A Decade in Nepali Biotech – Bitter Side of a Tasty Fruit!!
In early January 2010, a news covered by Kantipur Television News struck my mind. The then Minister for Science & Technology of Nepal had pleaded the cabinet to assign him some work as he was apparently “jobless” even after holding the top-notch post in the science & technology field. You could just make a rough guess to the overall situation of science & technology and thousands of scientists in Nepal from the above statement. And the situation of life-sciences and biotechnology is no better!
Nepal was isolated from the western world during the period 1800 – 1950 AD and the industrial and scientific revolution during this period passed Nepal by. Initial interest in the field of biotechnology began after the establishment of Department of Medicinal Plants (Now Dept. of Plant Resources) and Royal Drug Research Laboratory (now National Medicine Laboratory (NML)) in early 1960s (UNESCO/RONAST, 2006). Nepal Academy of Science & Technology (NAST, then Royal Nepal Academy of Science & Technology (RoNAST)) and Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) got established in 1980s which, in some sense, were the prime institutions conducting scientific research in Nepal. During late 1980s and 1990s, some organized efforts from Nepal Biotechnology Association (NBA) and Nepal Molecular Biology Society (NEMBIS) had been carried out to promote biotechnology though it was much limited within a handful of senior scientist.
But the true Nepali biotechnology revolution conflagrated after Kathmandu University (KU) launched a 4 year undergraduate program in biotechnology starting 2003. Since then 5 other institutions (Tribhuvan University, Whitehouse Institute of Science & Technology, Lord Buddha Education Foundation, SAAN International College and recently Kantipur Valley College) around Kathmandu have launched similar undergraduate and graduate programs in biotechnology. Few more groups were established during this period mainly Biotechnology Society of Nepal (BSN) that has been effective, to some extent, in uniting students, academia, government and industries and advocating biotechnology in Nepal.
Now, almost a decade has passed since the inception of Nepali biotech revolution but we have just started toddling. Developing biotechnology, which no doubt is a big-money science, in a resource-strapped (low technical infrastructure) country like Nepal is a huge challenge in front of us. However, I would like to focus on few of the critical challenges in Nepali Biotech that have been spoken yet unheard.
Applied vs Basic Science
As Prof. Mukunda Ranjit puts it, “Everyone (during 1960s to 90s) were after development and nobody wanted to do science” (Talk Biotech on Wednesdays – Episode 1). Indeed till date we have been applying knowledge rather than developing the knowledge itself. Although no written evidence is available, the entire Nepali science policies and strategies are based on promoting the application of knowledge/technology. This vision of applied science was much suitable back then but now we are in a dire need of inventing the knowledge so that we could sell it to others.
Just to give you an analogy, basic science is like manufacturing raw materials and applied science is like assembling and producing a final consumer product. Putting it in the other way, basic sciences forms the foundation upon which applied sciences rely just as the figure given below. But looking at the Nepali life-sciences sector, the foundation itself is very feeble and the current developments are overly mounted upon it. For example, there are lots of pharmaceutical and food industries in Nepal that has got well established for more than a decade. All these industries have been using the techniques and knowledge discovered abroad and is just functioning like an “assembly station” and hardly a handful of these industries are interested in R&D.
Developing basic science (or R&D) is like developing a culture which will certainly take a longer time but gives a solid foundation (like in North American and European countries) but if the we are to only strive for the applied science and never ever care about the basic science then there will come a time when the whole system will collapse (scenario well evident among South Asian countries). This is why around 40% of graduate degree holders (Masters and/or PhD) end up in a teaching job rather than doing research and inventing knowledge (Shrestha, 2012).
The field of Biotechnology has been victimized by the same scenario. There has been a trend in younger Nepali universities like Kathmandu University, Purbanchal University, Pokhara University and many other colleges to launch applied science based degree courses like biotech. No doubt the course has been designed consulting the national as well as international experts in the field. The overall courses of all the biotechnology degrees available in Nepal are much compatible with that of any North American or the European universities. But when most of the biotech students come to market after his/her graduation he/she will end-up jobless. What is the reason behind this? Most of the students complain that industries and the scientific community as a whole has not understood the role, responsibility and potential of biotechnology. Almost all of the biotech graduates complain of being the jack of all and master of none!
The course has been designed mirroring North America and Europe where the basic science is well established and the scientific community there has well defined the role of biotechnology. But in the case of Nepal launching a biotechnology degree program was like jumping many strides ahead. And biotechnology program has been a lesson to be learnt for KU which otherwise had been overly successful in applied science based courses launched prior to biotechnology.
Well this had to happen in a country where the basic science is totally neglected. The scientific community has not understood the importance of biotechnology because the culture of basic science research is totally lacking in our country. Eventually this problem is growing bigger and bigger and if we are not to understand this aspect of science then we will not be able to keep up pace with the world in coming decades.
Having spent almost a year in Canadian universities and working across various labs here, my perspective towards biotechnology has changed totally. Biotech here is considered much like an industrial based, job oriented course rather than research oriented course. The term biotechnology is closely associated with industries and product development. However, the trend in Nepal is completely opposite!!
It is needless to restate that we have been facing a serious brain drain and this is even more exaggerating among the biotech graduates in Nepal. But the most overwhelming thing is that Nepal ranks among the top 10 countries in the world to export international students at graduate level in the field of Science & Engineering to USA (Wasem, 2012). These data certainly indicate that despite being an under developed country, Nepal has been producing a lot of talented students and have been exporting in the global market in the field of science & technology. Provided a good environment certainly these talents can be utilized in the home country itself.
Till 2011, approximately 350 biotech graduates have been produced from various biotech colleges around Nepal among which 186 students have been graduated from KU alone. On an average every year around 120 biotech students are produced in Nepal itself. There are many more students studying biotechnology in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Europe, Australia and America adding up to the list.
A case-study (data as of May, 2012) carried out among the Biotechnology graduates (4 years B.Tech. program) from KU clearly indicates that there is an increasing trend of brain drain among biotech graduates. Majority of the students fly to European and North-American countries for their graduate studies. Strikingly, almost 98% of the biotech students graduating in 2007 had gone abroad (till 2012) for their higher studies (note: those students that have returned back to Nepal after completion of their graduate studies have also been categorized as students that have gone abroad). The subsequent batches of students seem to follow the same trend indicating growing frustration among the biotech graduates. This scenario is not very different when cases of biotech graduates from other colleges are considered.
Ironically, you will be surprised by the fact that almost every government institution dealing with biotechnology and/or molecular biology have a specialized “Biotechnology Division” and some recruited biotechnologist. But to our dismay, most of the people holding those posts are largely incompetent for the assigned job and are not much aware of the basics of biotechnology (as most of them are trained in other disciplines of life-science). I can vouch that even a fresh biotech graduate with limited experience knows much more (both theoretical as well as practical aspects) than the biotech job holders in government institutions, who have very limited exposure to “research”!!!!
Another taboo prevalent within our society is that certain institutions only prefer a “single breed” of graduates. For example, an organization working in agriculture will only accept a graduate in agriculture or forestry for a biotech position than a biotech graduate itself. This misconception must be wiped out from the roots.
But the major hurdle has been that the Public Service Commission (PSC) (Lok Sewa Aayog) of Nepal has not yet recognized biotechnology as separate discipline. At present a biotech graduate has to either register him/herself as a zoologist, botanist, micro-biologist to give PSC exams but a zoologist, botanist, micro-biologist will be eligible to hold biotech positions in government institutions. This is the bitter irony of Nepali biotech!! Government has not been able to recruit competent biotechnologist and the competent biotech graduates are lying jobless and falling in line to fly abroad.
A Faint Spark of Brightness
Despite of all the problems laid out above, the recent moves by government has ignited renewed enthusiasm amongst the Nepali biotech community. The announcement made back in 2008 by the then Maoist lead government to shower US $125 million (12 fold increase) to science and technology development even managed to get published in the much prestigious Science magazine (Guo, 2008). Recently, Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) has announced to establish National Biotechnology Center (NBC) by 2013. NBC aims to promote research and development in agriculture, health, environment and industry with an estimated cost of US $13 million over the course next five years (Science and Development Network). MoST has been enthusiastically facilitating for funding and foreign collaboration in various prioritized biotech based research projects. Another conference held recently in Kathmandu has revealed some strategic plans for cooperation in the field of biotechnology between India and Nepal (Natural Prospects Of Biotechnology). Furthermore, few biotech ventures (from private funding) are adding up on the list every year which is a very good sign.
Something of Change
No doubt that Nepal is in a phase of socio-political transformation and lots of other issues have been prioritized rather than science and technology. A lot of biotech talents are migrating abroad due to the two decades of chaos in the country which is a serious issue. However, I receive this as an opportunity that Nepal can utilize in the coming decades. Looking back at our neighbor – China, majority of the credit for the booming Chinese Biotech goes the US-returned Chinese scientist who returned to their home land when China became more open to global business (Chinese Scientists Build Big Pharma Back Home). Nepal can create similar situation too. But the question still remains, is Nepal prepared (or is preparing) for this reverse-migration?
India’s biotech firms are largely focused on process innovations to improve affordability and accessibility of medicine among local and global populations whereas Chinese biotech firms are striving to create novel products in such areas as gene therapy and regenerative medicine (China’s biotech industry: An Asian dragon is growing). Being in the middle of the two, strategically very different, big power house of Biotech – China and India, Nepal certainly has a golden opportunity to tap the big biotech business. But for this we need more biotech entrepreneurs, more infrastructures and above all we need biotech engulfed within industries.
As Prof. Dayananda Bajracharya puts it “The public at large thinks science is too sophisticated for a country like Nepal,” (Guo, 2008) we need to take a holistic approach to develop the overall situation we are facing today. Nepal is beginning to realize that the way ahead is only possible through the path of Science and Technology (Kaphle et al., 2009). It may take another revolution to change things around – The Nepali-Biotech Revolution !!
I would like to thank Mr. Pawan Bashyal, Mr. Prajwal Rajbhandari, Ms. Manisha Bista and Mr. Aagat Awasthi for helping me collect the data of the KU Biotech graduates.