Thailand needs more researchers in its drive to be innovative: The Nation

Employees working at the Ford Motor factory in Pluak Daeng, Thailand, on May 15, 2015.
Employees working at the Ford Motor factory in Pluak Daeng, Thailand, on May 15, 2015. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Last week Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha unveiled a brilliant idea to contain the spread of the Zika virus.

Mosquitoes must be destroyed so as to halt the disease at its source, he said. Then came the interesting part: Relevant agencies should focus efforts on research into the battery life of mosquito-zapping bats. The PM is apparently convinced that longer battery life would help cut the mosquito population.

Whatever its merits, his vision is in keeping with Thailand's aim to become a "smart" nation via innovation that boosts the economy and improves living conditions. That's also in line with the World Health Organisation's focus on gauging the actual impact of the virus on children's brains and churning out vaccines.

News reports confirm that many parts of Thailand are making greater use of research and development.

Last week saw a joint agreement to conduct a one-year study on electric cars signed between Thammasat University, the Japanese electric-car developer FOMM Corp and Bangchak Petroleum.

Elsewhere Roongrote Rangsiyopash has revealed his vision as new chief of Siam Cement Group by affirming the company's commitment to focus more on high value-added products, which demand more research and development. This year SCG plans to increase its R&D budget to exceed one per cent of sales, from 3.5 per cent last year.

Meanwhile the National Innovation Agency is teaming up with the Export and Import Bank of Thailand (Exim) to launch an innovation-boosting campaign for export-import companies. Exim will reward companies operating innovation projects with loans of up to Bt5 million each, for which the NIA will shoulder the interest costs for a three-year period.

More good news comes from the Science and Technology Ministry, which has allocated a 1.2 billion baht (S$47,041) budget to promote innovation in the past 12 months. This year, it stands ready to be the centre of technology transfer from large companies to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The government-funded Thailand Research Fund is also supporting the move for innovation. Last week, it presented research that could benefit customers of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.

Among the research was a study on papaya cultivation promising to generate 100,000 baht to 150,000 baht for farmers over an 18-month round. (The fund didn't mention the size of the plot, but I guess the figure is the value per rai.) The research covered planting to marketing and was based on the success stories of farmers.

It seems Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak might soon achieve his dream of turning round the Thai economy with innovation.

There is one crucial link missing, though. Very little has been reported on how Thailand would increase the number of personnel vital to drive this push.

In this regard, Thailand's education policy isn't helping. Students in rural provinces still learn science exclusively from textbooks rather than in labs. Maths classes are often taught by teachers who have little knowledge of the subject.

The government has vowed to support so-called STEM learning (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), but it remains unclear what budget has been provided.

The Education Ministry traditionally enjoys the single largest portion of the annual government budget, which now exceeds 500 billion baht, or about 20 per cent of total public spending.

Yet, how much actually goes to innovative projects? For example, the Office of Vocational Education Commission, which oversees over 300 vocational colleges, spends 19.86 billion baht - the vast majority of its 22.29-billion baht annual budget - on fixed expenditures. The situation is the same at other branches of the ministry, which oversee millions of students.

Those students from the provinces who do excel in maths and science can find their dreams of further study shattered by hard financial realities. How many parents on an annual income of, say, 100,000 baht a year, can afford to support studies that may eat up half that amount?

To begin with, the student loan scheme covered students in the fields of both science and the arts. Just recently that focus was adjusted to favour science students.

Siam Cement Group has taken things into its own hands by launching a campaign to draw in fresh talent. The company has built up networks with well-known universities abroad for joint R&D projects, and has sent high-achieving Thai students to study overseas.

Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production's "Enjoy Science" project also deserves mention here. With a one-billion baht budget, activities will be launched in five years to encourage more Thai children to extend studies in maths and science.

Thailand had only 543 researchers per million people in 2011, according to the World Bank. This is in stark contrast to the 6,496 in Singapore, a country with only five million people against the 65 million here. Singapore has also launched an incentive scheme to draw talents working overseas back home.

Google last month unveiled a plan to establish a large engineering presence in Singapore, explaining it had chosen the country because of its central location in Asia, diverse demographic and strong pool of technical talent.

"Singapore is well suited to be a key engineering hub," it said.

Yet even Singapore, with its focused education policy and incentive programmes, faces a shortage of information and communications technology professionals.

The Infocomm Development Authority said that in 2014, when there were 150,000 technology professionals working in Singapore, about 15,000 vacancies could not be filled.

By next year, another 15,000 specialists may be required as fields such as cybersecurity, data analytics and application development clamour for more professionals. This means that Singapore may find itself short of nearly 30,000 information technology professionals.

SMEs in the city-state said they are already struggling to find IT specialists.

First and foremost, Thailand needs to match vision with actions in order to enlarge the talent pool.

Only then can we decide if our researchers should focus more on improving the battery life of mosquito bats, or on other matters.