Investment Strategies

Boosting Thailand’s investment of public funds in biotech will take educating political leaders, and rice farmers, too.

Thana Poopat
Jan 12, 2010

Chief scientists, policy makers, and key stakeholders in science and technology development agree that biotechnology has the potential to transform every aspect of Thailand’s economic and social life for the better. But the promise of biotechnology cannot be realized, they argue, unless it is guided by a clear vision, a strong sense of purpose, and broad public appeal.

Most critical is the paltry level of government investment. Thailand’s public expenditures on research and development rank fifty-first among 53 countries surveyed by the World Competitive Yearbook in 2008. Total Thai expenditures on R&D are 0.24 percent of GDP, about a third of Malaysia’s levels and a tenth of Singapore’s.

“Thailand has been investing in biotechnology research as if we were a small-time player,” says Pongthep Akratanakul of the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology. “We’re one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses. There must be something seriously wrong about our self-perception or self-esteem.”

“It’s...

Chief scientists, policy makers, and key stakeholders in science and technology development agree that biotechnology has the potential to transform every aspect of Thailand’s economic and social life for the better. But the promise of biotechnology cannot be realized, they argue, unless it is guided by a clear vision, a strong sense of purpose, and broad public appeal.

Most critical is the paltry level of government investment. Thailand’s public expenditures on research and development rank fifty-first among 53 countries surveyed by the World Competitive Yearbook in 2008. Total Thai expenditures on R&D are 0.24 percent of GDP, about a third of Malaysia’s levels and a tenth of Singapore’s.

“Thailand has been investing in biotechnology research as if we were a small-time player,” says Pongthep Akratanakul of the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology. “We’re one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses. There must be something seriously wrong about our self-perception or self-esteem.”

“It’s actually somewhat impressive what we are achieving despite this relative indifference by the government toward what we are doing,” observes Prasit Palittapholgarnpim, vice president of the National Science and Technology Development Agency. “Especially in the area of emerging diseases research, our scientists are second only to Japan and China in Asia.”

Thai scientists have been advocating for years that R&D expenditure be increased to 1 percent of GDP, or about US$2.1 billion. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has expressed support for such growth, but stresses that any increase would be gradual and requires private-sector participation.

Science and Technology Minister Kalaya Sophonpanich, herself a nuclear physicist, believes increased collaboration with the private sector is key. “We have had scientists working on biotechnology research for many years. They are now starting to produce good results. But much of the research is not exploited commercially because of weak linkage with the private sector,” she says.

While partnerships are beneficial, there is the caveat for many government leaders that additional public funds must only flow following a thorough assessment to ensure that the publicly financed research will benefit society at large, not just the balance sheets of the private partners.

Rutjawate Taharnklaew, director of Betagro Group’s R&D Center, maintains that it is not just government officials but also scientists themselves who need to increase their commitment to growing Thailand’s biotech industry. “Until very recently, to many scientists, getting scientific articles published in international peer-reviewed journals appeared to be more important than producing research that is actually useful and commercially viable,” he says.

The 2008 World Competitiveness Yearbook reinforces Rutjawate’s concerns. Researchers from Thailand published 1,249 scientific articles in international journals that year, while the number of international patents granted to Thai residents was only 59. In contrast, Taiwan published 10,841 articles and obtained 36,538 international patents.

Striking the right biotechnology investment balance, says Yongyuth Yuthavong, senior advisor at the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), will enable Thailand to go beyond its aging agricultural export economic model to develop a much broader set of products and services beneficial to both domestic and international markets.

“Politicians in particular need to recognize that our agricultural society must also adapt to the demands of a changing world. The government must send a clear signal of its intention to shift toward a bioeconomy to enable Thailand to deliver the ecological-sensitive products and services that both markets and regulators demand,” he says.

However, additional research support may be insufficient on its own. Strengthening the country’s capacity to get a product to market is also important. Currently, the country has a limited ability to scale up new discoveries to the manufacturing stage. Bioprocessing and manufacturing require huge investments in equipment and manpower that Thailand cannot yet be relied on to deliver consistently.

Education also needs attention. While continuing to encourage Thai science students to study abroad is important, Thailand must boost its own capacity to produce enough scientists at the masters and doctorate levels, as well as revamping its approach to early education, urges Pongthep.

“If we really want to compete and innovate, we must be nurturing curiosity and teaching creative thinking at an early age,” Pongthep says. “Our education system needs to abandon the ‘repeat after me’ approach to learning, and start encouraging our children to learn problem-solving skills and rational discussion.”

Scientists must also get better at educating the public about the importance of their work, says Yongyuth. “Many scientists are too self-absorbed with their work and do not pay enough attention to the society around them. If they want society to support them, they need to spend more time developing solutions to urgent problems, and letting the public know how and why they are doing it.”

A more outspoken scientific community and scientifically literate populace would go a long way toward addressing another constraint, says Samruay Padphol, head of Joko Community Learning Center, an NGO working with subsistent farmers in the northern province of Nan. He spends much of his time helping farmers get comfortable with the technology coming out of scientific laboratories.

“Part of our effort recently is geared to help farmers gain access to new technology, including marker-assisted breeding of new rice varieties with resistance to diseases, insect pests, and drought…and letting them decide for themselves whether they would like to adopt them,” says Samruay, who describes himself as a social entrepreneur.

With farmers and scientists working side by side, Samruay stresses, farmers more quickly familiarize themselves with the science behind new breeding techniques, and scientists learn more about local plant varieties and cultivation practices they might want to incorporate into their research.

Kanyawim Kirtikara, executive director of BIOTEC, says education all around is what’s needed. If the government recognizes the value of bioscience, and public demand increases as well, the level of public investment may change. “So it really does fall back on us to be doing a better job of getting these messages out to stimulate the rational public discourse, which can, in turn (influence) politicians, scientists, and the business community to do the right thing,” she asserts.

 

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