Investment In Science: A Neglected Priority
As an engine of economic growth and prosperity, research and development (R & D) investment in science comprises an integral part of global investment. This is evidenced by the expansion of global R & D expenditures by three fold from $677 billion in 2000 to $2.2 trillion in 2019. The United States of America tops the list of highest expenditure in R & D followed by China, Japan, Germany, South Korea and France. Having said that investment in science and technology has remained a neglected priority in the context of Nepal. While the investment in the R&D was less than 0.1 per cent until 2009 and gradually 0.3 per cent in 2009 to 0.45 per cent by 2020, the much needed investment boost remains unfulfilled.
Despite tall talks of the significance of R & D for a nation and a lip-service to boost such investment, governments so far have largely devoted limited resources to this field. Amid this scenario, meaningful deliberations and discussions on accelerating change through the development of a robust scientific community remains hugely missing. Research institutes like Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), Nepal Agriculture Research Council (NARC), National Agricultural Research and Development Fund (NARDF), Research Centre for Applied Science and Technology (RECAST continue to take a back seat amid paucity of funds. While these institutes have been lobbying for at least one per cent of GDP investment in science and technology, the national fiscal policy has so far failed to address their demands.
In such scenario, research and innovation initiatives have remained limited. Even some researches that are being conducted lack a robust research design backed by a rigorous research methodology. Needless to say, the quality of research publication is a matter of grave concern. On the one hand, there is no incentive for research publication, and on the other, the scientific appointments are also political in nature. Such twin problems continue to hold back the nation’s strides towards the creation of a critically informed and continuously engaging vibrant community of scientists, academics and researchers.
Ray of hope
Nevertheless, the National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2019 with a vision of ‘science, technology and innovation for sustainable development’ has received positive response from the science community. While the objective of boosting national production and productivity through development and utilisation of science and technology and fostering knowledge-based entrepreneurship appears attractive in paper, how will this policy gets translated into action remains unclear. Lofty policies were formulated even in the past for the advancement of this sector but no significant breakthrough in R & D has been observed till date.
On a positive note, novel initiations at individual and group level like the establishment of National Innovation Centre to promote advancement of science, technology and innovation have been exemplary despite the oddity of circumstances. The centre has been contributing towards the promotion of agriculture technology, modernising health care including innovation on software and IT. More appreciable is that the centre encourages young researchers and scientists to submit their innovative ideas and nurtures the apt ones with suitable funding arrangements. At a time when the entire state machinery has appeared rather sluggish in its response towards scientific advancement, such novel efforts are truly inspiring. Nevertheless, the state has failed to acknowledge the contribution of this centre and provide an investment boost.
The state needs to have a clear vision of what sort of scientific community it intends to build. Equally critical is the question of what constitutes science. Is it purely technical? Does it involve the scientific study of social interactions and relationships, human culture? In the absence of a clear policy vision, social scientists (sociologists, anthropologists, environmentalists, among others) and natural scientists (chemist, physicists, zoologists) rarely deliberate on matters of common concern under a single forum and tend to perceive each other as adversaries.
Heralding a culture of regular interactions with the scientific community should be on the priority list of the government. The government and its ensemble ministries and units need to engage in continuous dialogue to a wider scientific community which includes academicians, researchers, social scientists, environmentalists, science communicators and civil society leaders among others. Such forums should serve as an opportunity to narrow down the gap between policymakers and scientific community. More importantly, the government can deliberate further on the pathways of advancing science and technology in Nepal by seeking expert advice and tuning it to its own national vision of development.
(Pokharel is an independent researcher and Faculty of Social Science and Research)