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[BANGKOK] Thailand plans to create a research and development 'superministry' by merging its ministries of science and technology, and of information and communication technology.

The move, announced on 31 August, will help science and technology better serve Thailand's development targets, says Tossaporn Sirisampan, secretary-general of the Public Sector Development Commission Office, which planned the merger.

Tossaporn says that to stay competitive in international markets, Thailand must do more than simply mass-produce goods. Creating 'value-added' products is necessary, and only by using suitable technology will this be possible, he says.

So far Thai research has not been responsive to the country's needs because it has lacked direction, hence the planned reforms, adds Tossaporn.

According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, Thailand's main national research agencies, such as the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and Thailand Research Fund completed more than 2,000 projects between 1998 and 2003. But in a similar period — 1998 to 2002 — only 122 of NSTDA's innovations were patented.

In the first half of 2004, Thailand spent US$9 billion importing science and technology related products, according to the National Economic and Social Development Board.

"The challenge for the new ministry will be to manage technology to yield the best results, and, in doing so, give our future research a clearer direction," says Tossaporn.

Under the plan, an executive board will oversee three newly-appointed groups specialising in technology management, science policy, and intellectual property rights.

The policy group will suggest policies for approval by the executive board. Then the technology management group will implement them, either by buying suitable technologies or by funding new research.

National science agencies will therefore be gathered under the same umbrella to develop that new research, says Tossaporn. He added that the intellectual property group would  eventually take care of innovations.

Pairash Thajchayapong, the Ministry of Science and Technology's permanent secretary, says the reforms would make a significant change to research. Government scientists, no longer be held back by 'red tape', would be able to work more flexibly.

"They will go straight to the laboratory, rather than being tied down with paperwork required under the current bureaucracy," says Pairash.

Jaroen Compeerapap, vice-president of Silpakorn University and a specialist in intellectual property rights, told SciDev.Net that policymakers must not forget to integrate social and environmental dimensions into their planned reforms.

"Technology is part of the society and should never overrule it," says Jaroen.

The planned reforms will soon be forwarded to the cabinet for approval, though the date has not yet been decided, says Tossaporn.

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