The private sector has proposed far-reaching changes in research and development policies, Pana Janviroj reports
The government fired another shot at rejuvenating its research and development (R&D) policy strategy earlier this month by approving an additional budget of Bt2.5 billion for 27 universities to undertake work related to Thailand 4.0.
The amount may appear meagre compared to the investment that will sustain Thailand 4.0 and the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) offensive. But it’s a sign that the government’s economic team is seriously tackling the long-neglected “technology” research and
innovation side of the economy.
The stakes can’t be higher as developing global technologies are set to disrupt a number of economic sectors. Thailand has ploughed hundreds of billions of baht in the past 30 years into R&D, but no “national or global champion” has been created, nor commercialisation visible at the regional – let alone global – level. And not least that agoda.com or lazada.com were innovations that first took off in Thailand on regional and global commercial scales but both have since ended under foreign ownerships. Thailand is an entirely tech import nation – period.
[Dr Nasapon Povichit wins four gold and silver medals for innovation from Romania in this May 2017 photo. He had conducted research on turmeric and its cures.]
Now that R&D has been elevated to a national priority, there are heated debates on how best to go about it. There are also questions over the “usefulness” of related state organisations, such as the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) and the Thailand Research Fund, besides wasteful research done by secondary universities and local authorities.
What the government’s economic team and business leaders sincerely want to see is a diversion of resources into tech-related innovation research and chains to fulfil eventual commercialisation. The move is along the lines of Thailand 4.0. And with the global economy in a tailspin because of the heady tech revolution, there is little time to waste. R&D should be prioritised and allowed to sail ahead even under
“What we need foremost is competition, rather than to throw money at R&D institutes endlessly,” said Dr Methi Wecharatana, president of the Association of Thai Professionals in America and Canada (Tusco). “Projects need to have timelines and be ready for disruption. This is how it is in America in both the public and private sectors.”
He said Thailand will have to strengthen its research infrastructure, including researchers, facilities, focus and, more importantly, research leadership and administration. But these can be rather time-consuming.
[Chulalongkorn Hospital and the Thai Red Cross Society launch their latest innovation – the world’s first breast cancer tester that takes only 10 seconds to deliver a result.]
As a quick fix, Tusco has come forward to act as a US entity serving and promoting Thai professionals working in the United States, to help Thailand develop, solicit and acquire advanced technology and innovation, in addition to what the kingdom could develop from within. This model, according to a proposal to the government, has been successfully used by many recently developed countries, such as Korea (Kusco –Korea-US Cooperation), Taiwan, and China to acquire advanced technology from the US in the past 20 years.
Another dynamic idea came from CP Group CEO Supachai Chearavanont, who is co-chairman of a public-private joint working panel on basic education and leadership development under the Pracha Rath initiative. Supachai is the leader of the private team.
He suggested a Bt75-billion five-year budget for national R&D by establishing “excellence centres” among universities that can interact with the private sector under government support. These will be in the potential 14 economically rewarding disciplines under biotechnology, nanotechnology, digital
technology, and robotics. These excellence centres would be equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, possess the ability to recruit top-notch scientists and researchers from across the globe, and carry out highly beneficial projects.
Funding share under debate
Still under debate is how much of funding share will the government and the private sector be responsible for. One possible option is to set up a fund, with private companies each committing at least Bt3 billion annually for 10 years to ensure the success of these centres, he added.
Supachai said the project of excellence centres needed a serious push from the government to make them a reality in order to encourage the private sector to pledge financial commitments to the initiative.
In an interview with The Nation, Deputy Prime Minister ACM Prajin Juntong, who is in charge of the R&D national policy framework, welcomed both initiatives. Tusco’s proposals will need to go into further details on the conditions and technology-transfer matters, whereas Supachai’s model will depend on readiness and whether the projects meet economic and social requirements.
As for the NSTDA, he conceded that the agency with some 2,000 staff and an annual budget of about Bt2 billion has become a “bureaucratic lock-in”, but not by intention. People who draw up its policies and directions also happen to come from the agency. So it’s a matter of creating different roles to avoid a conflict of interest and make it work, he suggested, believing that the agency still has capable researchers who can
contribute in many areas.
Prajin is pinning hopes on reforming various fronts to make the R&D policy workable. The government has so far consolidated the fragmented decision and policymaking processes into one body called the National Research and Innovation Policy Council. It has set a 20-year goal subject to a review of the R&D policy every five years. It will work rigorously to improve the quality of
personnel, a budget for R&D under specific time frames, draw up laws and reward professionals.
It currently prioritises R&D activities under the Thailand 4.0 policy initiative and projects under the 13 Pracha Rath themes. The EEC is already equipped with privileges and incentives on R&D for five designated sectors under a special law.
The challenge is national rather than EEC or area specific.
National competitiveness with short, medium and long-term R&D plans is set to be unveiled this September, according to Prajin. The goals include increasing the number of researchers from 12.5 per 10,000 to 25, or 100,000 personnel. The number is currently 80,000 but most are not professionals – 70 per cent of them work as academics. Critics have also said money is wasted on petty research conducted by substandard universities and local authorities in many provinces.
[A competition on robotic designs for the vocational education level was held on January 28 at Sear Rangsit, Pathum Thani. ]
The government aims to increase R&D spending from 0.5 to 0.7 per cent of GDP this year, or about Bt120 billion. By 2022, the ratio should be 1.5 per cent, and 2 per cent by 2032. Public sector spending on R&D is currently about 30 per cent. Prajin said the Finance Ministry will have to work out incentives to increase R&D spending by the private sector to meet the overall target.
The deputy prime minister sees R&D activities yielding results for the benefit of the country at all levels – business, community and interest groups such as the ageing and farmers.
But he admitted that the reform to up the R&D agenda is long and time
consuming. It stretches right through to the reform of vocational studies and realignment of ministerial roles.
Supachai said in an earlier interview that he doesn’t mind if the government has alternative R&D policy initiatives as long as the goals are achieved.
But science and technology development is moving at such a swift pace that the catch-up process by Thai bureaucrats may just prove too little too late. The Science Ministry is under pressure to deliver but it is short on know-how or experience in the fast-developing/ quick-changing tech world, said one
person advising the ministry who asked not to be named.
In fact, the management of technology talents is largely off course. For example, each year the Thai government provides funding for about 1,000 PhD scholarships for students to study abroad, many of whom go to US universities. The programmes are overseen by several agencies but students are left to find universities on their own.
This doesn’t bode well in managing or directing new researchers in key areas due to lack of strategic planning, with no team building, focus or preparation for any specific future research assignments of these PhD graduates once they complete their doctoral degree.
Upon returning to Thailand, these young PhD graduates have no support and goals, and within a few years they even lose interest in continuing their research. At the end of the day, there is neither production nor productivity.
A recent survey of Thai professors teaching in US universities found that if Thailand renegotiated with most US universities to provide matching to existing PhD scholarships, the country might be able to get another 300-500 PhD scholarships from US universities.
Tusco, with its available Thai professional resources in the US, suggested that it could place these students in selected strategic universities that focus on certain technological areas of interest to Thailand and its industries. The plan to develop a new batch of Thai researchers years down the road can be done by managing available resources more effectively without extra money.
Besides, Thai professionals overseas – many of whom are doctors or scientists – are prepared to answer a home call if there is a system to accommodate them and opportunities are apparent, said Songpon Deechongkit, managing director of Siam Bioscience. He said he
himself is a good example of reversed brain-drain, returning to the country so he won’t miss out on an opportunity.
Methi, meanwhile, is wary that excessive R&D spending on physical infrastructure such as labs can be wasteful as the facilities might become obsolete quickly given the pace of tech changes. Tusco has suggested launching a joint US-Thailand research programme in the US. This will require US researchers to work with Thai students, researchers and professors in selected sectors, thus training people and strengthening the kingdom’s research capabilities without excessive spending on labs.
Another approach is to get into new, advanced technology by acquiring start-up companies with interesting innovations. Tusco can deploy a fund to acquire US start-ups in the areas of strategic importance to Thailand. For example, if the kingdom were to be one of the key players in the area of biomedical engineering, Tusco could acquire five to 10 start-ups in this area and link them up with Thai researchers and companies in the country to develop valuable or profitable products.
Thai researchers and scientists will be trained within these companies, learning new technologies and developing markets and contacts so the country can launch its own such companies and products in the future.
Granted, there are going to be risks, disruptions and uncertainty. But can the Thai bureaucracy navigate the tech era? It is under pressure to play a role akin to those in Japan, South Korea, Singapore and other countries but is not quite ready. There are signs that the EEC committee and the military men in charge are converging to tackle the agenda. But time is running out.