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Science and Technology

Science and Technology Once the cradle of a rich culture, Bangladesh saw the development of science and fine arts with its tradition open for centuries. It was also a relatively affluent part of the subcontinent with a monsoon climate and a fertile deltaic alluvial land. It also had the advantage of geographical isolation, being located far away from the northwestern part of India, the traditional route of foreign invasion to India.

At the time of partition of India, the new state of Pakistan had two general universities, the University of the Punjab in West Pakistan established in 1882 and the University of Dhaka in East Pakistan established in 1921. The University of Dhaka modelled after the Oxford University of England produced celebrated personalities in the sciences and in arts and literature. It indeed proved to be the pivot of Muslim renaissance and culture in this part of the subcontinent. During the Pakistan period there was a relative lull in scientific activity in institutions located in East Pakistan. Pakistan used to spend only 0.1% of its GNP on Science and Technology (S&T) of which less than one-tenth was given to East Pakistan, although East Pakistan had a larger population than West Pakistan. This severe funding constraint and the fact that the science policy of Pakistan at that time drew heavily on national resources to be spent towards acquiring nuclear armament, there was little incentive for any significant developments in science and technology aimed at economic self reliance of the nation.

Organisation of science and technology After independence in 1971, Bangladesh found itself in a dire economic situation with ruined infrastructure and with a number of Research and Development (R&D) institutions whose only assets at that time were their buildings and manpower with a modest inventory of scientific equipment, many inoperative that could be put to use only after substantial financial input. After the liberation, new R&D institutions and technical universities have been set up and equipped with laboratories, and many research organisations specialising in field research in the agriculture and biomedical sectors have been established.

The overall science and technology activity of the nation is organised under two categories of institutions, one is represented by the institutions that are directly funded by the government and specifically created for Research and Development activity and as such are referred to as R&D institutions. The other category consisted of the technical universities in agriculture and engineering and the science departments of the country's general universities. The R&D institutions carry out scientific research, both laboratory research and field research, that directly relate to nation's socio-economic development goals. In the universities, both basic and applied research are carried out in addition to the teaching of science and technology that aim at creating skilled personnel in different scientific professions.

The nation's formal scientific research lineage may be traced back to the establishment of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research by the British in India in 1942 under the Society's Registration Act XXI of 1890. This was a landmark Act which still regulates scientific societies and research organisations in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Under this Act, the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) was created in 1953. Several scientific developments took place in the then East Pakistan at this time. PCSIR established its first eastern regional laboratory in Dhaka in 1955. The Chittagong laboratory was established in 1965 and the Rajshahi laboratory in 1967. There were six policy making and executing agencies for R&D research which Bangladesh inherited from Pakistan at the time of independence. These were: bangladesh agricultural research council (BARC), Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission (BAEC), Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), bangladesh medical research council (BMRC), Council for Works and Housing, Irrigation, Drainage and Flood Control Research Council. Under these councils which were administered by different ministries, there were about 20 research institutions in the country at that time. The early years of the new nation were beset with pressing problems of reconstruction of a war ravaged economy and shattered infrastructure and little could be done towards building new scientific institutions. Nevertheless, about half a dozen institutions came into existence during this period that were obviously planned during the last days of Pakistan rule. These were then followed by the establishment of about ten more institutions during 1976-1980. During the 1990s, more R&D institutions came into being so that in 1999 the total number of R&D institutions stood at 74.

As of 2000, there are eight general universities in the country. These are University of Dhaka, University of Rajshahi, University of Chittagong, Jahangirnagar University, Islami University, Khulna University, Bangladesh National University and Bangladesh Open University. In addition, there are five technical universities: Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Bangladesh Agricultural University, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. These universities provide about 104 science departments to the overall science and technology profile of the country covering the four major S&T disciplines, Natural Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Agricultural Sciences and Medical Sciences. The 74 R&D institutions and the 11 universities operate under 14 different ministries. In 1992, the government passed a law allowing establishment of universities in the private sector. There are now fifty four private universities in operation and recently the government granted permission to eight new universities (May 2012). These universities are mostly concerned with programmes on business administration, computer studies mainly with software and to a smaller extent environmental studies mostly to cater to market demands for professionals in these areas.

Science and technology expenditure The S&T expenditure of Bangladesh is a meagre 0.22% of GNP. Research and development (R&D), which involves scientific research both in the laboratory and in the field with direct relevance to the nation's socio-economic development, constitutes a small part of total S&T expenditure. During 1994-95, according to a survey carried out by bangladesh national scientific and technical documentation centre (BANSDOC), R&D expenditure was only about 6% of total S&T expenditure. Total S&T expenditures that have been compiled by BANSDOC covering a period of a few years indicate the share of R&D in the overall S&T spending. It appears from the data that over the period 1990-1996, average S&T expenditure was at a relatively steady level of 0.22 percent of GNP while R&D expenditure as percentage of GNP showed decline, from 0.09% in the early 1990s to 0.01% in 1996.

Science and technology policy A high-profile National Committee on Science and Technology (NCST) was created in 1983 as the sole advisory body on science and technology with the President of the country as its chairman. It worked for three years to draft a policy which was formally approved by the government in 1986. The NCST carries out its functions through an Executive Committee which contains many of the members of the national committee but is headed by the Minister for Science and Technology. The formal functions of the NCST outlined in the policy are not very broad in scope. It has about a dozen advisory functions including recommending a national science and technology policy, suggesting priorities of research areas, co-ordination of research activity with development activity, supervision of a national science documentation system etc. NCST offers scholarships to students and research scientists and provides funding for a small number of research projects.

The National Science and Technology Policy is a fairly broad-based document which includes 'improvement of standard of scientific knowledge at all levels from the school to the university'. To this effect it suggests orientation of school curriculum, measures to ensure 'qualified teachers, physical facilities, equipment, books, journals, teaching aids' together with the establishment of an Open University 'for expansion of science education'.

After formal entry of the country to free market economy, there were some changes in the S&T planning. Adjustments to the free market economy and transition were not easy in Bangladesh and the process is far from complete. Some aspects of the S&T policy are being re-examined for possible revision in the context of the changed global circumstances.

Science and Technology accomplishments Despite a very large number of science and technology organizations, 74 R&D institutions and 104 science departments in different general and technical universities of the country, the S&T output has been modest except in the agriculture sector. Notable R&D organisations like BCSIR owns many patents but those that are marketed include mostly simple food items representing a small fraction of the market in terms of volume of goods and capital. The R&D research institutions in the scientific and industrial sector, as opposed to those that carry out largely field level studies in agricultural and biomedical sectors, have been unable so far to deliver significant goods and services to the country.

The research and development activity in the agriculture sector is essentially confined to a few crops of which rice is the most important, followed by tea, jute, wheat and pulses. On rice research, the bangladesh rice research institute (BRRI), an organisation that has worked closely with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, has done a commendable job over the past decades. Its activity coincided with the inception of the green revolution and has sustained over the years with a high degree of productivity. A total of 36 varieties developed by BRRI are in use at the level of the farmers and newer varieties are now at various advanced stages of development, including the development of hybrid rice. This success is partly due to the very nature of the work, that is, the country's staple crop is the target of research and thus potentially impact-producing, and partly because of its linkage with IRRI. The same type of compliment, however, cannot be easily offered to jute although its parent R&D organisation, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute, has developed good varieties, its impact is minimal because the use of jute has encountered severe competition from its competitor plastic products.

BRRI has been singularly responsible for the country's enhanced level of cereal production which is currently said to be at near self-sufficiency level. Future programmes are directed both to improved varieties including the presently popular 'hybrid rice' production technology along with research on management practices such as use of fertiliser, insecticide and pesticide, and proper irrigation technique. The thrust would be to double the cereal production (of which rice will be the most important component, but wheat will also increasingly gain in importance), by the middle of this century at which time it is predicted that the population of Bangladesh will also double, touching 250 million mark. With the quantity of the arable land available now and intensive management this doubling of food production is believed to be achievable.

Tea has a good world market but, Bangladesh being in the third position after Sri Lanka and India, the market competition is high. The bangladesh tea research institute (BTRI) is a fairly old institution established in 1957, and is of comparable age with BCSIR. It has been working on improved yield and quality of tea through research on breeding and tea processing. Recent accomplishments include development of cloned varieties that are in the market both for domestic consumption and export.

The bangladesh agricultural research institute (BARI) is mandated to conduct research on crops other than rice, jute and tea. The activities of the institute include wheat, pulses, fruits and vegetables. It has an extensive network sub-centres throughout the country with trained staff for extension activities and performance trials of different crops. It is also one of the better funded institutes in the agriculture sector. According to a bansdoc survey, BARI has a revenue and development budget which is the highest among the R&D institutions in the agriculture sector. The institute is also one of the biggest recipients of foreign credit. [Zia Uddin Ahmed]