The case for bio-tech in Bangladesh
We will never advance as a nation unless we advance in the sciences, argues Ahmed A. Azad, and bio-tech should lead the way
Science and technology have a very low profile in Bangladesh, and their critical importance in sustainable development hardly rates more than a cursory mention in the economic policy documents prepared by various think-tanks in academia, government and civil society. This is in spite of irrefutable evidence that there is a very strong correlation between levels of scientific proficiency and economic development.
An overwhelming majority of scientifically lagging and least developed countries of the world are situated in Africa and parts of Asia, a region that roughly corresponds to the membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
Unlike many other countries in the OIC region, Bangladesh has a small but highly trained scientific manpower and yet remains near the bottom rung of the scientifically lagging countries. Bangladesh also has the unenviable distinction and ignominy of being only one of three Islamic countries in the whole of Asia and North Africa that are classified as being least developed. This has less to do with scientific and human potential than with lack of leadership and neglect of science and technology as a capacity building
What distinguishes the scientifically lagging countries from the developed countries of the West and the rapidly advancing countries of the developing world such as India, China and Brazil is their lack of scientific capacity and intellectual capital. In those rapidly advancing countries, and other scientifically proficient countries of the developing world such as Cuba, South Korea and Singapore, it has become quite clear that national will and pride, visionary leadership, and the nurturing of scientific talent can turn the tide.
This is mainly because of the very supportive and enabling research atmosphere that has been created in those countries. None of this would have been possible without the active support of their respective governments. To a smaller extent, such changes have also occurred in a few Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey, where the governments have been extremely supportive and proactive.
If Bangladesh is to move forward then it has to emulate the above examples. This can happen only if the government and the policy makers in Bangladesh realize the enormity of the problem, and are prepared to support the notion that sustainable economic development is only possible through a knowledge economy underpinned by a strong science and technology base.
The government can take some of the necessary measures alone, while others will be best addressed through focused collaboration, sharing of resources and expertise, and collective action with other countries in the South.
There are many reasons for the scientific backwardness of Bangladesh and the rest of the OIC region. The need to share meager research funds and infrastructure, and the absence of collaborative and multidisciplinary research programs to combat common national and regional problems, have adversely affected research outcome and resulted in a steady decline in research productivity. Training grants are rarely awarded in focused areas of regional priority, and interventions are often donor-driven rather than need-driven.
Young scientists from Bangladesh and other Third World countries receiving research training in the North often find that their studies are of no direct relevance in their home nations and, once they return home, the research atmosphere is rarely conducive to the continuation of the sophisticated research the young trainees participated in while working in laboratories in the North.
As a result, they often do not return to their home countries, or leave again in frustration because of the lack of research support, causing a very debilitating "brain drain" from the poorer to the developed nations.
One of the greatest obstacles to research productivity in Bangladesh and other countries in the OIC region is the serious lack of trained personnel and full time researchers. The culture of postdoctoral fellowships that runs the engines of research in the North is sadly lacking in many developing countries, and is almost non-existent in Bangladesh. Indeed, a disproportionate number of postdoctoral fellows in the North have their origin in the South, who, because of a lack of research opportunities in their countries of origin, are instead contributing to knowledge-based "wealth creation" in the West.
In the long term, full time research positions are absolutely essential to plug the technology gap in the less developed countries such as Bangladesh. In the short term, funding must be found for postdoctoral fellowships and visiting fellowships to promote research, and the exchange of researchers, within Bangladesh and the OIC region.
Urgent measures need to be taken to transform the "brain drain" from the developing to the developed world into a "brain retention and circulation" within the OIC region. A further aim should be to develop a "brain bank" by tapping into the enormous talent and expertise available among the region's expatriate scientists, and encouraging them to contribute to the development of science and technology in their countries of origin in whatever way they can. Bangladesh will be a major beneficiary of such an initiative.
In Bangladesh all natural science and technology disciplines, except ICT to a small extent, are in dire straits due to lack of meaningful support from the government. While the focus of this article is on biotechnology (or contemporary biosciences), the conditions described and proposed remedies are equally applicable to all other scientific disciplines.
In fact, the development of biotechnology requires the development of all scientific disciplines, because modern biotechnology (or molecular biosciences) is inherently multidisciplinary, and is an amalgam of all the cutting edge technologies in the biological, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
Biotechnology has been termed "The science of the 21st century" because of the tremendous progress already made, and the immense potential it has for solving problems in health, agriculture and the environment. The US government has spent more on research in this area in the last twenty years than in all the other natural sciences pooled together.
The rapidly advancing countries of the developing world, such as India, China and Brazil, have also targeted modern biotechnology as a priority area for development, and a vehicle for catching up with the economically developed countries. It is in this very area of modern biotechnology, where the gap between Bangladesh and the scientifically advanced countries is the greatest, that this gap is increasing exponentially with time.
There are serious financial and logistical problems in carrying out internationally competitive biotechnology research in Bangladesh and other similar countries. Most policy makers and development economists around the world, including Bangladesh, believe that the scientifically lagging and least developed countries have many more pressing priorities to cope with and simply survive, and that internationally competitive biosciences research should be carried out by those best equipped to do this, namely the R&D laboratories in the West, and the relatively technologically proficient and rapidly advancing countries of the developing world such as China, India and Brazil.
This defeatist attitude ignores the actual needs and underestimates the existing capabilities in the scientifically lagging countries of the developing world, including the least developed ones.
Such thinking will ensure that the agenda for growth and sustainability will continue to remain externally driven, and scientifically lagging countries, particularly the least developed countries, will be reduced to permanent dependency and perhaps to permanent destitution.
The development of an agenda that allows scientists in Bangladesh and the OIC region to carry out internationally competitive biotechnology research relevant to national and regional needs while working from their home base, or within the region, also requires the development of "centers of excellence" that will benefit individual countries and the entire OIC region. It is extremely important that Bangladesh establish at least one real center of excellence in biotechnology.
It is not feasible or practical for Bangladesh to compete with the rest of the world in all areas of biomedical and agricultural research. There must be national focus on only a small number of priority areas where there is strength and potential. A proper national priority exercise needs to be carried out to decide on research areas where we can realistically make major inroads, and be internationally competitive, and contribute to national development.
Very valuable information on the current status of biotechnology research in Bangladesh was obtained from the proceedings of a conference on "Promotion and Development of biotechnology in Bangladesh: National and International Perspectives" held in Dhaka recently. Over three days (April 6-8) over 350 researchers, academics, students, and representatives from government, local pharmaceutical and seed companies, and NGOs met under one roof to discuss achievements, problems and the way forward.
It was fortunate that three advisors of the CTG who do understand the importance and need for science and technology, Mr. Tapan Choudhury (Science and ICT), Dr. C. S. Karim (Agriculture) and Dr. A.S.M. Matiur Rahman (Health), very strongly supported, and participated in, the conference. This is unprecedented in Bangladesh, and a sign of the window of opportunity that now exists during the tenure the current CTG.
The conference was a real eye opener, as probably no one in Bangladesh anticipated the strength and depth of biotechnology research that already exists, and most researchers probably became aware for the first time of what others in the country were doing. The conference proceedings also exposed a number of weaknesses that need to be addressed.
Only a very small number of isolated groups use, or have access to, modern biotechnology and cutting edge technologies. Very important advances in conventional plant breeding have been made in the various agricultural institutes but modern Biotechnology remains a "poor cousin," and there is very little national coordination.
The funding for biotechnology research in Bangladesh is miniscule in comparison with India, or even with developing countries in the OIC such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey, and even that is operated by various ministries without any coordination at the national level.
The lack of full-time researchers in Bangladesh is a very critical problem and, unlike many other developing countries, there is no funding for PhD and post-doctoral researchers. Also, there is no coordinated plan for the employment within the country of young biotechnologists who are now graduating in large numbers. So the Bangladeshi universities are, in effect, training biotechnology and life science graduates, at great cost to the country, for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries in the West.
Unlike India, and many smaller developing countries, the private sector in Bangladesh is yet to make an impact in the area of biopharmaceuticals and agricultural biotechnology, as there is no linkage with the government or the research community.
The potential for this sector is very great and the local industries are very enthusiastic, but they require support from the government and the research community if they are to emulate what has already happened in the rapidly advancing countries of the developing world.
While the Bangladeshi biotechnology community has warmly welcomed the release of the government's Biotechnology Policy, the document does not specify how the policies should be implemented or funded. The Biotechnology Policy is also quiet about the role of the government's single biggest biotechnology asset, the National Institute of Biotechnology (NIB) in the implementation of the government's plans. A beautiful building has been constructed at the cost of Taka 28 crore, but it essentially remains an empty shell.
However, the NIB has the potential to become a world-class center of excellence in biotechnology with proper planning and sufficient and meaningful funding, which the government is unlikely to be able to provide on its own.
Attempts during the tenure of the previous government to obtain funding through public-private partnership in Bangladesh, and very substantial international funding from the Millennium Science Initiative, failed because of the objection of one minister and the Project Director to the concept of public-private partnership, when the government's own Biotechnology Policy supports this.
In response to the government's Biotechnology Policy, and taking into consideration the inherent difficulties and deficiencies and also the enormous potential that exists, the conference attendees and the "Global Network of Bangladeshi Biotechnologists" (www.gnobb.org) have prepared a set of recommendations and a Position Paper to help the government in implementing its Biotechnology Policy. The recommendations deal mainly with the creation of an independent body for coordination and support of biotechnology activities in the country, and the restructuring of the existing NIB.
The government has been requested to establish a national commission for biotechnology (NCBT) with its own secretariat and independent core funding. The proposed NCBT will oversee the implementation of the government's Biotechnology Policy, and promote biotechnology activities through liaison with relevant government departments, academic and research institutions, the private sector, funding agencies and development partners. It will fund biotechnology research and training through a competitive research grants scheme, and pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships.
The government has also been requested to restructure the current National Institute of Biotechnology as an autonomous research flagship of the NCBT, with the mandate to be the national resource and training centre for facilitating and supporting priority areas of research in modern biotechnology. It will comprise of an Intramural Centre in Savar and Extramural Research Units spread across Bangladesh.
The Intramural Centre at the existing NIB site will consist of three sections: (i) Research (national priority programs in all areas of modern biotechnology) (ii) Major equipment and core facilities (national resource centre accessible to all biotechnology related R&D groups in Bangladesh) (iii) Technology Transfer and Commercial Applications (to be set up in partnership with industry for the commercialization of biotechnology research).
Funding for major equipment and core facilities, and for training and visiting fellowships, could be obtained from the Millennium Science Funds if the NIB could qualify as a Millennium Institute. Additional funding could be sought from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Technology (ICGET), The Academy of the Developing World (ADW), Islamic Development Bank, funding agencies and development partners.
The above measures will help to bring biotechnology R&D and the research culture in Bangladesh in line with the scientifically more advanced countries of the developing world, and also help to transform the NIB into a world class center of excellence for biotechnology.
The above recommendations have been submitted to the advisor, MoSICT, and he has expressed his support for the ideas. The position paper that expands on and articulates the recommendations will be submitted to the government very soon.
Hopefully, the current non-political government will provide the visionary and enlightened leadership and support required for the development of modern biotechnology in the country, so that it can be optimally harnessed for sustainable economic development of Bangladesh.
Prof. Ahmed Azad, a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), is a TWAS Research Professor at Brac University and a Member, Council of Scientific Advisors, International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Trieste).