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University of Peradeniya: Place for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research activities to tackle 21st century challenges

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University of Peradeniya – Elite place for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research activities to tackle 21st century challenges

Two of the unprecedented challenges we face in the 21st century are Global Warming and the Covid Pandemic. Given the extent and novelty of the challenges we face with these, it is obvious that scientists, economists, sociologists, ecologists, environmentalists, and so on will be needed to provide solutions and answers to inform decision-makers on many issues. One significant challenge of this process is the need for cooperation between different disciplines and integrating different perspectives. However, due to the variety of disciplines involved and their different theoretical frameworks, interdisciplinary approaches are necessary to tackle Global Warming, Covid Pandemic, and many similar challenges.

Universities which have taken a path of increasing specialization by deconstructing their curricula, research programmes, etc., into smaller fragments creating the disciplines and subdisciplines will not be able to cater for the interdisciplinary approaches. As explained by Professor Jill Trewhella from the University of Sydney, Australia, interdisciplinary research requires either that an individual researcher gains a depth of understanding two or more than one discipline and be fluent in their languages and methodologies, or more frequently that multidisciplinary teams assemble and create a common language and framework for discovery and innovation.

In the above context, the University of Peradeniya is one of the best-suited universities in Sri Lanka, which has a mandate, a will, and capabilities to tackle 21st Century challenges by embarking on multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research activities. The university, which is rich with diversity thanks to 9 faculties covering Medicine, Agriculture, Arts, Science, Engineering, Dental Sciences, Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science, Management and Allied Health Science, has many activities to foster multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Out of these iPURSE 2021 – the signature conference of the University of Peradeniya takes prime place.

The iPURSE 2021 will bring together eminent scholars from numerous disciplines, providing them with a platform for sharing research-based knowledge and building partnerships and collaborations to advance scientific research and promote novel interventions in a range of fields. iPURSE 2021 invites research submissions under the broad thematic areas such as Language, Culture, and Thought; Socioeconomic Progress and Governance; Education for Transformation; Science, Technology, and Industry; The Environment and Natural Resources; Health and Society; Food, Nutrition, and Livestock; Covid-19: Issues and Solutions.

The Faculty of Arts hosts this year’s conference, and it is scheduled to be conducted in virtual mode from November 11 – 12, 2021. Prof. Chandrika N Wijeyaratne, a Senior Professor in Reproductive Medicine and Endocrinology and the 18th Vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo, will grace the occasion as the Chief Guest. Prof. Wimal Dissanayake, an internationally acclaimed inspiring trendsetter, currently an Affiliate Professor at the University of Hawaii, delivers the keynote address.

The iPURSE 2021 Pre-Conference Webinar Series preparing towards iPURSE 2021 representing all the nine faculties was another good example of our commitment to embracing the university’s multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research objectives. This year’s themes are Education and Transformation; Engineering Education; Sri Lankan Capital Markets; Covid-19 Pandemic; One Health; Precision Agriculture; Animal Diseases and Public Health; Vaccines and Oral Health; and Role of Healthcare Workforce.

The iPURSE 2021 will be a unique platform to host 571 abstracts all together under 8 Themes. There are 41 abstracts under the theme Covid 19: Issues and Solutions, 33 under Education for Transformation, 65 under Environment and Natural Resources, 58 under Food Nutrition and Livestock, 128 under Health and Society, 64 under Language, Culture and Thought, 156 under Science, Technology and Industry and 26 under Socioeconomic Progress and Governance.

The conference will be live-streamed. We invite everybody to join this conference and appeal to work with us to find solutions to the challenges we face today and similar challenges that are yet to come.

Link for more information and live webcast: https://www.pdn.ac.lk/ipurse/2021

Prof. Janaka B. Ekanayake

Director

University Research Council

University of Peradeniya



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Opinion

Do they know what Parliament is there for?

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The behaviour of our elected representatives, at times, is so reprehensible that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate them from village thugs. In a way, it is not surprising because thugs are elected to positions of power. In fact, many others are waiting to be elected to the Provincial Councils, but I am sure many voters are hoping that these elections would never be held as they do not want more thugs to harass them. It is hoped that the second rung of government would be scrapped whatever our ‘big brother’ may say. However, we cannot do without the Parliament, and the behaviour of the members of the hallowed chamber has left us aghast. They simply do not seem to understand what the Parliament is there for. Maybe, the younger generations are not that concerned but we, ‘oldies’, are worried as this was not the way the ‘honourable members’ behaved in the past.

It is a great shame that the MP do not seem to understand that the Parliament is a place for discussion and debate, not cheap protests. If they have to be held, they should be within the confines of parliamentary norms. Though the Opposition uses this tactic more often, the governing party, too, indulges in this kind of gesture politics. Perhaps, it is the telecast of parliamentary proceedings that has resulted in these theatricals aimed at impressing the public.

What we are witnessing today, in addition to an inept government, is an Opposition engaged in gesture politics which, it seems to think, would propel them to power. Instead of contributing to nation building, in a constructive manner, with debate and discussion based on facts, members of the Opposition seem keen to hold protests inside the Parliament and spreading misinformation. Worse still, they engage in street protests, in spite of the fact that we are still in the midst of a pandemic that is far from being controlled, as well alluded to in The Island editorial “Enemies of people” (The Island, 17 November).

Even if all this can be excused, the despicable behaviour of some ‘honourable members’ can never be condoned. They seem to relish using unparliamentary language, even raw filth! Quite often, exchanges between the government and the Opposition descends into a slang match, not infrequently leading to fisticuffs. too. Instead of being punished, they are rewarded for their misdeeds. One ‘honourable member’ who tampered with the private parts of a man-in-robes was rewarded with a ministry during the previous Rajapaksa administration! By the way, I have stopped referring to those who act against the teachings and the Vinaya rules of the Buddha as Bhikkhus, as they are nothing but men-in-robes seeking personal glory and power. They are more selfish than laymen and fight for seats in the Parliament. I am waiting for a government bold enough to stop Bhikkhus being elected to Parliament!

Obviously, disgraceful behaviour does not seem to be limited to uneducated MPs. Whilst there is a justifiable clamour for the introducing of minimal educational qualifications for MPs, lack of educational qualifications does not seem to be the only problem. What we need is an attitudinal change. I was shocked to watch a recent news item, where only a part of a speech made by MP Sarath Fonseka, former Army Commander, was broadcast. More than half of his speech was ‘bleeped-out’, making me wonder whether he was using unparliamentary language. What would have happened if schoolchildren had been present in the public gallery to watch democracy in action!

The Speaker of the House is supposed to be the guardian of the dignity of the chamber and it is his bounden duty to stop MPs from using unparliamentary language and behaving like thugs, but our modern-day speakers seem to be behaving like puppets! In the British House of Commons, the word that often rings loud is “Order”, sometimes repeated in a terse manner. Recently, the British Speaker reprimanded the PM when he was out-of-order! When will that happen in Sri Lanka? By electing a former Army man as President, voters expected discipline at all levels of government and public administration but, unfortunately, we seem to be having indiscipline from Parliament downwards.

MP Tissa Kuttiarachci opened a new low in the Parliament by making a speech full of double meanings in referring to some female MPs. It was so offensive that even a female minister raised objections. When the Speaker reprimanded him, he had the audacity to demand to know what wrong words he had used! Any decent individual would not hesitate to apologise to anyone upon being told that their feelings were hurt, but he refused to do so! Do these MPs lack even common decency? Or, are they deluded by grandiosity?

Parliament need not be a dry place. Debates can be, and should be, interesting. Good natured humour would be tolerated, enjoyed even though remarks may carry hidden meanings. After all, it was the great democrat and parliamentary debater Dudley Senanayake, on an interruption by Maithripala Senanayake, turned to the Speaker and said “Sir, he has reasonable use of Tamil at night”, alluding to the ethnicity of his wife Ranjini. The house roared with laughter, Maithripala Senanayake was amused! That is the finesse the politicians of the modern day lack. Crudeness seem to be their forte!

We had amazing speakers in the Parliament, one of them being the late Anura Bandaranaike. Though I did not have the fortune to listen to him, my good friend Nihal Seneviratne, former Secretary General of Parliament, confided in me that Anura was one of those rare MPs who frequented the library in the Parliament to gather fact for his speeches.

When the new Parliament was constructed, there was widespread criticism which was silenced by Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis with a wonderful speech at the opening session of the Parliament. What has happened to Sri Lanka?

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Opinion

Don’t deride Sri Lankan scientists

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I have been watching with interest the exchange of views among several parties that commenced with the Article written by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana to which Mr. Chris Dharmakeerti responded. My name and some of my research publications have been quoted in these exchanges. I myself responded to Prof. Dharmawardena stating that I don’t belong to the ‘Natha Deviyo Group’ and he has kindly said that he never did so. I’m sorry for my mistake. Yes, Prof. Dharmawardhana, Dr. Waidyanatha and myself have known each other for over 50 years. Both of them were a couple years senior to me and were serving as junior temporary staff members at the University of Ceylon, Colombo (at that time) when I was a final year undergrad student following a special degree. Immediately after my graduation I was appointed to the academic staff of the University of Ceylon

Peradeniya (later University of Peradeniya) and continued to serve the University for 40 years until my retirement in 2006. During this period, I was the Head of the Dept of Botany (five times), Dean, Graduate Studies, Dean Faculty of Science and acting Vice Chancellor during the most difficult period of 1989/90. While attached to the UoP, I made use of sabbatical and vacation leave to work at the International Rice Research Institute Philippines, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, and at the Washington State University and the San Jose State University in the USA. I’m not trying to brag, but writing all this to educate people like Bodhi Dhanapala who write derogatory, baseless insinuations in his emails as if we are petty thieves.

I share the patent on Prof Gamini Seneviratne’s innovation Biofilm Biofertiliser (BFBF) on invitation because I was the supervisor for his PhD research studies during which he learnt a lot on soil microbiology and also gave him useful advice at the time he was venturing to study rhizosphere microorganisms and develop multi-microbial inoculants. I have not participated in the large-scale field trials he conducted with BFBFs. I think he has effectively replied to his critics, subsequently supported by Prof. Ben Basnayake.

Now I will focus on my own work which also has come under scrutiny. Prof. Dhamawardana quotes some of my publications of 2012 and 2016 where he claims that I have written only of ‘a potential or encouraging results’ but not for large scale application by farmers. I fully agree. Those are publications on cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and Azolla. Even today my position is they only have a potential which has yet to be realised and not yet ready to be recommended for the farmers. What I wrote about applying N2-fixing biofertilisers refer to Rhizobial inoculants which form symbiotic root nodules with leguminous crops. Please read my write up carefully and you will find a statement that ‘out of all N2-fixing organisms and systems application of rhizobial inoculants was the most successful. This technology is nothing new. In fact, it is more than 125 years old! The first rhizobial inoculant with the commercial name Nitragin was patented in the USA in 1896 by Nobbe and Hiltner. Afterwards, this technology was adopted worldwide. Howeison and Herridge (2005) reported that Australia is annually saving 3 billion dollars by the judicious use of rhizobial inoculants. Sri Lanka imports 40% of our mung bean requirements from Australia.

We adopted the technology of using rhizobia native to Sri Lanka and embedding them in a local carrier material (modified coir dust) which enabled us to field test and eventually recommend it for large scale application. In adopting this technology for Sri Lanka, we have gone through several years of study. Commencing with basic studies of isolation, purification, characterisation and identification of rhizobia from local legumes (crop and wild) we have built up a germplasm of rhizobial isolates.

These have been authenticated and screened under greenhouse conditions to select the best strains for different crops, field tested in small plots in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture at HORDI and other research stations. In the final stages of transfer of technology, the most promising strains were used in large-scale field trials, some of which were conducted with the participation of farmers under our strict supervision and those of the field officers of the Plenty Foods company. It is after more than 20 years of painstaking research studies that we were able to get a breakthrough and transfer rhizobial inoculant technology to Sri Lankan farmers.

The Department of Agriculture got confidence in our products in 2017. That year they used our inoculants for extensive field cultivation of soybean. Their trials were successful and we were presented with a CD containing 100 photos of their cultivations with our inoculants. Two such photos are reproduced with this article.

Today, the best customers for our inoculants are the Central and Provincial Departments of Agriculture. Our team at the NIFS, which produces and market these inoculants (with the approval of the NIFS Board of Management) was felicitated a few months back by the Governor of the Central Province for the services rendered to the bean farmers from Hanguranketha to Welimada for low cost, eco-friendly bean cultivation. It is not easy to get a new technology accepted by farmers. By August this year we have supplied inoculants for more than 15,000 acres and more orders are coming. All these results of our work with rhizobial inoculants were presented at the Post-`Covid international symposium of the NSF and eventually published in its Proceedings. This is the Kulasooriya et al (2021) publication I have quoted in my write up.

I believe I have provided enough evidence to show that our efforts are to provide as much as possible some technologies based upon local resources for low cost, eco-friendly crop production and not a scam as some expatriates seem to think. They must not make baseless insinuations against genuine local scientists.

Prof. S. A. Kulasooriya

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Opinion

More shipments of ‘organic manure’ from China

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It has been reported that the Minister of Agriculture is trying to resolve the dispute over the Chinese organic fertiliser shipment by paying 75 % of the claim amounting to USD 6.7 million in respect of the rejected shipment and buying fresh stocks from the same company.

Enough has been discussed about why organic fertiliser should not be imported to this country as it is against the law to do so, and the best way is to prepare organic fertiliser on farms as far as possible, since transport of the large quantities needed will be too expensive and also cumbersome and a hassle to the farmer.

It was surprising to hear about the decision to buy fresh stocks of fertilisers from the same Chinese company whose first shipment was not allowed entry by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture on the grounds that the samples were found to be contaminated with harmful microorganisms.

In the first instance, as an officer who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for more than 23 years, I am pretty certain that organic materials cannot be imported on a commercial scale as per provisions and regulations under the Plant Protection Act of 1981 and also the subsequent Plant Protection Act no.35 of 1999. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land. I am also aware that no amendments have since been made to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought in since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised according to the whims and fancies of governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements.

Hence, it is pretty certain that importation of tons and tons of this “organic fertilser” is illegal, the irony here being the direct involvement, as a facilitator or promoter in this instance, of the Ministry of Agriculture, which should actually be the guardian of issues pertaining to plant quarantine. Had it been a private company, one could understand.

Besides, if the government decides to buy fresh stocks from the same company, whose first shipment was rejected due to contamination, what guarantee is there that the so called ‘fresh stock’ will not be contaminated. On the other hand, if this imported material happens to be sterile by some chance, it ceases to be organic fertiliser any more, for organic manure must necessarily have microorganisms. If microbial activity is not there, it will be some inert matter only.

Specifications laid down regarding the material to be purchased when an agreement was entered into between the buyer and the seller in this case are not known. If the material is organic fertiliser as the authorities keep referring to, it should necessarily have microorganisms. Then it follows that the samples will fail the test this time, too, and the shipment will have the same fate as the earlier one. This is what I could foresee., what we are buying is not organic manure or ‘organic fertiliser’ but some inert matter.

I sincerely hope and pray that those in charge of Plant Quarantine will abide by the regulations, and stand their ground as one cannot afford to play around with microorganisms especially when they come in bulk from foreign lands to a totally new environment here and right now, the whole world has been brought to its knees by just a virus. Hence there cannot be any compromise especially in dealing with microorganisms. Let us hope for the best any way, as this importation remains an ill-advised and illegal venture, if it goes through and it will be the first time ever that Sri Lanka effected a bulk importation of organic manure or “organic fertiliser”, in contravention of its own Plant Protection Act.

A. Bedgar Perera

bedgarperera@gmail.com

Retired Director/Agricultural Development

Ministry of Agriculture

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