In support of MahabirNepal’s piecemeal approach to the development of science and technology becomes apparent from the paltry budget allocated to it
Mahabir Pun is perhaps one of the most recognisable names in Nepal due to a reputation he has painstakingly built up over the years, including collecting a Magsaysay Award on the way. He began by building a wireless network to improve education standards in his home district of Myagdi, but has since moved on to champion easy connectivity in the remotest areas of Nepal, and become involved in various worthy causes.
Pun has recently been back in the news—this time expressing frustration with a government (and previous ones) that fails to see merit in a proposal he has been floating for some time now. His idea is that we should tap into all the knowledge available among Nepali whizzes from all around the world, and channelise it through what he has termed the ‘National Invention Centre’. On the strength of his formidable track record, Pun has been seeking some seed money from successive governments to kick-start the process, but to no avail. The last straw testing him seems to have been the snub to him by the outgoing communist-led government of KP Oli’s, which gave Pun zilch but chose to gift 10 million rupees to the fortune-telling ‘Google Boy’, Aditya Dahal.
As far as the country is concerned, one can safely say that this 10 million rupees is so many rupees down the drain even though it may be of personal benefit to the ‘Google Boy’, who suffers from an undiagnosed medical condition. And, even without knowing the full details of Pun’s vision, it seems like an idea that could be of lasting benefit to Nepal. But the challenges Pun faces are immense and extend beyond having to deal with ill-informed politicians.
The great resource crunch
Talking of our political leaders and how ignorant they can be, consider the excuse given by finance minister in the Oli cabinet, Bishnu Poudel, for not supporting Pun—that the amount he was seeking was immense. Poudel probably does not realise that in order to attract talent, one cannot take a piecemeal approach favoured by the government in, for example, road-building, where you do something for a short stretch every year and decades later, one has a paved road. On the technological front, either the research infrastructure exists or it does not; it cannot be halfway there.
It is a lot that Nepal is up against. A social scientist who had studied Nepali students in the United States writes about the abundant “resources at the disposal of students in terms of library, laboratory, equipment and other research facilities”, and points out that “even as far back as the 1950s, scholars argued that ‘there is almost no special skill, of whatsoever kind, that cannot be developed in some institution within the United States’”.
The Nepalis the researcher met were all love for Nepal, etc, etc, but they also expressed to her what appear to be genuine concerns. Said one: “My goal in life is to work for Nepal and as such I am interested in gaining as much knowledge as possible about Nepal. But unfortunately, my interest lies in biochemistry and immunology
and the level of specialization in these fields in Nepal is absolutely zero. Nepal is rich in medicinal herbs and other mineral resources. But, unfortunately, one has to come to the United States to know and learn about these things.”
Even more dramatic is the response from another Nepali student at a private university in New York: “I would have liked to stay in Nepal, pursue my education there but the resources are simply not available, so one does not have a choice but to go overseas…When I was in Nepal about a year ago, I visited the Royal Nepal Academy of Science and Technology to get an idea of what people are doing and it turns out they have a total of five projects running. That’s it. Five projects are less than half of how many one professor from my college here works on at any given time.”
As readers can make out from the name of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) used in the last quote, this research is quite old. It is indeed from 10 years ago, but the situation has not changed, except perhaps for the worse. The budget allocated for NAST in 2014-15 was a mere Rs150 million, of which, according to its Vice Chancellor, “half of the amount allocated is spent on salaries of the NAST staff and a small amount is left for purchasing equipment and carrying out scientific experiments.”
The total budget for the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2016-17 is Rs 854 million, which in equivalent to around USD 8 million. Although the comparison is grossly unfair, let us look at how much the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), a private university, spent in 2014-15 on research alone: USD 253 million. I have chosen Caltech as an example not only because its name has a nice ring to it but also because scientists from there have been working in Nepal, particularly in setting up seismological stations around the country, so it can provide a stark contrast.
No step forward
The piecemeal approach to the development of science and technology becomes apparent from the budgetary allocations. Lest they be accused of insensitiveness, the politicians also know what is to be said. For instance, in the budget speech of 2015-16, the finance minister declared that grants will be provided through NAST to “young scientists in order to motivate them in research and study for the development of science and technology in the country”, as if the really capable young scientists are going to wait around for the few paltry thousands they may or may not be lucky enough to get.
If we need more proof of how things are done in Nepal, the budget speech of 2016-17 made provisions for the establishment of the Madan Bhandari Science and Technology Academy in Hetauda Municipality for the “production of required skilled manpower in the area of science and technology” and also for “the construction and operation of Dasarath Health Science Academy in Kailali”. Hence, even as NAST and other existing institutions continue to be plagued by a serious lack of funds, we will have two new institutions coming up in the near future and neither will have the required resources to attract or retain young scientists who can now follow real-time developments in their fields in other parts of the world and also itch to be in the thick of things.
No amount of love for the country will be able to keep them in Nepal, and especially not a government which has no idea what the competition has to offer. On the other hand, if all the money had been pooled in one or two institutions only, perhaps we could have made a start with creating one or two centres of excellence. But, then, politics is not always rational, and politicians have to appeal to a larger constituency, and we end up with a string of centres of mediocrity. Everyone is happy, including those who revere Madam Bhandari and Dasarath Chand, and the ones who have found regular jobs in these places.
That is why Mahabir Pun’s initiative sounds interesting. At least, he knows it takes big bucks to set up something of the kind he has in mind. That, in itself, is a promising start.