Now try thisGreater investment in scientific research will make a visible impact on national development
A scientific research culture is gradually making inroads into Nepal’s academic community. With personal initiations of domestic or foreign-trained researchers, a number of research centres have been established to advance basic and applied science research in the country. As Nepal prepares to build its scientific capacity, a conducive platform for collaboration between nationally educated and foreign-trained Nepali researchers can help develop a research culture and drive much-needed innovation process for sustainable development and technology transfer. National laboratories with dedicated research missions can serve as a platform of this kind to initiate and extend scientific collaborations.
A common thread that runs through successful governing strategies around the world is a strong emphasis and sufficient investment on scientific research and development (R&D). While adaptive and inclusive leadership along with accountable and transparent governance are crucial for a successful democracy, concurrent investment in basic science and engineering research is critical to modernise the Nepali economy as the country embarks on a new democratic journey. Unfortunately, the lack of resources and infrastructure, triggered partly by political turmoil and unstable governance, has forced the vital scientific workforce to look for opportunities abroad. Given this difficult situation, a dedicated platform that fosters collaboration between domestic and foreign trained Nepali scientists can mitigate the adverse effect of “brain drain”.
Long walk to research
Nepal was a late entrant into the modern world of science and technology because formal education in science was introduced only in 1919. Between then and now, against the backdrop of several social and political upheavals, Nepal experienced a modest growth in the number of institutions to improve education in science and technology and to promote research and development. Some of the notable research institutions in Nepal include Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (RECAST), Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research (CEAPR), Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), etc. While this is a step in the right direction, we must make bigger strides to increase research productivity and accelerate technology transfer in order to achieve all-around development goals set by the country through its periodic vision and plan documents.
Nepal lacks government-funded exclusive research centres to conduct basic and applied sciences or engineering research. In particular, national laboratories with dedicated research mission and technology transfer centres are few, and the ones that exist tend to be located only in the Capital with elusive research agenda and nominal funding. Dedicated research centres with focused vision to address domestic as well as broader scientific research agenda and funded directly by the government are effective models to nurture domestic research and to initiate collaborations among researchers in government, academia and industry. Universities alone will not be able to sustain the focused research need of a nation since they have a different
mission, primarily focused on well-rounded education of their students, to fulfil. As such, national laboratories are uniquely positioned to augment the research mission of universities, catalyse collaboration with scientists from abroad and become a platform for technology transfer and commercialisation.
National laboratories will serve as a dedicated ‘Science and Technology Forum’ that can provide a common platform for scientists and researchers trained at home or abroad to analyse and identify areas of mutual interests and promote collaboration, in a scale and nature suitable in the context of Nepal. The emphasis of the forum could be on industrial technologies that utilise principal natural resources of Nepal like agriculture, forest, water and mineral, as well as advanced technologies where we lag far behind. The forum can promote the idea of ‘serving the nation from abroad’ by encouraging overseas students and researchers to offer seminars and lectures, to act as consultants, or to engage in other forms of technology and financial transfer, all without having to move back to Nepal. Indeed, mutual collaborations can serve Nepal to reap the rewards of brain drain, increase visibility and elevate the standard of domestic research in international scientific communities. Only national laboratories can have the autonomy to serve as a platform for a dedicated scientific forum to initiate much needed national and international collaborations to kickstart scientific enterprises.
To materialise a robust scientific research environment through national laboratories, Nepal needs an autonomous and dedicated institution to manage and disburse research funds for laboratories. Currently, University Grant Commission (UGC) is the only dedicated institution for disbursing research grants to universities in Nepal. This is a step in the right direction and will promote research culture in the universities. However, according to the World Bank, the government’s budget allocated for R&D in Nepal is merely around 0.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is a tiny drop in the ocean compared to approximately three percent of GDP investment on R&D by the emerging and developed democracies around the world. The research expenditure must be increased steadily to promote R&D activities, which will subsequently make a visible impact on national development, through informed and evidence-based policy making by the government. Furthermore, an increased investment in science and technology will also stimulate foreign-trained scholars to seek domestic collaborations and potentially motivate them to take their expertise back home.
In order to sustain research efforts of national laboratories, it is imperative to train our next generations of scientists effectively. It is of utmost importance to revise our science curriculum with strong emphasis on research/project-based learning at our institutions of higher education. Universities with limited research funding can pair with national laboratories to provide research experience for undergraduate students to enhance their research skills and encourage them to pursue a career in science. Currently, the scientific workforce in Nepal barely crosses the minimal required threshold of 1 per 1,000 of the total population. While this is a positive development, it is absolutely necessary to sustain this achievement with proper investment in universities and national labs to train our next-generation of scientists and innovators. Furthermore, it is difficult to foster a sustainable research environment without strong PhD programmes, which are not feasible without sufficient funding for research from the government.
The diaspora brain
While national laboratories are not positioned to directly solve the pressing issues that Nepal currently faces, they will certainly serve as a gateway to scientific collaborations among domestic and foreign-trained scientists and engineers, which will subsequently drive innovation and enhance productivity and visibility of domestic research. The government and the academia should abandon the culture of indifference toward foreign-trained researchers. At the same time, foreign-trained scientists must maintain realistic expectations as they reach out for such collaborations. The stakeholders and the policymakers must act with utmost urgency to tap into the intellectual pool of the Nepali diaspora. Nepal managed to pass the cost of training the next-generation of scientists, but should not miss the opportunity to reap the benefits of a trained scientific workforce to rejuvenate scientific enterprises in the country.
Poudel is a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University, US