Astrology as technology thrust in Sri Lanka: What happens when politicians decide research priorities

Aug 04, 2014 (LBO) I agree with the Minister of Technology and Research that we need a lot more discussion about economic strategy. I’ve been pleading for this for several years: in English, in this column, since at least 2006. An example: Choices: Geography or ideology? But one could say these things should be discussed in Sinhala. Done that too, in theVikalpa column I used to write in Ravaya. Then in 2012, I even wrote a book in Sinhala and sent personal invitations for the launch to all MPs. Several came, including from the Minister’s party, the JHU. But now that the Minister of Technology and Research is calling for greater public discussion on economic strategy, entering through the door of research funding that is within his official remit (, it is our responsibility to respond. Markets are good, but . . . It appears that the JHU is forthe market economy, but . . . Some seem to believe in and act upon the premise that a further enhanced service economy, with a vibrant leisure-and-entertainment sector, would result in economic growth. . . . In the meantime, there are still some others who argue that the economic policy of the country should be one centered on domestic production for import substitution, using local resources, within the one- time experimented approach of the closed economy. In addition, there are also other vociferous critics, despite having no clear view of their own, who criticize anything and everything as usual, obviously with little knowledge on the subject of economic development. The time has come for us to view the economic future of the country from a more rational perspective, avoiding the two extremes of self-anesthetized optimistic exaggeration of isolated instances of economic success on the one hand, and on the other, vicious baseless criticism. But he does not like technology being purely maneuvered by market forces.  It has no heart, he says,"it is absolutely necessary to exercise proper judgment inchoosing between technologies to invest." In 2006, I analyzed an interview by the then leader of the JVP in which he said more or less the same thing: While the JVP supports a vibrant free market economy to generate growth, we are completely against an unbridled, uncontrolled open economy, which in the long run would cause immense harm to our economy. The original interview is no longer on the JVP website, but my analysis, including excerpts, is at This appears to be the tactic of all fringe politicians; or perhaps all politicians. They can longer deny the superiority of the decentralized decision making model exemplified by the market, so they don’t. But they will ensure that adequate room for exercise of discretion is preserved to advance their agendas. Exercise of proper judgment So, what can one say about the exercise [of] proper judgment in choosing between technologies to invest? This is not an abstract discussion of hypotheticals. The speech was by the Minister of Technology and Research of a lower middle income country which is intending to spend LKR 50,000,000,000 in the 2015-20 period, with LKR 30,000,000,000 coming from tax payers and the rest (LKR 20 billion) from the private sector through means to be specified (possibly sector levies and cesses, if one goes by the Minister's track record in the Environment Ministry). According to the Minister, this kind of planned resource allocation has not been done since the five-year plans of 1952 and 1972. According to Professor S.S. Colombage, a speaker at the event announcing the initiative, the newly formulated R&D investment plan (2015-2020) is a path-breaking step . . .. To see what is path-breaking, it is not enough to read the Minister's speech. One has to look at the slides of the Advisor to the Minister, Asoka Abeygunawardana, outlining the Framework and the Ten Technological Thrust (3T) Areas that have been identified ( These officially sanctioned slides can be downloaded from the Ministry website. Space limitations preclude a detailed analysis of the ten thrusts and the ten interventions that yield over one hundred activities (actually, there are more than 10 thrusts, because some are broken out by decimals)to be supported by LKR 50 billion in tax-payer and private-sector funds. But one thrust in particular illustrates the path-breaking nature of the enterprise: Technological Thrust Area 9.2 is Traditional Knowledge Astrology. It is truly path-breaking todesignate astrology as a “technological thrust area in the 21st Century. This formal recognition was bestowed upon this ancient art at the Seventh Biennial Conference on Science and Technology (BICOST VII) convened in July 2014 by the National Science and Technology Commission (NASTEC) as mandated by the Science and Technology Act, No. 11 of 1994. The specific allocations have not been announced, but if one assumes that one-tenth will be allocated to Thrust Area 9 (LKR 500 million over five years) and then evenly divided between astrology and the incongruously coupled cluster of emerging technologies listed as Thrust Area 9.1 (space technology, microelectronics, photonics and robotics, mechatronics and new materials), astrology and associated traditional knowledge will get LKR 250 million. It is unlikely that anything significant can be done with LKR50 million a year in any one of the six emerging technologies listed under Thrust Area 9.1. On the other hand, 50 million a year (or even more, since there are likely to be few takers under 9.1) can do wonders forpractitioners of traditional knowledge. My first thought was that traditional knowledge is, by definition, settled knowledge, resting on faith and thereforenot requiring new research. But looking for a definition from ancient sources, I found astrological traditional knowledgeto have a vast scope, much of which has gone into desuetude in Sri Lanka. According to the BrahmajālaSutta, Lord Buddha abstained from the following activities belonging to the same class as astrology: Prophesying long life, prosperity, etc or the reverse from the marks on a person's limbs, hands, feet etc;divining by means of omens and signs; making auguries on the basis of thunderbolts and celestial portents;interpreting ominous dreams making auguries from the marks on cloth gnawed by mice offering bloodsacrifices to the gods determining whether the site for a proposed house or garden is propitious or not making predictions for officers of state; laying demons in a cemetery; laying ghosts; knowledge of charms tobe pronounced by one living in an earthen house reciting charms to give protection from arrows interpreting the significance of the colour, shape, and other features of the following items to determinewhether they portend fortune or misfortune for their owners: gems, garments, staffs, swords, spears,arrows, bows, other weapons, women, men, boys, girls, slaves, slave-women, elephants, horses, buffaloes,bulls, cows, goats, rams, fowl, quails, iguanas, earrings (or house-gables), tortoises and other animals making predictions to the effect that the king will march forth (etcetc) predicting: there will be an eclipse(and various other celestial and terrestrial phenomena) such will be the result of the moon's eclipse, suchthe result of the sun's eclipse and so on for all the celestial phenomena arranging auspicious dates formarriages (and so on) reciting charms to make people lucky or unlucky obtaining oracular answers toquestions by means of a mirror, a girl, or a god; worshipping the sun; worshipping MahaBrahma invokingthe goddess of luck giving ceremonial mouthwashes and ceremonial bathing; offering sacrificial fires Bringing all this traditional knowledge back would actually require more than research funds. I can see the rationale for several universities. But whatever be the outcome of the tax-payer and private-sector funds given to those knowledgeable in these traditional arts, it will truly illustrate the dangers of allowing politicians and their"scientist" acolytes to exercise proper judgment on how research funds should be spent. Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x