Miles to Go

color = "#B693B5"; Miles to Go Stronger policies are needed if Thailand is to reach its full potential as a global center of biotechnology. By Somsak Chunharas Thailand has been working with support from various international agencies to develop its scientific and technological bases in biotechnology for more than 3 decades, but the country is still badly lacking the strong government policies that will effectively bridge the demand and the

Somsak Chunharas
Jan 12, 2010

Miles to Go

Stronger policies are needed if Thailand is to reach its full potential as a global center of biotechnology.

Thailand has been working with support from various international agencies to develop its scientific and technological bases in biotechnology for more than 3 decades, but the country is still badly lacking the strong government policies that will effectively bridge the demand and the supply sides of science and technology.

Explicit governmental policies in biotechnology started with the establishment of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in 1983, which aimed primarily at capacity building. The Office of Science and Technology Development Board was established in 1985 with initial support from USAID to ensure that biotechnology would contribute to the country’s development in agriculture, health, and energy. However, Thailand has yet to fully benefit from that vision.

Much of Thailand’s growth as a biotech hub is the result of...

Thailand has been working with support from various international agencies to develop its scientific and technological bases in biotechnology for more than 3 decades, but the country is still badly lacking the strong government policies that will effectively bridge the demand and the supply sides of science and technology.

Explicit governmental policies in biotechnology started with the establishment of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in 1983, which aimed primarily at capacity building. The Office of Science and Technology Development Board was established in 1985 with initial support from USAID to ensure that biotechnology would contribute to the country’s development in agriculture, health, and energy. However, Thailand has yet to fully benefit from that vision.

Much of Thailand’s growth as a biotech hub is the result of the scientific community’s advocacy, spurred by the belief that the future of the country depends on a strong foothold in advanced life-science technology. But industry has yet to match the enthusiasm of the scientific community. Although overall investment in R&D from the private sector has increased gradually, the three areas of potential application for biotech have not followed the same pattern. Agriculture has the strongest ties to private industry, but the biotech energy and health industries are still in their infancies in Thailand compared to other developing economies.

Conventional wisdom dictates that advances in science and technology need to be linked to the private business sector for meaningful economic return, but Thailand also faces the challenge of reorienting its scientific bases and capacity to better serve the needs of the relatively disadvantaged. In the areas of agriculture and energy, farmers and communities are in need of help. In the health care arena, biotech can yield treatments for neglected tropical diseases.

Whether it is to create a high-tech private business sector or to meet the needs of the disadvantaged, development of biotechnology can hardly be left to market forces for three simple reasons: the relative unpreparedness of the private sector; the working culture of the scientific community; and weaknesses in research management. Strong government policies need to be put in place, and management must be continued through multiple government terms. This seems to be the most fundamental and crucial challenge when it comes to political support for long-term development in science and technology.

Political commitment and continuity aside, there is a need for improved capacity and mechanisms to move scientific products down the value chain. Currently, the private sector appears reluctant to take risks, and scientists are not willing or able to take further steps towards “research translation.” Existing research incentives for the private sector have not been effective enough to bridge this gap.

One option for the future is the establishment of “semi-governmental agencies” to move promising scientific products forward. For example, the Government Pharmaceutical Organization has recently been revitalized to take up this challenge as it relates to pandemic flu. However, clear and effective policies have yet to be identified to both stimulate private industry and ensure the development of treatments for diseases that may not deliver enough financial return for the private sector.

Public investment and management in research is still far from ideal. On one hand, it needs to help direct efforts towards selected areas of development in addition to “general research supports.” It is time for public research funds to strike a balance between “goal-oriented” and “researcher-initiated” research. On the other hand, public investment should aim to stimulate private investment in research. This can be realized through improvement in research management at all levels, from policy development to budget and grants management to oversight of research institutions and support for the private sector. A technology policy-making body is needed to strategically analyze and identify specific areas of great potential and then to mobilize existing partners to work together, while also working towards building new capacity and finding new partners.

Strong and continuous political support, along with clear technology policy direction with proactive and professional management of both the supply and demand sides, are badly needed if Thailand is to reap the full potential of its natural and human resources in biotechnology.

Somsak Chunharas is the Chairman, Medical and Health Cluster of NSTDA.

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