world also flopped. When assessed using universally accepted measures of scientific productivity -– such as research publications in refereed international journals, peer citations and patents for innovation — it shows a dismally poor track record.

For sure, it has been dabbling with a few everyday technologies such as traffic lights, telephone locks and domestic gas leak alarms. Useful as these applications are in specific situations, they cannot justify 25 years of substantial investment of Lankan tax payer money as well as international donor funds.

March of ICTs

Perhaps an institute with this kind of lofty mandate could have been more influential at the apex policy level. The past 25 years have seen Sri Lanka adopting many new information and communication technologies or ICTs (e.g. mobile telephony in 1989, commercial internet connectivity in 1995). There has been an unprecedented and phenomenal growth in the coverage of telecom services. These developments have thrown up many policy and regulatory challenges for the state and private sector players.

Alas, ACCIMT has not kept up with the rapid evolution of information society, and failed to carve out a clear niche for itself even as Sri Lanka engages the Global Village through a multitude of ICTs. Its voice is neither heard nor heeded in key debates on bridging the digital divide, and on how best to prepare our youth to ‘exploit the inevitable’ in a globalised marketplace. These concerns were very dear to Sir Arthur, who continued to talk and write perceptively about them to the very end of his life. But ACCIMT is still stuck in the obsolete analog concerns of the 1980s.

Peer acceptance and recognition are indicators of any technical institute’s standing. ACCIMT would struggle to demonstrate its worth on these criteria. It is routinely bypassed by state policy making mechanisms and agencies. It is curious how the telecom industry regulator is spearheading the government’s newly announced satellite project. Why is ACCIMT, with a statutory mandate in this subject, not playing a more prominent role in such plans and discussions?

When the rest of government ignores the institute, it’s not surprising that technology-based industries don’t turn to it for advice either. The institute’s principal activity these days is conducting training courses in electronics — useful, no doubt, but for which purpose there already are several dedicated vocational training centres.

For much of its 25 years, the Arthur Clarke institute has taken cover behind its famous patron to avoid adequate public scrutiny. Large sections of society, including many in the media, harboured a misconception that Sir Arthur Clarke was personally involved in its management and research; in practice, he had none.

Early sparks

Things didn’t always look this bleak. For a while, it seemed as if the institute would live up to its founders’ expectations. For example, it was the first to downlink and relay CNN broadcasts in Sri Lanka. CNN founder Ted Turner‘s respect for Sir Arthur made this possible. The institute was also involved designing low-cost dish antennae for households to directly capture satellite TV transmissions in the 1980s when only two terrestrial channels were available. March of technology and commerce later made these services redundant.

One far-sighted activity that Professor Ponnamperuma started was the Science for Youth programme. On a national and competitive basis, 25 of the brightest high school leavers were selected and introduced to modern technologies over six consecutive weekends. Out of that exercise eventually emerged the Young Astronomers’ Association and Computer Society of Sri Lanka, the latter now a professional body.

As part of the 1986 batch, I can personally vouch for the insights and inspiration Science for Youth gave me in those pre-Internet days. I was especially fascinated by the outspoken views of inventor and aviator Ray Wijewardene. The friendship I formed with him has lasted for over two decades and enriched me enormously. Later, as a young science journalist, I used to cover the institute’s public events hosting of visiting tech pioneers and Russian cosmonauts. For a while, ACCIMT was a ‘happening place’.

Then, sometime in the 1990s, the institute abandoned most of its public engagement and outreach activities. This inward looking attitude didn’t change even after the government decided to locate the country’s largest optical telescope (donated by Japan) at the institute. I remember how exasperated Sir Arthur was to hear schools being told that they may visit and look at the telescope during the working hours from 9 am to 5 pm!

But by then, he was not going to intervene. After he turned 80 in 1997, Sir Arthur adopted a policy of ‘benign neglect’ towards the institute on which he had pinned such high hopes only years earlier. Ever conscious of his ‘resident guest’ status, he chose not to criticise the institute in public, although he shared his dismay and disappointment in private.

As we debate how best to preserve Sir Arthur’s illustrious legacy, we cannot afford to continue such ‘benign neglect’ on the publicly-funded Arthur Clarke Institute. A good starting point would be to belatedly ask tough questions and engage in some serious introspection.

Sir Arthur would have expected nothing less.

About the writer: Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked for Sir Arthur Clarke’s personal office, which was totally separate from the Arthur Clarke Institute. The views in this article are entirely those of the author.

Photographs courtesy Rohan de Silva, Arthur C Clarke Estate.

Read also these other critiques of the governmental Clarke Institute in Sri Lanka:

16 June 2010: Sri Lanka’s Sacred Cows and Orbital Dreams: Asking difficult questions

4 Oct 2011: A Tale of Three Telescopes and a Blind News Media

9 Oct 2011: සිවුමංසල කොලූගැටයා #35: දුර දැක්මක් නැති දූපතක දුරදක්නවල ඉරණම

FINALLY, SOME HOPE OF SALVAGING ARTHUR C CLARKE’S LEGACY — ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET!

24 May 2013: New Arthur C Clarke Centre to study Human Imagination

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One Response to “Arthur C Clarke Institute in Sri Lanka: Time to ask some tough questions!”

  1. A Tale of Three Telescopes and a Blind News Media - Groundviews Says:

    […] body being sustained by taxpayers. My questions about the Clarke Institute’s poor performance, posed in a media article published in April 2009, have gone unanswered for over two […]


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