The significance of research and development

Staff Correspondent
Wednesday, July 12th, 2017


Reflections concerning Bangladesh


To a curious reader of history, it appears that the Arabians were engaged in business using maritime routes starting around 280-200 B.C. They made voyages covering greater distances than those hovered over by Europeans centuries later. In fact for many centuries, the Arab sailors supplied luxury goods to Europe.  During these times, the Arabs began landing their frank incense and myrrh at the Egyptian Red Sea ports and from there those were transported overland to Alexandria. Later on, they added spices like cinnamon, ginger and vanilla with their pack of offerings and farther afterwards, other exotic goods like glass beads and Chinese silk started being channeled through Alexandria which served as a clearing house of goods coming from the orient. The Arabs had to work hard for maintaining control over the Red Sea for the purpose of business and to weave stories about sources of the goods they dealt in and the difficulties that they had to face fetching the merchandise.


Tales of Indian fortune and its goods generated indomitable urge in the Europeans to discover India for themselves and, therefore, they were looking for ways and means to undertake commercial pilgrimage to that El Dorado. Two men, Christopher Columbus (31 October 1451 – 20 May 1506) of Genoa, Italy, and Vasco Da Gama (c. 1460/1469 – 24 December 1524) of Portugal came forward to fulfill that dream.


Research and Toil in the Seas


Vasco Da Gama


A Portuguese explorer, Gama, was one of the most famous and singed about explorers from the Discovery Ages and was the first European explorer to reach India via the seas. Ascending the throne of Portugal in 1481, King John II started reducing dependence of the monarchy on the local nobility and focused on building the royal treasury through commerce which saw expansion of gold and slave trade in West Africa.  He was bent upon launching the highly profitable spice trade between Europe and Asia. In contemporary times, this trade was a monopoly of the Venetians, who operated land routes through Levantine and Egyptian ports plying the Red Sea to the spice markets of India. King John II ordained new objectives for his captains to locate new roots to Asia sailing around the African continent. This task was originally given to Vasco Da Gama’s father, but was finally offered to Vasco on the strength of his record of protecting Portuguese training stations along the African Gold coast from being ravaged by the French.


Vasco Da Gama sailed on 8 July 1497 with a fleet of four ships run by 170 men from Lisbon. Gama followed the root pioneered by earlier explorers, especially that of John II’s captain Bartolomeu Dias who returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 exploring as far as the Fish River in modern-day South Africa. Sailing through the Arab -controlled territories on the East African coast, Vasco reached Calicut in India on 20 May 1498 via Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi.


Vasco Da Gama made three voyages to India; after being appointed, in February 1524, as Viceroy of Portuguese India by King John III, Gama set out for India for the third time in April 1524 with a fleet of 14 ships. He arrived in India in September, but Gama contracted malaria soon and died in the city of Cochin on Christmas Eve and he was buried there. Gama’s voyages opened a sea route from Europe to Asia and ushered in enormous business benefits for the Europeans.


Christopher Columbus


Europeans had long enjoyed a safe land passage, the so-called Silk Route, to China and India, which were sources of valuable goods such as silk, spices and opiates. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the land route to Asia became much more difficult and dangerous. Portuguese navigators under the leadership of King John II, sought to reach India by sailing around Africa which was brought to fruition by Vasco Da Gama opening up great avenues for business and benefits in May 1498.


But, before Vasco Da Gama, Christopher Columbus of Genoa, Italy, persuaded Queen Isabella I and her husband Ferdinand II to grant him permission and necessary support to make voyages to India, though he landed in the Americas, for the purpose of business and settlement. Between 1492 and 1503, Colombus completed four round trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, all of them under the sponsorship of the crown of Castile. These voyages were the beginning of explorations and colonisation of the American continents whereby they bear great significance in Western history. Columbus always maintained that the countries he visited and colonised were parts of Asia, as previously described by Marko Polo and other European travelers. In his voyages Columbus discovered Bahamas, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Los Santos, Guadeloupe, Hispaniola, Cuba, Tobago, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and other isles, all of which were known as the New World back in Europe. In his fourth voyage, Colombus sought to reach the Strait of Malacca to the Indian Ocean. Columbus’ voyages and efforts for building settlements on the island of Hispaniola brought about the colonisation of the new world by Spain.


History is witness to the bravery and arduous exploratory efforts of Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama that brought about new dimensions in European colonisation of territories around the world and expansion of trade and commerce.


What was the driving force behind all this? A popular saying goes: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ This is what had worked. While the Europeans frantically ploughed the seven seas, greater sections of Indians sat confined within their territories taking the action of sea-crossing as a sin.


As you sow so you reap


The Europeans are still in the habit of pursuing their search for new resource base, new knowledge and so on. It appears that this characteristics of employing relentless efforts for development of one’s position through inventing, discovering, modifying, adding, placing and replacing, moving and removing, testing and retesting, examining and re-examining, thinking and re-thinking has either been passed on to, or assumed by almost all the nations of the occident.


As an instance in point, we may take the case of Americans. Susan Sontag, a pre-eminent American novelist, poet and critique once said, ‘America is the arch-emporium of the planet, holding man’s biological as well as his historical future in its King Kong paws.’ How could the Americans win this lofty position? The other day the land was roamed about by long-heir and so to say naked Red Indians with deadly weapons looking for food, not cooked but alive, not baked but with motionless life! Only within a scanty period of 200 years after the re-organisation of the American states by the ‘Surplus Poor’ of Europe, the country has ascended to an unbelievable altitude of development in Politics, Economics, Business, Science & Technology and Arts & Culture and so on. HOW?


Perhaps an easy equation puts forward the answer to the above question; the country has been decked with primary resources at present as it was in the period of Red Indians. But, what have been instrumental in changing the status of the country are the constant initiatives and efforts of the people to look for better and improved ways to exploit its resources. That called for extensive research, experiment and developmental works (R&D). Simultaneous, parallel and concerted efforts conducted by the military, the business community and the academicians have almost been a ‘Mannerism’ of American life today. And the result: Soaring development in every sphere in trade & commerce, in military arsenal, and humanitarian initiatives, in thoughts & academics, in science & technology, in arts & culture, in films & entertainments, in language & literature and in politics & civility.


The most interesting and significant part of R&D boom is that the US companies have rediscovered that the universities and the other academic institutions can play a pivotal role in developing business.


R&D expenditures by different countries in different years may be seen in the following table. The world’s total nominal R&D expenditure was approximately one trillion dollars in 2010.


The Bangladeshi Theatre


It occurs to many of us that whilst the developed nations having been endowed with, by our standards almost immeasurable reserves of resources are taking desperate R&D works to strengthen their economy, we in the economically anaemic third world, particularly in Bangladesh should have rather jumped into paroxysmal R&D drives to constantly add to our science and technological achievements to bolster our resource base so that we could live through the apprehended windy days of the future which are inevitably to be characterised by over population, miserable death of primary resources, shortage of usable land and lack of knowledge and systems. Unfortunately, the facts present a diametrically opposite scenario. Our private companies, to put actual phenomenon, do not undertake any R&D works. As for the transnational companies operating here, R&D initiatives do not, in its true sense, exist;  a number of them undertake  some amount of market research but then, that does not represent consistent and extensive efforts. Marketing research including research in product, promotion, place (distributional channel) etc. directed towards development of new products and new promotional and distributive strategies are not, in its real meaning, undertaken as has been a tradition and requirement in modern business.


The state-owned corporate bodies which have been controlling a greater segment of Bangladesh business do have some planning and research departments, or cells apparently engaged in advisory and development works. But, the efforts they undertake do not beseem what it means by R&D. As a result, with their heavy establishments, these corporations have scarcely been successful in offering new products and/or new marketing services to the population i.e the consumers of the country. Since these big brothers of business remained infertile so far as R&D is concerned, the impregnation of the total business arena with the tradition of indulging in the act of searching for new ideas, new products, new systems, new knowledge and deeper insights into human or consumer behavior and so on could not take place.


As regards R&D efforts elsewhere other than the business proper, some works have been done in agriculture and the socio economic sector. To name some of the enterprises IBBL, Jute Research Institute, Comilla BARD, BRAC, Grameen Bank and Gana Shastha, CPD, BIDS etc. come first. The people somehow feel the innovative efforts of these enterprises. But, the impoverished economy probably is badly in need of even more versatile activities. Once upon a time, JUTTON, a kind of cloth blended out of jute and cotton yarn stirred the minds of consumers, but soon the flames of hope got extinguished. Now and then we witness, on the TV screen, some information of some discovery, or invention, or modification, or diversification glitter like gems on the crowns of some ancient kings or queens – and then a tiger’s howling gradually degenerates into a cat’s mewing.


A spear to hunt


Our government should get rid of the age-old indifference to research and development; our businessmen should put off their fear of expenditure associated with R&D and our academicians have to cease to drive away our businessmen as untouchables.


Everybody has to recognise that each taka invested in R&D is most likely to repay in multiplied figures. Experience of mankind in Korea, Japan, the Europe and North America is a flagrant proof of this premise.


Since we are short of primary resources, our necessity to undertake R&D is urgent if we want to live a human life. The business establishments in our country should, at once start creating R&D wings sucking in the best available brains and go researching for new products and services. Professionals working in business concerns should take a lead in this respect and our academicians should give a hand to this. Business- University Research Consortiums may be built; this will benefit both the parties and the nation as a whole. Government’s role is always vital; it will probably do a foresighted work if it cuts short budgets of other sectors and appropriates a substantial amount of money for R&D and induces whatever brains we have, to employ their efforts in this initiative. Perhaps this is the only way to restore our forlorn hopes for life; our hopes for beauty and our hopes for life and beauty for our children.

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