Vision 2021, Bangladesh’s development strategy, sees the country becoming a middle-income nation by 2021, in large part by super-charging its science and technology (S&T) sector to drive economic growth.
A ‘digital Bangladesh’ revolution is already underway with the introduction of machine-readable passports; electronic voting cards; driving licences and vehicle number plates; online public services for checking exam results; registering land and tax and using mobile phones to buy train tickets.
In 2010 Parliament passed a new S&T legislation — Science and Technology Act 2010 — for technological advancement, such as introducing a national electronic system to allow more decentralised access to information about development projects.
Keeping the pipeline of ideas flowing to turn research into technology is a challenge and the ministry of science and technology (MoST) estimates that US$ 6.2 billion will be needed in the next decade to achieve the goals of Vision 2021.
A recent boost
Since 2008 the government has increased the research budget by 20 per cent each year to help ensure that home-grown technology contributes to development. Around five per cent of the country’s annual budget is now allocated to MoST, and the government plans to increase this to at least 15 per cent.
“Our budget allocation compared to previous years is increasing and the ministry feels the need for application of more modern technology to achieve the goals of Vision 2021,” Khondaker M. Asaduzzaman, secretary at MoST, tells SciDev.Net.
“We have allocated US$ 311 million as budget for the next fiscal year (2014—2015), which is a jump from US$ 75 million allocated this fiscal. Of course, we don’t expect to see changes overnight. It would take years to adapt to technological advancement in this nation of 150 million people,” he says.
The ministry has also introduced 17 new research institutes and units, including a marine research institute and a national institute of biotechnology.
“We have allocated US$ 311 mn as budget for the next fiscal year, which is a jump from US$ 75 mn allocated this fiscal”
K M Asaduzzaman, MoST secretary
New areas of focus areas include telecommunication, aviation, transport and river research, adding to the work of existing centres, such as the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.
Successes following increased funding include the sequencing of the jute genome, and some of the fungal pathogens which infect it. This has led to
Bangladeshi scientists producing and patenting high-quality, disease-free genetically modified jute.
Similarly, research on the buffalo genome is aimed at improving local stock and reducing the import of cattle. A number of heat, salt and flood-resistant varieties of rice and maize have also been developed to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Feeding the 150 million
Vision 2021 aims for self-sufficiency in food production, making agriculture research a priority. At present, Bangladesh imports food to supplement the domestic production.
More than 70 per cent of the population relies on agriculture on limited land. The ministry of agriculture predicts that another 10—12 million tonnes of cereals must be produced to meet demand by 2050. Food production faces challenges like extreme weather, seasonal floods, cyclones and droughts, and the loss of underground water sources.
Mohammad Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, tells SciDev.Net: “Our research now focuses on food security or, in other words, increasing land productivity through efficient irrigation, flood control and management of drainage, and producing high-yielding varieties of crops.”
Scientists from other fields are also upbeat about recent developments, not least in the energy sector.
Mohammad Sarwar Jahan, a principal scientific officer at the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), tells SciDev.Net:
“BCSIR is giving importance to research on solar energy, biogas, biofuel, biomaterials and biochemicals. Such technology is planned to replace at least ten per cent of fossil fuel and products by 2021.”
Peaceful use of nuclear energy and its expansion is another area to which MoST is now allocating greater resources than before (more than US$ 150 million in the next financial year alone). Gas reserves are depleting and river water flow is decreasing, meaning alternative sources of energy are needed.
Mohammad Saidul Islam, director-general of the National Institute of Biotechnology, established in 2010, is also feeling optimistic. “We started with some ambitious projects and are also working on developing a national gene bank, identification of potential microbial strain for enzyme production, and many more (projects),” he tells SciDev.Net.
But not everyone is convinced that improvements are happening fast enough.
Bangladesh has around 3,500 scientists, according to Mijanur Rahman, director-general of the Bangladesh National Scientific and Documentation Centre.
Seventy per cent of 3,500 researcher posts and 50,000 for research assistants have been created in the past few years, but there are concerns that the government is focused on the commercial potential of research rather than development.
Abdul Moyeen Khan, former minister of science and technology and senior leader of the main opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, tells SciDev.Net, “It is sad to note that the priority of promoting scientific research has drifted to one which is concentrated on commercialism and unethical money-making.”
“Budget allocation is now often seen from a point of view of investment and commercial profit, like in an ordinary business,” he says. Instead, according to Khan, budget allocation should be need-based.
Khan also claims the government “miserably lags behind in technological advancement, research and in the field of higher education” and has failed to encourage postgraduate research. Public universities separate out funds for research based on national interests — such as arsenic in food chain — from education.
“It is sad to note that the priority of promoting scientific research has drifted to one which is concentrated on commercialism and unethical money-making”
A M Khan, former science minister
Senior scientist at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, tells SciDev.Net that research in most Bangladeshi institutions falls below international standards. “We still lack infrastructure, equipment and most important of all, continuous funding for successful research,” he says.
“The funding for real research for development is still very tiny if you look at the percentage of the money allocated from GDP (unofficial sources say it is between 0.5 and three per cent). Then come the bureaucratic problems in releasing funds for research,” says Islam. All these problems are highly discouraging for a scientist to work with enthusiasm,” Islam says, adding that while the intentions behind Vision 2021 are good, the investments are missing.
Mohammad Shahidul Islam, chairman of the department of plant pathology at Patuakhali Science and Technology University, says that the extremely poor funding for research shows that “there is a lack of commitment for Vision 2021.”
Experts say that for technological advancement in sectors like energy, health, education, transport, communication and aviation, Bangladesh would require at least US$ 7—10 billion a year, instead of the current US$ 300 million.
A version of this story was originally published on the South-Asia edition