Science loses in Sri Lanka's debate on standard time
Sri Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is desperately seeking a cheap cloning kit to mass-produce public intellectuals in his country.
What's in half an hour? A lot more than only 30 minutes or 1,800 seconds — as Sri Lankans discovered last week.
On 14 April, the government adjusted Sri Lanka's standard time to GMT+5:30 from GMT+6, which had been used since 1996. In doing so, the government completely ignored expert views of scientists and intellectuals. It listened instead to a vocal minority of nationalists, astrologers and Buddhist monks who had lobbied the newly elected president Mahinda Rajapaksa to 'restore the clock to original Sri Lankan time'.
Not for the first time, science and reason lost out to nationalism and political expediency.
Tinkering with time
Tropical Sri Lanka gets about twelve hours of daylight year-round. For decades, the standard time was GMT+5:30 but in 1983, a government-appointed committee recommended changing this to make the island a full six hours ahead of GMT. Although the then president presented this to his cabinet of ministers, the change was not implemented for unknown reasons.
In May 1996, the government, faced with a major electricity crisis, changed standard time to GMT+6:30 then readjusted it to the more convenient GMT+6 a few months later.
But old habits die hard. Some conservative Sri Lankans never accepted the change. This resulted in a hilarious situation of 'old time' and 'new time' coexisting for a decade. In a country not particularly known for its punctuality, it added a new layer of confusion. Meanwhile the Tamil Tiger rebels, who control parts of the country's north and east, defiantly continued to use GMT+ 5:30.
In early March 2006, the president's office proposed restoring standard time back to GMT+ 5:30. This announcement barely registered in the local media — until Sri Lanka's best known resident guest, Arthur C. Clarke, issued a public statement arguing that the country should not tinker with its time.
The science fiction author, who has lived in Sri Lanka for half a century, cited scientific, technological and economic reasons for maintaining GMT+6.
Quoting data from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), he said that the country uses considerably more electricity in the evenings than in the mornings. "If we put the clock back by half an hour as proposed, dusk will fall sooner — and households will be consuming more electricity for lighting," he pointed out. "Both the country's generation costs and individual electricity bills could go up as a result."
Clarke reminded everyone that Sri Lanka is struggling to meet its growing energy demands, spending vast amounts importing the oil that generates more than half of its electricity.
"We standardise time because we need to deal with others," Clarke continued. "In today's rapidly globalising world, Sri Lanka cannot afford to keep changing a fundamental attribute like standard time every few years. Such a move could harm the perceptions of foreign investors, international banks, airlines and tourists — at a time when we are trying to attract them all."
A few Sri Lankan scientists followed his lead and entered the debate. The CEB's former chief energy planner Tilak Siyambalapitiya issued a media statement giving a detailed analysis of how the time change would affect consumers.
With nearly three-quarters of Sri Lankan households using electricity for lighting, he said, the estimated increase in household electricity use could be as high as 15 per cent if electricity is used only for lighting, and about five per cent in households that also use electricity for other purposes.
He further said: "As a nation, the increased electricity use would be in the range 0.5 to 1.0 per cent, with an annual value between 275 and 550 million rupees (US$2.72 and 5.44 million). About 70 per cent of this national loss will be paid by way of increased electricity bills by household electricity consumers, whose electricity is subsidised anyway — and the balance will add to CEB's debts, presently reported to be at a staggering 90,000 million rupees (US$890 million)!"
Rohan Samarajiva, a former telecommunications regulator, took a broader view. Echoing Clarke, he said: "Changing Sri Lanka's time zone again within a decade… and deviating from the standard round-hour time differences will reinforce our international image as a vacillating and peculiar country."
Science and public policy: what nexus?
As it turned out, the government ignored these and other rational arguments. The whole debate demonstrated the very limited role that science and technology play in influencing and formulating public policy in Sri Lanka.
It was strange to see the views of ultra-nationalists from the island's Sinhalese majority and their sworn adversaries, the Tamil Tigers, converging. Throw into this mix the few hundred soothsayers and Buddhist monks, both of whom wield enormous influence over Sri Lankan politics, public policy and personal lives, and it would be hard to find a more motley collection.
What the pro-change lobby lacked in scientific argument and the star power of Arthur C. Clarke, they more than made up in bizarre statements and unsubstantiated claims.
BBC Online, for instance, quoted a little known Buddhist monk as saying that the 1996 time change had "moved the country to a spiritual plane 500 miles east of where it should be". He added: "I feel that many troubles have been caused to Sri Lanka. Tsunamis and other natural disasters have been taking place." With scholar monks staying away from the debate, it was not clear if this view was widely shared.
Where are our public intellectuals?
The debate also revealed the glaring absence of public intellectuals and the woeful inadequacies of the Sri Lankan scientific community. Very few scientists and engineers spoke out — all of them either retired, or employed as university academics or independent consultants.
Why did several thousand scientists and engineers in Sri Lanka, mostly in publicly funded institutions, stay silent? Junior and middle level professionals are known to be officially 'gagged' from speaking to the media on any matter of public importance, while heads of scientific institutions, who do enjoy discretionary powers to speak, know how to guard their tongues to safeguard their jobs and perks.
In a country where the state is still the chief employer of scientists, and either controls or influences most research funding, it takes extraordinary courage for a scientist to speak out against an ill-advised policy. Successive governments have made it clear that openness and criticism are not tolerated.
Coercion works where intimidation fails: a former president of the Institution of Engineers once acknowledged that most members of his profession are more interested in winning lucrative government contracts than entering public debates that question state action.
The few outspoken university academics who have the courage of their convictions are sidelined, harassed or denied promotions, and are routinely vilified in the state-controlled media. The message is loud and clear: if you are not with us, you are against your country, religion and race — an anti-national traitor.
It is not the least surprising, therefore, that while Sri Lanka has an abundance of 'cocktail party intellectuals' — learned men and women who only express their views in strict private conversation — there are very few public intellectuals.
Stepping into this void are what I call 'publicity intellectuals' – scientists who pander to popular whims and nationalist fancies even when it goes against every norm of science.
Recently, we have seen nuclear chemists and atmospheric physicists transforming themselves into television pundits on reincarnation, hypnotism and 'Buddhist science'. These farces are sustained by media organisations with a keen eye on ratings and revenue. Meanwhile, a whole generation is growing up unable to discern real science from non-science.
Sure enough, when it became clear that the clock was going to be adjusted by half an hour, some of these 'publicity intellectuals' suddenly emerged to applaud the government's 'far-sighted decision'.
Of course, they are free to sing for their supper. But collectively, Sri Lankan scientists have missed another opportunity to steer their country forward to a better future.
Nalaka Gunawardene is director and CEO of TVE Asia-Pacific, and a trustee of SciDev.Net. The views expressed are entirely his own.