Labs for change

  • Investing more in universities and ensuring academic autonomy are crucial for Nepal’s future
- JEEVAN K. PRASAIN
Labs for change

Nov 5, 2014-

Knowledge is often referred to wealth that does not persish. And high quality education and research are fundamental for creating new knowledge and skills. In the 21st century, scientific knowledge is crucial to give any country a competitive edge in a globalised world.

Universities, as academic institutes for higher learning, play a central role in providing quality education to people and creating new knowledge. So the quality of higher education of a country is directly related to its economic prosperity. In other words, no country can prosper without having high quality universities. Therefore, the important question is, how to turn universities into institutes of knowledge creation?

Worthwile investments

A qualified faculty, cutting-edge infrastructure, talented students, and academic autonomy are essential components of a great university. More importantly, research infrastructure is vital to conduct world-class research, which in turn is a warrant for investment and dedication. The level of investment in high quality educational and research institutes determines the present and future of a country. For example, the US is the most advanced nations in the world not only in terms of its economy but also in research and education as many of the world’s top ranking universities are located here. Lots of smart and talented international students seeking higher education in science and technology consider the US to be the most preferred destination. Rightly so. For instance, the National Institute of Health, an American governmnent agency, alone invests over $30 billion annually in medical research.

The importance of scientific innovation to overall economic prosperity has also been realised by many developing countries in recent times. China and India, our giant neigbhours, currently invest 1.98 percent and 0.8 percent of their GDP respectively in research and development. These countries have significantly strengthened their research capability in modern sciences. As a consequence, the number of peer-reviewed research articles by scientists from these countries is on the rise.

In Nepal, however, we only invest about 0.3 percent of our GDP in research and development.  Most research institutes are equipped with decade old and poorly maintained facilities. Because of this, even good scientific work done in our country gets low recognition and scientists face difficulties in getting their work published in peer-reviewed journals. We do not have a single laboratory in state-funded colleges and universities where water and electricity are available 24 hours per day for seven days a week. In this lamentable scenario, it becomes even more important to retain competent scientists in the country. But poor investment in education and research has resulted in a significant loss of bright people to either employment or education abroad.

Work to do

Nonetheless, considering Nepal’s richness in rare medicinal herbs there is potential to attract foreign investment in the area of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals and create jobs. Furthermore, there is an international market potential for some of our traditional local food. For example, the Newari desert ‘Juju-Dhau’ from Bhaktapur, a delicious yogurt, is popularly eaten as a healthy food. This could be commercialised in international markets similar to Greek Yogurt. Another example is ‘Chhurpi’—a dried chewable cheese that is gaining popularity in international markets. However, we need to ensure safety and nutritional quality of these products, and this is only possible with skilled workforce and cutting-edge research laboratories in the country.

So it is important to realise that investing in science and technology will not only reap economic returns, but also prepare us for future challenges. For example, there is a potential danger of Ebola, a dangerous viral disease, currently terrorising countries across the globe. Given its threat, the issue is whether we have any laboratory and expertise in Nepal with the capacity to even confirm an infection. There is a similar concern related to the safe use and disposal of radioactive materials in Nepal. These examples further underscore the need for investment in both infrastructure and training in medical research.

Need for reforms  

Even as the quality of scientific education and research plays a crucial role in the social and economic transformation the Nepali government remains uninterested.

Instead, it seems intent on meddling with the academic autonomy of universities. That is why detaching educational institutes from politics is a necessity for creating a research friendly environment. Unfortunately, corruption and irregularities are rampant in Nepal, including in universities. And that a dedicated medical doctor like Govinda KC has to go on a fast-unto-death to press the demand for academic autonomy instead of doing medical research is telling.

Nepal needs to define its priority areas and plan its investment goals accordingly. Allocating more of its budget to strengthen the research infrastructure of established centers or institutes such as the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (Nast) and the Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (Recast) will help to motivate researchers and create employment. Most importantly, the government should consider attracting young people, particularly postdoctoral fellows, by providing good fellowships. Besides, establishing research collaborations between institutes within and outside the country is also a win-win strategy—many laboratories in our neighbouring countries have excellent facilities.

But this is possible only when educational institutes are allowed to work independently. Additionally, the problem with our poor performance in science and technology lies not only in poor funding, but also in our old mind set. Unless we head for drastic reforms in improving infrastructure and the academic environment of our universities and research institutes, our future looks grim. And the sooner we understand this, the better off we will be.

Prasain holds a PhD and is currently a faculty member at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, the US

Published: 06-11-2014 09:09

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