The present government has plans to set-up three premier think-tanks in the country. Although it has been some months since such an announcement was made, concrete implementation is yet to be seen. Implementation of this plan will surely fulfill long felt needs. Research institutions looking at foreign policy, strategic and economic issues providing objective research on policy relevant matters is a prime need of the hour. It is not necessary that political leaders or secretaries of government ministries be experts in every field, but if you have organizations that conduct independent research on issues of national importance, the findings could be used by those in office thus contributing to national interest.
It is not true that Nepal has had no history of think-tanks that conducted independent research providing in-depth analysis of conventional and non-conventional issues related to national and South Asian security and on issues of trade, transit, investment, refugees, ethnicity and bilateral relations. The CNAS and CEDA under the Tribhuvan University were finest of their kind but have lately been politicized to the extent that Directors are randomly transferred. There are more non-gazetted staff than researchers and the University as a whole is reeling under budget crunch which is sadly reflected in these institutions as well. According to a recently published news report, among the total 411 positions inside the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), 168 positions are vacant. Researchers are underpaid, most of the budget is spent on salaries and perks than on actual research and publication and trade unionism is sneaking into these institutions just like in other government offices. This has led to some of the brightest academics, agriculturalists, economists, and specialists to seek jobs abroad.
It is here that the noble idea of establishing new institutions falls flat. When the government is unable to maintain think-tanks that are already in existence, what is the rationale behind setting up new ones? It takes years if not decades for the new institution to make a name for itself among the comity of like-minded institutions in the country not to mention in the SAARC region. The Consortium of South Asian Think-tanks of South Asia (COSATT) and the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) based in Colombo are examples of good platforms where think-tanks could be involved. Without solid networking with other Institutions doing similar work around the region, there is little benefit of spending the taxpayer's money in creating another government institution. But it takes toil and effort and considerable PR exercise for the head of the institution to forge linkages with similar think-tanks in the neighborhood and around the world. If this individual is to be erratically transferred every time the government is replaced, we are only creating another wobbling government office rather than a pure research institution which shares its findings with political leaders, policy makers, diplomatic community, academia and the public. What we need is not another government bureaucracy that publishes the official speeches of the Prime Minister and Ministers but a forum that provides avenues for free and frank discussions on important issues and strives to explore the alternatives.
Even otherwise, government owned think-tanks are losing credibility all over the world. More and more states are collaborating with privately owned, independent institutes because what they disseminate has more integrity and reach as the people tend to trust autonomous Institutes more. The U.S., and the European Union are leaders in this regard and they fund research and financially support independent think-tanks, NGOs, and academic centres every year. An increasing percentage of their GDP is spent annually on research which contributes to a better knowledge of the changing geo-strategic environment that is becoming complex and unpredictable. The mission of these think-tanks is to promote national and international understanding and also to promote democracy, human rights and press freedom. Many a times, they advance the foreign policy goals of their funders, which is natural. But what is going to the objective of our to-be opened think-tanks at a time when there is no full-fledged constitution and no parliament in the country? The objectives must be set-out clearly without digression otherwise they will end up as 'tanks' but no 'think'.
The government also needs to allocate some budget to reputed think-tanks and research institutions every year even if they are not state-owned thereby encourage openness, plurality and free flow of information and analysis in the country. To promote studies about Nepal, our culture, history and language, the government could sponsor "Nepal Centres" in world renowned universities. To start with, various Nepal Chairs can be set-up in universities in South Asian countries. To my knowledge, currently there are only two Centres for Nepal Studies - at Banaras Hindu University in India and University of New Mexico in the U.S.
The responsibility of funding research does not solely rest with the government but also with the private sector and big industrial houses. Analyzing new trends, organizing conferences on important strategic themes, publishing innovative ideas and cutting edge research helps the private sector in many ways which is why big business houses all over the world and more so in the U.S., Germany, India, China and Japan have helped think-tanks in a substantial manner. This is very much a part of corporate social responsibility yet our private sector has been extremely stingy in this regard.