Nepal’s Prosperity: The Missing Link
By failing to recognise and invest in the areas of science education and science and technology research, Nepal is failing to contribute to its overall development endeavors.
Dr Raju Adhikari
Food, Health and Energy requirements are the three key challenges to sustain an increasing global population in the 21st century. Smart and environmentally friendly research and technology innovations based on organic semiconductors, photo voltaic solar cells, nano structure of carbon such as graphene (nanowires, quantum dots), stem cells, and gene therapy are shaping our future and creating new boundaries to achieve targets. Countries steering the innovation will be the most powerful economically, and those who are able to access and use technologies will also prosper. The skill, knowledge and experience of the human being have become the most valuable resource for any country today.
I was listening to a debate on ABC radio recently about the importance of innovation in Australia’s Future. The speakers were physics noble prize winner Prof Brian P Schmidt and Chancellor of Monash University, Prof. Alan Simon Finkel. Both held strong opinions about Australia lagging behind in innovation due to its conventional approach to Education and Science and Technology (S&T) because Australian Universities are not innovation focused like Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and MIT and the private sectors do not compete with likes of Google, Apple, and IBM.
Out of 25 countries recently surveyed, Australia has moved from sixteenth to thirteenth place as an innovative economy – ranking ahead of growth markets such as Russia and Brazil, but still lagging behind established innovation leaders like the United States, Germany and Japan. Australia, however, is learning quickly the importance of innovation and collaboration and there is a huge pressure on both sides of the politics to have bipartisan support to allocate necessary fund and formulate policies to help Australia take the challenge on this front aggressively. In newly emerging Asia, Samsung has set a great example and the company is now worth hundreds of billions of dollar due to their breakthrough innovation in organic semiconductor area. The Korean scientists trained overseas are now working in Korea and the government is extending necessary support (S&T budget 12 billion $, 3.37 % of GDP (1.12 trillion, one of the highest in the world, Source: Nature, 19th Nov 2009) to help the country become global leader in innovation. This is a great example of economic prosperity achieved using country’s highly skilled human resources in such a short period.
The case of Nepal
Nepal, being a late starter on education and S&T fronts in the 1960s, has already been left behind. When Asia has been booming and engaged in S&T innovation for the last two decades, we have missed opportunities and the irony is that we are still missing the opportunities due to our lowest priority in this area. Nepal’s decades of political instability and our traditional reliance on tourism, remittance and hydropower for economic prosperity shows our reliance on conventional wisdom.
The female population in the education sector is still being deprived of mainstream education due to socio-economic and cultural taboos and the other 50% male population are not able to access higher education largely due to economic hardship and limited access. Out of the population of 26.4 million, only about 10 % of the population attending SLC reach to university level and get an undergraduate degree. The country has less than one thousand PhD holders and only handful of Masters and PhDs in selected disciplines are produced in-house. It is disappointing that there are only about 40,000 highly skilled manpower in the country (Source; C Regmi, I Khanal, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) report 2010.
Programs like PhD, post-doctoral research and trainings necessary to engage our young scientists and engineers are not being considered a priority. Nepalese scientist’s success overseas shows that they are capable on the innovation front but unfortunately they are not returning. Some 40 percent of the employed Nepalese scientists are over 50 and young scientists are not being produced to fill the gap thus creating a vacuum of knowledge transfer and loss in R&D productivity. It is sad that our Universities are not able to generate required quality skilled manpower, struggling to maintain education quality, initiate and conduct research program /courses in the frontiers of S&T. The Government and University Grants Commission (UGC) are not being able to provide adequate resources and steer them in the right direction due to lack of relevant policies and vision making the overall situation grim.
In the last decade, most of our mid and highly skilled populations have left the country in large proportion for better opportunities and life style due to political chaos, lack of employment opportunities and recognition and this trend will continue to increase. Our neighbors, India (2007 S&T budget: 9.45 billion $ (1% of GDP 1.85 Trillion $ , S & T manpower - 32 million) and China (2010 S&T budget: 105 billion $ (1.76% of GDP 7.3 Trillion $, S & T manpower - 50 million,) (Source: SciDevnet. Ved P. Kharbanda, 23 February 2012, www. google.com ) have recognised the importance of science education and S&T to prioritise their policies and now their home trained and overseas returned S&T manpower are playing major role in technology innovation and helping the industries in Telecommunication, IT, agriculture manufacturing and energy sectors. India and China want their institutions take lead in technology innovation and plan to increase their budget to 2% of GDP in 2013, to provide necessary support and requesting private sector to join hand to support the innovation spirit.
The Way Forward
So, what could be the way forward for a least developed country like Nepal? We have had great success in primary and secondary level education and recent government announcement to make education free up to secondary school is appreciated. However, the higher education policies and priorities are in doldrums and need immediate attention. Of the total education budget 3.8% of GDP, the % allocation for higher education and has declined in the last decade and is only about 0.4%. (Source: CEDA report 2007)
Nepal has a dependency syndrome and lacks vision and collaborative approach. The increased political interference in our academic institutions is killing the innovation spirit and failed to ignite the spirit of bright students and produce leaders in this field. The Government of Nepal (GoN)’s recent promise to increase funding from current 0.45 % of GDP (18.8 billion $) to over 1% to S&T sector is appreciable but the funding is not enough due to our small GDP and GoN should encourage private sector investment and seek international collaboration to provide further support.
The Nepal government should introduce policies for modernisation of our largest agriculture sector which contributes to one third of our GDP (through public and private partnership by establishing a separate Biotechnology Department. It is time that an S&T Advisory board is established directly under the Prime Minister to address the core issues of our S&T institutions and develop a new Road Map for the next decade.
The National Planning Commission (NPC) jointly with Ministry of Education (MoE) and Ministry of S&T (MoS&T)should create a special fund of, say US$ 50 million, to begin with, to support and promote science teaching and infrastructure development in regional schools and initiate a National Cooperative Research Scheme (NCRS) to launch 10 national collaborative flagship projects in partnership with Universities, NAST, S&T institutions, local and international public and private investors in key areas like Energy, Biotechnology, Agriculture, Food, Health and Climate.
Our high altitude native resources like Yak Cheese and Yarsha Gumba are just a couple of examples of our native resources of high cash values that has the potential to generate millions of dollars. These projects should be funded for a minimum of six years with clear goals to capture innovation, support and develop local manufacturing industries, infrastructural development, and research capacity and will eventually create employment opportunities for our labor market.
An independent advisory committee comprising of high profile experts from the industry and Academia should be formed to review these NCR projects without any political interference. The committee should also invite and include an international expert from the respective field to review the projects and its recommendations honestly implemented. Nepal could also bid to host international solar and climate change research s experimental trials, approach R&D companies, donor agencies like Gate’s S&T Foundation to seek financial support on project basis. The royalties from the invention from such projects could be shared through licensing, spin off companies, selling the patent rights or by arrangements suitable for both parties and be used in research and technology development.
The Role of the NRNs
The Non-Resident Nepalese Association (NRNA) can be a great partner in this movement. Over the last nine years, NRNA has come a long way to strengthen its networks globally and has launched long term policies on social, capital and knowledge investment fronts. In 2009, the NRNA ICC initiative to establish Skill Knowledge and Innovation Task Force and signing of MoUs with the Ministry of Education (MoE) and Nepal Academy of Science and technology (NAST) showed its unequivocal support and commitments to support education and S&T initiatives though the Knowledge Investment Forum. The Open University Initiative in partnership with the GoN and Athabasca University, Canada, and Science Fellowships through NRN Science Foundation are good examples of reaching out to international collaboration in priority areas by the NRNA. Other countries have already taken necessary steps and initiatives to harrness diaspora Knowledge to build productive capacities and we don’t have any concrete policy guidelines in this regard. (Source: UNCTAD report 2012)
S&T prime institutions like NAST, Nepal Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) and Universities need to develop strong outreach policies and incentives for collaboration and create honorary positions to reinforce institutional linkages/networks with Diaspora and International S&T communities and institutions. Nepalese embassies in countries like USA, UK, Netherland, Australia, and Canada should have S&T desk to explore collaborative research opportunities in our national priority areas and submit recommendation to Government. These collaborative initiatives and NRNA platform will help recycle our ‘brain drain’ to ‘brain gain’ to a great extent and push countries towards innovation. We need to look out for partnership otherwise we have no future.
Science education at School and University levels and research in our S&T institutions have been underestimated and grossly neglected. If Nepal wishes to take the advantage of innovation to drive economic transformation and march on the road to economic prosperity, science education should be made compulsory up to class 10 in all our schools and research at Universities and S&T institutions be given a top priority. It is time that the country provides a long term commitment on science education and S&T research unambiguously and outreach to international communities for funding on partnership basis and explore mutual areas of interest.
There is no short cut to Nepal’s prosperity as millions of dollars are like a drop of ink in the national development and it takes decades for the country to become a prosperous nation provided education and S&T take a driving seat. We have had too many revolutions (cultural, economic, political, and social) in the past. If our politicians had focused only good governance, rule of Law, secure fundamental rights, freedom of speech, gender equality, and most importantly S&T and Education access to all over the last two decades, it would have helped the development of skilled human resources, provided some economic and social relief and reinforced the democratic system in Nepal by now. It is, however, never too late to bring an education and S&T revolution in the country if we follow US President Barack Obama’s “can do attitude”.
(Dr Adhikari is the Chair, Skill Knowledge and Innovation Task Force, NRNA ICC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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