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Role of Academia in nurturing Biotechnology in Bangladesh

Zamilur Rashid
Role of Academia in nurturing Biotechnology in Bangladesh

For hundreds of years now, people have been using organisms to modify food and produce drugs without realizing that these are basic forms of biotechnology activities. It was only after the invention of gene splicing techniques in 1971 that the age of modern biotechnology began. Biotechnology and genetic engineering industry became commercially viable for the first time somewhere in between 1975-1980.  And within just 30 years, it has managed to have a major impact in numerous industrial sectors, starting from the basic agricultural arena to the field of high-tech robotics.

Common Applications of Biotechnology

Currently, more than 13.3 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming’s impact on the environment.If we consider the global scenario, it is evident that biotechnology has set its foot in the developing parts of the world as well. Plagued with food and nutrition problems, genetically modified crops and improved farming techniques have been the key areas on intervention in these countries. Genetic engineering and biotechnology science has been profoundly influenced by two factors, namely, the drastic reduction of public funds for research and the dominant role of the private sector in biotechnology R&D for health care, agriculture, food and otherindustrial applications. According to a World Bank Report, the compound effect of these factors has been the technological advancement which has remained stagnant in those areas that have been deemed unattractive in terms of returns on investment. These are precisely those areas that are of prime importance for developing countries.

When it comes to Bangladesh, modern biotechnology as a specialized sector in industry is promising but not very old here. Bangladesh is still aiming at reaching capacity with low-technology-invasive manufacturing ventures. But, the market is moving towards technological progression. Implementation of ETP (Effluent Treatment Plant) has been made mandatory, Genome sequence of Jute has been found and new scopes are opening up each day. Very recently, Incepta Pharmaceuticals has begun to produce and market insulin and preparing to export abroad. Incepta has also signed an agreement with ICGEB(International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) to receive the technological know-how for commercially manufacturing hepatitis B vaccine. Some private firms like BRAC Biotechnology Center, Square Agric-tech and Aman Agro Industries are producing virus-free potato seeds in substantial quantities, gradually reducing the dependency on imported potato seeds. 

Proshika Tissue Culture Center is now exporting varieties of tissue culture derived from orchid plants. BCSIR (Bangladesh Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) has undertaken the production of Spirulina and a certain quantity of it is being marketed as tablets by several private manufacturers. BCSIR has also explored the production of baker's yeast using molasses. About 50,000 million tons of molasses are being utilized in our distilleries for the production of ethanol. Biotechnology entrepreneurship is slowly finding its way in the country. 

At this growth phase, Bangladesh needs considerable concentration from large talent pools of multiple scientific disciplines such as molecular and cell biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, bioinformatics, medicine, agriculture, microbiology, technology transfer & commercialization, bio-enterprise & bio-financing and intellectual property rights management. But, Bangladeshi universities have too many small departments that have compartmentalized and limited resources. There is a visible lack of coordination in the research effort. There is no truly systemic research facilities in any area in any of the universities, which is evident from insignificant numbers of doctoral degrees offered per year by the universities. In addition, postdoctoral research is totally nonexistent in Bangladesh. As a result, despite the existence of biotech studies in the universities, lack of scope drives the graduates away. Majority of them end up joining research facilities outside the country which is a huge wastage of national resources. 

The brain drain issue is being encouraged by the private sector as well. With the exception of agro-processing and pharmaceutical sector mentioned above, Bangladesh does not have any major biotech industry. There are some emerging opportunities in the fields of bioinformatics, DNA profiling and criminology, medical biotechnology, as suggested by Industry experts. But, there seems to be a missing link between the academia and industry that can help sustain the growth of biotechnology in commercial use. Dhaka University, one of the pioneers in genetic engineering and biotechnology education in the country, pointed out that each year two-thirds of the students graduating from the discipline are leaving the country because they do not seem to find better opportunities here. Similar issues are being dealt by other universities too. Even if graduates join the few research facilities available, majority of them leave after a few years of services.
 
According to a report published in Daily Star on November 1, 2012, major agricultural research institutions are facing early retirement issues in an alarming manner. Lack of govt. funded incentive packages, below-global-average retirement age (global average is 60 years, which is 57 years in ours) and lack of tenures, are some of the major issues causing the brain drain.
 
To address the issue systematically, Department of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology of Dhaka University recently facilitated an exploratory research project. The research gathered students’ feedback from 25 universities that included University of Dhaka, North South University, University of Rajshahi, University of Science and Technology in Chittagong, Islamic University in Kushtia, BRAC University, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology and others. The study also involved interviews from 20 organizations. This selection included research facilities, DNA profiling institutions, pharmaceutical companies, biotech trading firms, seed processing firms and readymade garments. 

After a rigorous analysis, the hypothesized missing link was found to be true. Majority of the industry players are neither aware of the researches being done in the academic facilities, nor can they properly manifold the benefits of biotech solutions in their production facilities. The market is more necessity-based rather than experiment-based and therefore the companies are more sales-based rather than research-based. Companies are looking for individuals who can replicate foreign formulas at a low cost for the Bangladeshi market and that do not need hiring a genetic engineer. They don’t seem much interested to invest directly on research unless the university authorities can sell their ideas to the industry that they are feasible in terms of return on investment. Also, they demand that their recruits should have some basic knowledge of business and marketing. When it comes to research facilities, most of them deem our graduates unfit for advanced research projects because universities do not emphasize much on real life research experiences as a part of academic curriculum. 

On the other hand, 74% of the undergraduate and graduate students surveyed,showed an interest in leaving the country for work and further studies. As a career choice, they prefer local and international bio-tech firms, joining govt. research facilities comes right next to it: 

Surprisingly enough, students do not seem to have a higher salary expectation for their services. Average expected salary ranged between 40,000-45,000 taka, which is quite low compared to India, Nepal and other developing countries. 

When asked what should be the immediate steps taken to reduce this gap and in effect reducing brain drain, most participants pointed out that it should be the academic facilities pioneering the linkage establishment process. “Since the department is new, universities should be proactive instead of reactive in terms of career positioning of the students”, points out Moutushi Ahmed from Novartis (Sandoz). With their limited resources, the universities can overhaul the course curriculum, make it more market relevant and introduce basic business studies in the syllabus. Seminars, workshops, road shows are some of the alternatives that can be implemented periodically and do not involve huge costs. “Universities should organize regular seminars inviting industry insiders, demonstrate their skill sets and ask for systematic recruitment as opposed to sudden recruitment”, says Dr. Abdur Rashid, Head of R&D at Lalteer Seeds Ltd. Engaging the business schools in the promotion of biotechnology blessings can be another avenue to consider. Meanwhile, students should also be given entrepreneurial advice by incubation hubs and market experts so that biotech entrepreneurship can become another thriving sector in our already growing entrepreneurial trend. 

As it turns out, the successes we are enjoying can be multiplied by thousands and biotechnology and genetic engineering can bring in a new revolution to our emerging industries. There isample talent present in the country, but it requires some guidance and active efforts. The mantra is to help the industry get more enriched as it matures; so that it can embrace the talented graduates into the local market stream and reduce the effect of brain-drain in Bangladesh. Only then, all the opportunities being created will be able to thrive and cause actual change in the economy.

 

 

The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.3, dated November 2013.

September 16, 2015
About Author

Zamilur Rashid is an It Entrepreneur & Development Consultant. He can be reached at zamil@rupamit.com  

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