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[KATHMANDU] Nepal has announced a new national plan for biotechnology research that will focus on crops, human and animal health, and waste research.

Nepali researchers, however, have voiced concern over its lack of detail.

Awareness of biotechnology has so far remained low in Nepal and no major spin-offs have come out of government-funded institutes and private sector research labs.

Under the plan, approved on July 24, the government will set up a national biotechnology research and development centre and an expert committee to suggest ways to speed up research and encourage private sector participation in the agriculture sector.

Biotechnology courses will be created, as will scholarships in Nepal's universities and a package of financial incentives for researchers such as a waiver on customs duty for imported instruments and chemicals.

In addition, biological sciences research institutes and industrial units will benefit from subsidised electricity for making enzymes, catalysts and cell cultures.

The plan outlines areas that are considered key for Nepal, including: tissue culture and genetic technologies to select and breed improved crop varieties, microbial cultures to manage industrial waste, biosensors for monitoring soil and air pollutants, and new tools to help conserve the country's biodiversity.

Purushottam Ghimire, a spokesman for Nepal's Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, says the plans represent "a big leap forward" towards modernising the health sector and controlling pollution.

He says biotechnology could help reduce the country's poverty and preserve its environment and rich biodiversity.

But Kayo Devi Yami, chief of the science faculty at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology says the plans are too vague and will draw important funds away form existing institutions.

"I do not agree with the establishment of the national biotechnology research and development centre. Instead the government should strengthen existing institutions," says Yami.

Bindeshwor Prasad Sah, a scientist at the biotechnology unit of Nepal Agriculture Research Council, says the plans do not give sufficient consideration to biosafety rules and regulations.

Prasad Sah adds that there are no details about how the new centre will be funded or managed – which is crucial considering Nepal's technical and financial constraints.

Funding for the biotechnology plan has not yet been finalised, and may involve donors, says Lok Hari Pandey, under secretary for the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology.