Monday, 23 June 2008

Nepal Counts on Science to Turn Struggling Country Around

This is the article published about Nepal in famous scientific Jounal "SCIENCE"
KATHMANDU—Nepal’s new leaders have a surprising strategy for making the poor Himalayan nation’s transition from monarchy to republic a success: They plan to shower money on science. High on the agenda of Nepal’s new legislative body, the Constituent Assembly, is to approve next month a $125 million budget for the Ministry of Environment, Science, and Technology (MEST)—a whopping 12-fold increase over 2007. “This is so much money that scientists may not [be able to] spend it all,” says science ministry senior adviser Devi Paudyal. Perhaps most remarkable is the source of the promised windfall: the Maoists, a group once labeled as terrorists that won the largest share of assembly seats in elections in April. In a manifesto published shortly before the election, the Maoists declared that “Without science, a country cannot develop.” Before launching a bloody, decade-long insurgency, the group’s leader, Prachanda, had earned a degree in agricultural science from the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science in Rampur and taught science in a prep school. Some in Nepal’s tiny scientific community are cautiously optimistic. “Past governments were not aware about the value of science,” says botanist Dayananda Bajracharya, a science adviser to Girija Koirala, the current prime minister. “The new government has promised they will give more attention to science. Hopefully, they will keep their word.” Others say they will believe it when they see it. “Most of the political parties talk about these things, but when it comes to reality, the budget is always full,” says Pramod Jha, a botanist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. Based on World Bank figures on research and development spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), Nepal ranks behind the island nation of Mauritius as well as Burundi, the country with the world’s lowest per capita GDP. Nepal’s first university, Tribhuvan, opened its doors only in 1959, and the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) was established in 1982. One restraint on scientific development is an unchecked brain drain by Nepal’s few rising science stars, says Bajracharya. The Maoists plan to bet heavily on biotechnology, an area the previous government tried to nurture. Last year, NAST broke ground on a three-story biotech lab in Kathmandu that it hopes to complete by summer 2009; MEST plans to begin construction of a national Biotechnology Research and Development Center later this year. This fall, Tribhuvan, Nepal’s top university, will open a graduate program in biotechnology.
These efforts are primarily intended to exploit Nepal’s biological riches. Scientists here in recent years have launched programs to find medicinal plants and pinpoint active compounds. But with scant tools for molecular analyses, “we haven’t been able to do much,” says NAST Vice Chancellor Hom Bhattarai. “We want to get modern equipment.”
With Nepal recently beset by gasoline and electricity shortages, a large portion of the supersized science budget will be devoted to research on clean energy, says Paudyal. One project the new government intends to fund is development of Jatropha curcas, a variety of a shrub used for biofuel, which is better acclimated to high altitude. In the long term, raising Nepal’s science game will require reducing the country’s appalling 51% illiteracy rate—the 15th highest in the world, according to the United Nations. “The public at large thinks science is too sophisticated for a country like Nepal,” says Bajracharya. It may take another (science) revolution to change that.
Jerry Guo is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.