Knowledge- based economy and our young generation
Haseena Khan, Ph.D
Catching them young:
These days, we often hear that few students see the benefit of studying basic science. The demand for studying pure science courses has been steadily falling as students are lured into more career-specific courses. Most students of our country vie to study engineering, medicine and business studies or marketing for that matter. There is also a pressure on the wards from their guardians to study something that provide good job opportunities.
What motivates teenagers to choose one course over another is not simply a question of getting good jobs at the end of their studies. But science's declining appeal may also lie on the lack of good role models in the classrooms. When had teaching science been glamorous especially never at the middle or high school levels! School and college systems have long had a problem of attracting bright science graduates into teaching; other careers offer much better salaries and opportunities for advancement. Teachers are supposed to articulate to the rest of society what science is all about through training the young minds. Only the most talented are adept at doing so.
However recently we are encouraged to see the bright, the very best students taking admission into biology courses in our universities. Many could have studied engineering or medicine. Many are disappointing their parents in opting to study biology. But it is heartening to note their resolve; they are attracted by the beauty of biology and by the immense opportunities this branch of science has to offer.
Attracting students is not enough to keep a department afloat, science in general and biology in particular is expensive to teach. Therefore a system has to be developed which can deliver required outcomes. In this context our young generation must understand that time has come for us to give serious consideration to raising the tuition fees in our public universities together with urging the government for more allocations to tertiary education (see below).
Lack of funding is the main reason why book learning dominates the undergraduate experience and why most science students don't get into any laboratory until they're working on advanced degrees. Those of us, who have seen how students respond to real research opportunities, understand the great value it holds for our nation's future. When given the opportunity these students understand truly how science is done; see real world problems in three dimensions rather than through textbook jargon. They quickly learn first-hand that there are various ways to solve a problem or design an experiment. These students most assuredly constitute a priceless national “brain trust” of talented individuals capable of facing immense challenges in the coming decades.
K for Knowledge:
It is not a new idea that knowledge plays an important role in the economy of a country. Knowledge is now recognised as the driver of productivity and economic growth, leading to a new focus on the role of information, technology and learning in economic performance. The science system, essentially public research laboratories and institutes of higher education, carries out key functions in the knowledge-based economy, including knowledge production, transmission and transfer. To some extent this system is working quite well in Bangladesh. However this process of learning is more than just acquiring formal education. In establishing a knowledge-based economy hands on training is paramount.
Gone are the days when the extent of natural resources a country possessed was used as a measure of the country's economic strength. It is now accepted that brainpower or innovative human capital, is worth more than physical or financial capital in a knowledge-based economy. Intellectual assets and not physical assets, is the currency of the new world economy.
Of course we have to safeguard our natural resources so that the dwindling natural reserve that we have is used most judiciously and no one is allowed to take it away for nothing. But then can we turn a blind eye to our reserve of talented young generation who in this new world economy holds equal or more potentiality than our natural reserves? Each year a good number of graduates that this country is churning out are lost to countries, which know how to tap on this rich mine of knowledge and energy.
In developed countries science and technology are considered as a kind of wealth. The creativity and innovation of university faculty and undergraduate and graduate students are also key ingredients for innovation. Many of them are creating the 21st century economy based on biology driven technologies. In many countries of the world including our neighbours, university faculty and graduate students have been the major players in spawning new industrial revolutions based on technology. India's billion dollar biotechnology-based businesses could only happen because they were able to convert the wealth of knowledge into a serviceable technology. However in Bangladesh the influence of this technology is non-existent in the formal national economic statistics.
Whither Enabling Policies?
In a recently held three-day conference on Biotechnology (visit the website www.promotebiotechbd.net for more on the conference), where most Bangladeshis who matter in Biotechnology and a few gurus of other countries were present we learnt how the power of knowledge in recent times has brought about significant advances in the economies of many countries. Invited speakers from Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey elaborated on how their governments were nurturing their intellectual capital. We also heard how in their countries the enabling policies have been put in place to create the right environment for research at public institutions and also encourage entrepreneurship in biotechnology. Under these conditions we were told their scientists think twice before leaving their jobs at home for more lucrative positions abroad.
We need leaders in all segments of society who understand science and can make appropriate choices as our young biologists try to chart the technological future of our country. As someone said in this conference we need K-leaders! How can the rich minds of our young generation be motivated towards taking up courses, which train them to take up research as a career option? Our leaders need to assure a career for those who wish to pursue science as a mission. We also need a budget growth for science so that we are able to provide the scientific training of students ranging from undergraduates to Ph.D.s It is the major source of trained manpower for the academia and industry. No other investment would fetch better value. Tertiary education is costly, but if we don't invest in it then our children's generation and generations to come will pay when the gap, which is already wide between us and the rest of the world becomes increasingly wider. Knowledge-based economy would be a severe challenge for people without adequate education or whose skills have long outdated.
The quality of the minds that emerge from our universities is central to our economic future. However our policy makers need to have a deep sense of purpose and promote those who are willing to overcome challenges because they want to change this country in a manner that every Bangladeshi can be proud of. We need and we most fortunately have a group of young self-motivated biotechnologists. It is time for these young people to apply their knowledge and their time to make that difference in Bangladesh. We therefore need urgently an enabling policy that will retain our talented youngsters here and give them what it takes to deliver.
How often we say if only our politicians saw it our way, this country would be different? Will things be ever different for science, technology and the scientists of this country? Shall we ever have a strong Ministry for Science and Technology where the minister will not think it a punishment to be given the portfolio or where the minister in order to add glamour (!) to what to him is an unglamorous ministry will not have to change the name of the ministry to that of Science, Information and Communication Technology? Shall we have a ministry where the concerns of the scientists of this country will be taken into consideration? What we need at the moment is a government that fully understands the strength of our talented individuals and has a clear vision of how to use this strength.
Our policy makers need to understand that biotechnology is rapidly becoming a major economic and social force. Combining scientific discovery with business applications, biotech is changing the way we eat, medicate, and live. But the irony is that most of us in Bangladesh are not even aware of it. Most of the imported insulin we use, most of the soybean oil we consume are the products of biotechnology, and perhaps sooner than later the cotton used in making our shirt or sharee will also be a product of biotechnology. Do our policy makers know this? I think the answer is most probably no!
The government should realize that a critical success factor in making biotechnology work should be encouragement of private businesses to invest in biotechnology-based companies where our graduates would be employed. Even though established companies may not see a quick payback from investing in an unproven technology, researchers (local or expatriate Bangladeshis) at the cutting edge of emerging science should persuade entrepreneurs and investors to create start-ups to exploit the new work, despite the high risks. In this context it is important for the entrepreneurs to have faith in the scientists but more importantly for the government to provide incentives for such investments.
The conference has sought to find means of using our young generation in research institutes, like the National Institute of Biotechnology (NIB) where they will be able to carry out world-class research. But first as identified in the conference this institute must have all the enabling policies and the right management people in place. It would only then be possible to evolve an environment that's supportive and conducive to innovation and enterprise. These policies should allow the institute to enjoy top mind share in the biotech community. In order to turn NIB into the flagship of Biotechnology of Bangladesh the conference consensus was to go for public-private partnership.
A critical requirement of the day for Bangladesh is translating biotechnology to economic and social gain. Our young generation is capable of doing it. Let's give them that opportunity.
The writer is Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Dhaka
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