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!!

Brain Drain

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.

Biotech Jobs??

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 !!

Acknowledgements

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.

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19 thoughts on “A Decade in Nepali Biotech – Bitter Side of a Tasty Fruit!!

  1. Can you help me, I have decided to study b.tech from KU. But people say its of no use. I am currently awaiting for my HSEB Board exam. Also I have no clue how to prepare for the entrance exam at KU so I am doing paramedical course. Is it necessary to continue what I am doing? Nobody can give me a good sugesstion and I am really troubled as my future is at stake. So please can you help me..
    Hoping for a soon reply as Iam extremely anxious from each passing of second.

    • Lasata, I guess you need to first decide on how you want to shape your career in the future and what are you really interested in. Paramedical and Biotech are two different disciplines and both these subjects have their own charm. If you are really interested in studying biotech then you need not to continue paramedical. As far as the entrance exams at KU is in concerned, if you know what has been taught at your class in grade 11 and 12 then you will certainly feel comfortable. But I would not like to be judgmental if studying at KU is good or bad for you. Its totally your choice. You must have figured it out from my blog that currently biotech in Nepal is just growing. But at a global scale biotech is a certainly is a demanding field. All the best 🙂

      • thank you so much raunak da. I have now narrow down my option and feel confident. Thanks a million 😀

  2. Hi! I am also waiting my HSEB result.I want to study genetic engineering but I have one problem and that is I didn’t gave my math exam.So I heard that I can’t get in this field,but if I study Biotech I can.I don”t have any clear information about this.Can I really get in this field If I study Biotech? If yes than what should I do after completion of 4 yrs study of Biotech? Can you plz help me with some of your idea?

    PLZ reply!

    • As long as you have either of Phy+Chem+Bio or Phy+Chem+Bio, you can certainly be eligible for studying biotech or gen. engg provided that you fulfill the basic requirements set by the university. I would really suggest you to see the requirement of the university you are applying to. Both Gen. Engg and Biotech are very similar and after entering into the program you certainly need to accelerate in all of these domains including Maths. Well it is up to you what you want to do after graduation !!!

  3. well I too have not taken maths and am thinking of doing genetic eng. after completing biotech.
    I know these period very crucial in our life, have to take decision considering all the aspect. Though some doubts regarding my decision of taking biotech is clouding my mind as many people say that I should think over it again as chances of getting a good job is very sleek.
    I am not trying to scare you or put u in a quizzical state i am jus sharing my experience and would like to know both of yours experience encountered.
    All the best for ur search may you turn out to be victorios 😀

    • I totally agree with u! Well I have faced similar kind of stuff like yours.I am confused right now.Hope I will sort this out as soon as possible.
      Hope you will also decide soon and Good Luck! Thanks for your suggestion, I will keep this in mind.

  4. hi i have comppleted my +2 and thinking biotech but when i read your article its kind of making me scared of my decision.and i m not a maths student either.will biotech be a good option for me ?

    • Biotech in Nepal is emerging but still is in its infancy. However, I do not have any intentions to discourage anyone from pursuing biotech their career. Biotech is really booming worldwide and I personally am excited and feel it’s a great career choice and I’ve been involved in the same path. It is just that there is lot more to be done in Nepal to create job placements in this area.
      And regarding your eligibly, Biotech is a multidisciplinary subject so as long as you are well aware of the high school science you are fit to qualify.

  5. Hi! I want to study biotech in Nepal and I am also waiting for HSEB result,I am a math student and I have taken pysics,chemistry,and math in 12 but not biology.so can I study biotechnology or biochemistry in Nepal ??

    • regarding your eligibly, Biotech is a multidisciplinary subject so as long as you are well aware of the high school science you are fit to qualify. Check the university eligibility criteria.

  6. Hello Raunakji,

    Your blog article is very helpful. I wanted to ask a similar question. I have heard that Biotechnology is the growing field and mentioned this to my son after he passed SLC. Now he has completed A level (results waiting) and wants to pursue Biotechnology at Graduate level. Reading the story in your blog, it seems in Nepal there is little job opportunities, but so is the case with other disciplines. What is its scope for example, job prospects after bachelors or further study after Bachelors in other countries? can you suggest some good colleges abroad which offer graduate level biotechnology courses and where it is possible to obtain scholarships as well?

    • Biotech in Nepal is gradually picking-up its pace but still not enough to satisfy the increasing number of graduates from Nepal. However, biotech is already an established field abroad and has a growing demand for fresh graduates. It is a multi-disciplinary subject so opportunities and scope is limitless. There are many colleges/universities in Nepal and abroad offering the course/scholarships which I simply cannot fit in this comment.

  7. This article is nice but as we know that still in our country biotech. students r jobless and it has not been also involved in psc exam so voice must be raise against it .as we know that Nepal is 24 biggest country in world in biodiversity so there it can be big hobs of biotechnology in spite it lack of good leadership Nepal is lacking behind. what a paradox. By Santosh kr.chaurasia

  8. This is a nice article about the present scenario. Kudos to the writer for the job well done. I would like to add few of own experiences here. I graduated from India with both Bachelors and Masters degree in Applied Genetics in 2005. In 2012, I completed a Masters degree in Molecular Biology from USA. I had the opportunity to do my PhD, but I bailed out with only a Masters degree. Presently, I am a permanent resident of Australia but I am planning to study engineering again. All those years of training to be a biologist has not been able to give me a full fledged career. To all those of you who are looking at a career in biotechnology, let me give you some insights into the career of a biologist. THIS IS NOT MEANT TO BE DISCOURAGING. Biology is a pure science – meaning you study the basics and then come up with a question. Based on that question, you will form a hypothesis. Hypothesis are usually your assumed answers to a question based on your informed learning.To test any hypothesis, you would need a laboratory and money (funding). But the problem is it’s hard to come across any funding. There are many brilliant grant proposals for very less money. In developed countries, the career of a scientist goes like this. You finish PhD in 5 years (USA), 3-4 years (European countries), 10 years (India). After that there is post-doctoral studies which can range from 2-9 years. 9 years is more the norm now. Now you would wonder why do 9 years of post doc compared to 3-5 years of PhD. The reason is PhD degree is taken as just the beginning of a career in teaching. The main problem is there are very few teaching opportunities available so you stick with post doc until you find a teaching job. Now, if you want to work in the industry, the problem is you will be like a technician. You will perform routine laboratory work but you will never be able to test a hypothesis. Contrast all this to the career prospect and earnings of an engineer or a doctor. You will get the picture. So this writing is not meant to discouraging. If you are looking at a career in Biology, then gather information. Do some googling. Gather statistics about how much funding is there, how many people are currently employed in that field, how many are unemployed- so the you can make an informed decision about your career. To those of you who are very interested in scientific research, this might be a good career. To those of you who are joining biotech bandwagon because your friends are also doing it, please think before you leap. Be warned that this field requires lots of sacrifice, time and perseverance. About my own experience in this, I do not regret studying biology and the years spent. I got to learn a lot and it has been indirectly useful in so many ways. However, if you ask me if I would suggest anyone study biotech, NO would be my answer. Thank you reading.

  9. can you please help me.I have keen interest to study in this subject. I have just passed my +2 and want to join but senior told me that there is no use of biotechnology…so plzz provide me right info about it..hoping for positive response

    • Just like any other science & tech field in Nepal, Biotech in Nepal is progressing gradually and still will take decades to reach its full potential. But beyond the boundaries of the country, Biotech is a MUST have skills for any life-science graduate. Obtaining knowledge and skills in biotech will be valuable depending on your career choice. If you have a real passion for Biotech you must go ahead with it.

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