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Trinidad & Tobago PM Discusses Energy & Education

By Marie Y. Thibault

This interview with Patrick Manning, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, was conducted after his keynote speech at the MIT Caribbean Students’ conference, “Technology and Society in the Caribbean.” Manning, who is currently serving his third term as prime minister, spoke candidly about his background in science, Trinidad and Tobago’s new university, and his plans for life after politics.

The Tech: You went to school in Jamaica. Why didn’t you go to school in Trinidad and Tobago — was the university system very different at that time?

Prime Minister Patrick Manning: Yes. I ran from mathematics, quite frankly, which I would have had to study had I done engineering in Trinidad. That’s what I intended to do, engineering. I gave very careful thought to petroleum engineering. I gave very careful thought to that. I decided to do geology instead. Probably the best decision I’ve made in my life.

TT: And it seems that your geology training has helped a lot with some of the energy development that Trinidad has gone through. What do you think is the best training you received as a scientist that prepared you for politics?

PM: It will surprise you, but when I left school, in 1965, secondary school — I worked in a refinery … for 14 months. I had exposure to a lot of technical training and I put that above a geology degree. That, more than anything else, influenced me.

TT: What did you do in the refinery?

PM: Refinery operations. I got exposed to refining processes, service departments, machine shop, test and inspection, lab, instrumentation … that had a great tremendous effect on me.

TT: Why did you choose to go into politics after doing science?

PM: You know, the decolonization movement around the world of a lot of political parties and a lot of emerging countries at the time. That was seeking to get rid of the shackles of colonialism. In 1956 one of those emerged in Trinidad, the people’s national movement. … My mother and father were very active in it and I was 10 years old at that time. So that at the time I was coming to political consciousness. … With my parents so active in politics I just began to follow it naturally. … I didn’t think I would end up in politics, but I have.

TT: Where do you see alternative energy for Trinidad and Tobago?

PM: Alternative energy is a question that we are going to consider over time. Therefore, we have not addressed it to too great an extent. I spoke about the HIVE (Highly Immersive Visualization Environment), which is a piece of technology that BP has. We know the area already explored, we know the amount left to be explored, so we are going to be in energy for a long time. So we have not really considered alternative energy, even though we’ve been looking at things like methanol to electricity. … But, alternative sources, we have not spent much time on it.

TT: Do you think that it would be possible to use some of the resources of Caribbean countries, like solar power — do you think that’s a direction that Trinidad might head in?

PM: Yes, but it is not relevant so much as gas. … I’m sure in some other countries they are probably developing that, but for us it’s gas.

TT: What do you think has changed since you were in the school — do people want to stay in Trinidad and Tobago for school and if so, why?

PM: That is so. It is access to education, it is access to education. Even though I would always recommend that you do a first degree in your country, you should not do further degrees there. You should go outside to avoid the academic incest. Broaden your horizons by being abroad. Your first degree should be done at your university. That’s my opinion.

TT: Is the new university, University of Trinidad and Tobago, modeled after any universities students in the United States might be familiar with?

PM: I am sure it is. I am not familiar enough with other universities to be able to answer that question definitively. What I do know is that the president of that university, Professor Kenneth Julien, who was a dean of electrical engineering and faculty of engineering at the University of the West Indies, is the major actor in the execution of our energy policy. He has been extremely successful in attracting business to the country. … They don’t have faculty, it’s modeled in a strange way, but they have partnered with a lot of top schools around the world for almost everything they have partnered with a university abroad that has distinguished itself in that particular field. So we have access to quality education. It’s a tremendous idea.

TT: Do you think a partnership with MIT might be down the road?

PM: … We look at all the top schools for partnerships, and I am sure we will get to MIT sometime. MIT is the best.

TT: What else has your government been doing to combat brain drain from Trinidad and Tobago?

PM: Above all, we have been creating the opportunities at home for high-paying, high-quality jobs. And that contributes in no small way to keeping them in their own countries, rather than going abroad. See, many of them go abroad because they do not find enough opportunities at home as outlets for the resources that they possess … As we diversify our industry and our industrial products, as we do more conversion in Trinidad for more and more top-quality jobs that are very good, more people will stay.

Plus, we develop the quality of our country, the quality of services, that is an attraction, no? We are building a lot of housing, steel housing, today. It’s just getting — you must come, have you been to Trinidad and Tobago?

TT: No, I wish!

TT: A university education in Trinidad and Tobago is now free — that sounds wonderful. How did that become possible?

PM: Gas, mainly. We expanded the use of our gas. We made a critical decision in 1992 to allow the exportation of gas and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) and that has enhanced revenues considerably. Remember, LNG gas prices are very high now and we have made quite a bit of money. And we have used those monies for a host of other things.

TT: Do you have any advice for students from the Caribbean who are studying at MIT right now?

PM: Yes, see, one of the things that you learn in an institution like MIT is critical thinking and independent thought. And that has a big role to play in the proper development of developing countries such as ours. … The promise of much better life is very much there.

TT: Do you have any advice on how science students can move into policy and politics?

PM: A scientific background in a developing country is almost indispensable, rather than law. If I had to advise somebody … I’d tell them to study developmental studies. The question of development is fascinating, is fascinating. I didn’t realize that I was so fascinated by it, but it is fascinating in a country like Trinidad and Tobago at this time. … There is no better service than service to your friends. Apart from service to God.

TT: Do you intend to return to geology when you leave politics?

PM: After I leave politics I am going to preach the word of God.

TT: Has your experience in politics at all motivated that?

PM: Yes, yes … That’s a long story, but yes, the answer is yes. I have been prime minister now – this is my third term. We’ll see how long it will last. But there’s a finite period and I’m going to leave at some stage. I won’t die in politics.