Friday, March 24, 2023,
Water’s Edge, Battaramulla
Minister Premajayantha, Chairman Karunaratne, Professor Sivananthan, dear colleagues of the Sri Lankan scientific community, good afternoon.
Science turns challenges into opportunities.
Thank you for this opportunity to join you today with some of the brightest scientific minds of Sri Lanka. I’m here because I respect you and I value your work. Your work, your innovation, and your collaboration will profoundly impact the future of this country, perhaps of the world. You all are creating the future and making new solutions, new dreams possible. So let me start off by thanking you for your dedication and your service. As Dr. Siva just said, scientists use their passion, perseverance, and belief to drive innovation. I believe you are all doing exactly that.
As you know, the United States also has a proud tradition in scientific innovation. Well-known inventors of the past have called the United States their home, including Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, Thomas Edison who invented the carbon filament light bulb, Henry Ford who pioneered moving assembly lines for automobiles, the Wright brothers who made the first human flight in history, and Jonas Salk who invented the modern polio vaccine. Maybe a name you haven’t heard is Hedy Lamarr, a famous actress who in her spare time helped create the concepts behind our modern wireless technology.
We continue to lead on this front today to the benefit of the global community. American scientists and innovators led the global initiative to decode the human DNA through the Human Genome Project, quickened the detection of deadly diseases such as Ebola, designed semiconductor power lines for efficient power grids, invented GPS navigation for global use, and built and launched telescopes to study the universe.
But there’s one name in science that I’m especially proud of: my father. My father was raised in Korea and moved to the United States when I was a child. He was an engineer by trade but had to learn English and work his way up from the ground floor in the U.S. But his smarts, his scientific thinking, and his ingenuity served him, and he ended up working with NASA and its Jet Propulsion Laboratory on all sorts of aeronautic science. You know the Mars Lander? He designed the landing apparatus! And he helped to rebuild the U.S. space shuttle program by solving the O-ring issue that caused the Challenger explosion. My dad lives, works, and breathes science – just like a lot of you! So even though I feel a bit intimidated in a room full of scientists, I share your love for science that my father shared with me.
That’s why it warmed my heart to learn that some of Sri Lanka’s celebrated scientists also made contributions to NASA’s mission to understand outer space. The late evolutionary chemist Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma born in Galle, was one of NASA’s lead investigators who analyzed lunar soil brought home by the Apollo spaceflight missions. In 2016, Dr. Nipuni Palliyaguru was part of a team of researchers at Texas Tech University to prove that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was right by detecting gravitational waves from two merging black holes. And the collaboration with NASA continues – from an American on my team who works remotely for NASA to a Sri Lankan-American professor from the U.S. who will be visiting Sri Lanka this summer to understand what Sri Lanka’s soil can tell us about other planets. Beyond my favorite topic of space, though, there is amazingly diverse subject expertise among this audience of Sri Lankan and Sri Lankan-American scholars. It ranges from biology to physics and represents the vibrant history of knowledge exchange between our two countries.
There are numerous initiatives and programs that keep the relationship between our two countries strong. As part of President Biden’s plans to prioritize the scientific innovation in the green energy sector, we convene public and private energy sector counterparts to discuss cooperation on green technology. For 70 years the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission has funded U.S.-Sri Lanka scholarships across many scientific fields. U.S. exchange programs like the International Visitor Leadership Program enable experts to visit the United States, meet with American counterparts, and exchange ideas. Last year, Sri Lankan energy sector experts visited the United States to meet with industry leaders and government regulators to explore construction and maintenance of energy-efficient power grids. USAID’s Sri Lankan Energy Project invests in renewable energy technologies in partnership with the Sri Lankan government and local entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the USAID Climate Adaptation Project in Sri Lanka identifies and scales up solutions to climate-related challenges for sustainable, market-based growth in tourism, fisheries, and agriculture. Just last month, USAID and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization brought together agriculture subject experts from Sri Lanka and the United States to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture and discuss ways to improve rice productivity and modernize agriculture in Sri Lanka, one of President Wickremesinghe’s priorities.
And of course, our commitment to Sri Lanka runs deeper. Over the past year the United States has provided $270 million to support the most vulnerable Sri Lankan during the economic crisis. In the past few weeks, I’ve visited farms and schools benefiting from fertilizers and fortified rice donated by the U.S. government. Minister Susil joined me this week at a school where we saw children receiving meals provided by the U.S. That assistance is ongoing, a testament to the depth and breadth of our relationship – which, by the way, is 75 years strong this year. I am delighted to be here today to celebrate 75 years of people, partnerships, and progress.
The United States wants to see a healthy, vibrant, and democratic Sri Lanka – but we also recognize that Sri Lanka’s challenges are Sri Lanka’s to solve. So, as we continue emergency assistance, we also are focusing on providing long-term technical assistance in various areas meant to empower Sri Lankans to grow economic health and good governance. We fund renewable energy initiatives, provide technical guidance on efficient farming practices, and support small- and medium-sized enterprises to support grassroots innovation. This work builds on your science, your ideas, and your vision for Sri Lanka’s future.
The topic of this conference – sustainable development in the face of climate change – is one of the great challenges of our time. It impacts the entire global community. I believe that you all, as the best and brightest of Sri Lanka’s science and technology field, represent the key for how we can overcome this challenge. You can turn it into an opportunity for innovation that benefits the public good. I’m so glad to see a diverse group of scientists joined by the private sector, academia, and civil society all here to work together on these goals. And it’s great to see women scientists here as well, as we mark Women’s History month, although I hope by the next biennial conference we will see even more women among you.
I’ll conclude by saying again, the United States stands with you as a dedicated partner in the pursuit of science and technology.