Nepal ‘still struggling’ to harness science for development

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Copyright: Ami Vitale/Panos

Speed read

  • Funding is required to research local problems and get young scientists to stay
  • The science sector currently gets less than 0.4 per cent of the nation’s GDP
  • Nepal’s science ministry hopes to push for more R&D funding in the next budget

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[KATHMANDU] Nepal’s science sector remains chronically underfunded — getting less than 0.4 per cent of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product) — and initially promising science policies have  failed to improve things, critics say.

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The country’s second national policy on science and technology (S&T) from 2005 aimed to underline the need for scientific research for Nepal’s development and to allocate more of the national budget to science, especially in agriculture.  

It also sought to improve skills and increase the number of institutions to promote research and development across Nepal, which is labelled by the UN as one of least developed countries based on its socioeconomic and human development indicators.

But according to local scientists, the policy has so far failed to prioritise research and development, leaving scientists to scramble for jobs abroad instead of meeting the development needs at home.

“Nepal’s prolonged political instability has taken attention away from the need to prioritise funding for the development of S&T,” admits Krishna Chandra Paudel, secretary of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. “But the ministry is working to provide a conducive environment to ensure growth in S&T, which will contribute to the country’s development.”

According to Paudel, the ministry is drawing up science and technology guidelines to facilitate national and international research, encourage collaborations between different government agencies, bring together Nepali scientists to discuss their needs and arrange for the required resources and support.

The ministry pushed for increased funds for research and development in the recent budget (13 July) and is set to receive 30.2 million Nepali rupees (about US$400,000) this year.

But local scientists are sceptical about government programmes, which they claim have failed to deliver concrete results.
For example, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment had planned to open a national biotechnology centre by 2013 to promote research and development in agriculture, health, environment and industry. But this has yet to happen.
Experts call for better scientific infrastructure and for more funding to go into research, particularly local studies, and to go into using findings to address local problems in areas such as health, energy and food security.
“Research is still a very neglected […] in Nepal, with a shortage of hi-tech labs and equipment because it hasn’t been a priority for successive governments here,” says Sameer Mani Dixit, country director at non-profit research and capacity-building organisation the Center for Molecular Dynamics, in Nepal.
“If the government and private sector work together to develop a research funding pool, accessible by researchers in S&T in the country, it would retain many young scientists in Nepal who are compelled to leave the country for better opportunities elsewhere,” he adds.
Scientists in Nepal can obtain research funding at home through the University Grants Commission or, abroad, from international fellowships.
“Of the commission’s total budget, only 60 million rupees [around US$620,000] is set aside for research grants, which is not sufficient,” says Hridaya Ratna Bajracharya, technical advisor at the commission.
But there is some good news. For example, the allocation for agricultural research has increased over the years and this year reached 1.78 billion Nepali rupees (more than US$18 million).
And there has been a significant rise in the number of engineering colleges from two around 20 years ago to 42 now, according to the Nepal Engineering Council.
Yet without enough high-quality equipment and labs, local scientists are compelled to rely on jobs and research fellowships abroad, says Jagan Nath Shrestha, visiting professor at Tribhuvan University’s Institute of Engineering (IOE).
“Although we don’t have exact numbers, looking at the present trend, almost 90 per cent of all graduates from IOE end up going abroad for higher degree and work opportunities,” says Shrestha.
Barun Pradhan, a graduate from Nepal who is studying for a biotechnology masters at the University of Helsinki, says: “I came to Finland because in Nepal we neither have the infrastructure nor enough funds to carry out research in biotech. I hope to apply for further research opportunities here because there are too many technical and financial constraints to carry out studies in the field of biotech in Nepal.”
The Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, which was established in 1982 to carry out research and facilitate local and international collaboration, is also restricted by its lack of resources.
Prakash Chandra Adhikari, the academy’s secretary, says it has only been three years since the academy began to buy equipment, such as DNA sequencers and sun simulators to test solar panels, with the aim of increasing local research.
“We need to invest more and have a proper institutional framework for S&T to ensure that our scientists are competent globally and we use their wealth of knowledge for nation-building,” he says.
Scientists in Nepal feel the government needs to not only deliver immediate funding for S&T research, but also find ways to sustain long-term investment to ensure lab experiments end up solving local problems and improving people’s quality of life.
“Despite past policies, in the absence of funds and an institutional framework to facilitate research and development, Nepali scientists’ research has failed to garner new findings and their work is only reinventing the wheel,” says Shrestha.
“S&T in Nepal needs to catch up with its South Asian neighbours and developed countries because accelerating growth and productivity cannot be possible without accumulating scientific knowledge in various related fields.”
Link to 2005 science policy