iPURSE international research symposium

Ambassador Gonggrijp had the honor the speak at the iPURSE international research symposium organised by the University of Peradeniya. Here is what she had to say about curiosity, knowledge sharing, innovation and a Dutch diamond.

As the new ambassador of the Netherlands to Sri Lanka, it is an honor and a privilege to be Chief Guest at the iPURSE international research symposium organized by the University of Peradeniya. I am excited to have been invited to the oldest and largest university in Sri Lanka. As a bonus this allows me to see the country. Since I arrived over a month ago, I have seen much of Colombo, but little of the rest of the country. I very much enjoyed the great views this morning on my way to the university. And of course the beautiful premises of the university.

Before we dive into the theme of this conference I would like to share something with you. You might wonder what it is like to arrive in a country you have never visited before, knowing that you will live there for 4 years. May be you have visited or studied in another country and you recognize the feeling of being a sponge. I am a sponge at the moment. Trying to take everything in, all the new impressions, looking around with surprise, with amazement. As if I were a blank page at arrival and the book still has to be written. Actually this experience reminds me of my childhood. Being open, curious, ready to learn and learn more.

In the world of children, things are often much simpler. There is black and white, there is right and wrong. Less nuances, less complexities. And of course as kids grow up, they start to experience the many shades of grey and they will experiment with it, trying to outsmart you with your own arguments or behaviour. We know, as students, researchers, scientists, diplomats, as adults and professionals that the world is much more complicated…

‘Together Towards Tomorrow’. That’s what we need to do and it is easier said than done! Especially when you consider the most pressing issues in the world today, which will also be huge challenges tomorrow. Climate change, water and food insecurity, instability and inequality have to be tackled through concerted effort. If we want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, we have to work together, within nations and between nations.

Sri Lanka is a country that feels the effects of climate change. Dry areas are getting drier, wet areas are getting wetter. This requires research into climate change and adaptation. Independent scientific research is tremendously important. We see everywhere in the world that - partly in reaction to globalization - people tend to pull back behind their borders, in the Netherlands we say behind the dikes. People are not investing enough in challenges like climate change or even ignoring or denying them. Which is an inconvenient development considering that this is the moment we should clasp our hands together. We need to co-operate instead of just co-habit!

Scientific research forms the basis of concerted action to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. If we do not agree on the problem we will not be able to solve it together. For instance research in the field of agriculture is essential for the livelihoods of many Sri Lankans. Around a quarter of Sri Lankans are employed in agriculture. Agricultural research can provide a common understanding, new methods of irrigation or create drought resistant varieties of crops. It can also increase productivity and profitability. This will not only benefit the farmers, but also consumers and - in general - food security in Sri Lanka.

In the Netherlands agricultural research has taken our small country from a country of subsistence farmers to being the second largest agricultural exporter in the world. Our agricultural university’s goal has moved from feeding the country to feeding the world. In the Netherlands we feel the effects of climate change as well. We have had particularly hot and dry summers. This has been disastrous for many crops.

But also if you look at other challenges like population growth, water security and poverty, we have to find common approaches based on common facts and common learnings. Publishing research findings, sharing successes and mistakes are key! This conference plays a role in this exchange. As the motto of the university says “knowledge is the eye unto all”, knowledge can provide us insight into the challenges that we face.

In the Netherlands scientific institutions work together with civil society, private sector and government to tackle these challenges. We call this the ‘Dutch Diamond’ approach in which each actor has its independent role, but all actors are aware that they can only thrive and reach their long term goals through cooperation with each other. In this approach it is of course very important that research does not lose its independence. Research should not be influenced by politics or business. In the Netherlands we used to have a satiric advertisement which said “we from toilet duck, advise to use toilet duck”. Toilet duck was a toilet cleaner. And of course this was a joke, but unfortunately we all too often see so called research published which has been financed by a certain lobby.

However, when keeping independence, cooperation between government, science, private sector and civil society can bring the innovations we need. I have for instance seen inventions in the medical world that, with help of the government and the private sector, have made specific medical care available for many people in developing countries.

This cooperation should not stop at borders as our challenges do not stop at borders either. The Netherlands is keen to share its practices and knowledge and to learn from our partners. Through the Netherlands Fellowship Programmes (NFP) the Netherlands offers fellowships for professionals in 51 countries. Many international students, including a large number from Sri Lanka, have found their way to Dutch universities. Furthermore, the government of the Netherlands has supported many Sri Lankan industries by sharing Dutch knowledge and experience through various measures including training and capacity building programs and exposure tours. We value insights from all over the world and it is through such exchange and cooperation that we can prepare ourselves for tomorrow.

I trust this symposium helps to spread knowledge and will trigger innovations that are needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, as these goals clearly state what needs to be done ‘Together Towards Tomorrow’!

And while doing this, I would like to invite you to go back to your childhood every now and then: be open, curious, naïve, look with amazement at the world surrounding us and just for a short moment undo the world from its complexity. Why? You might wonder. Because it gives you the opportunity to see clearly what’s wrong and what’s right. And it reminds you of why you do what you do. So you find new energy to continue the struggle with your research questions, contradicting research outcomes and whatever other complex issues you have to deal with on your journey to innovate, to find the truth and to prepare the path to tomorrow.