It’s not all about the numbers

Three of the four presenters at Thailand’s ‘Strengthening Scientific Research Capability’ session this afternoon had a slide devoted to comparisons of Thailand’s science statistics with other countries.

The focus on two big indicators – percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on research and development (R&D) and number of researchers per 10,000 people – “shows just how concerned about this we are”, said Montri Chulavatnatol of the National Research Council of Thailand.

Thai researcher

Thailand is trying to create quality researchers (Credit: Flickr/Eurofruit)

Thailand currently spends around 0.26 per cent of GDP on research and has 5.4 researchers per 10,000 people – not favourable when compared with South-East Asia’s science superpower Singapore, with 2.36 per cent and 60:10,000.

But during their showcasing of Thailand’s efforts to improve the country’s science and technology (S&T) sector, the speakers emphasised that simply having more researchers is not the way to go; quality researchers are needed: those that can produce high-quality research that meets the country’s needs, linked to a receptive industrial sector.

One way of doing this is to train researchers in-country, said Vichai Reutrakul of Mahidol University. Sending a PhD student overseas to train can cost 8-10 million Thai baht (US$260,000-330,000) but training researchers within the country costs more like two million baht (US$65,000). To do this, investment must go into the S&T sector, ultimately strengthening the sector at home rather than PhD students returning with a doctorate but no prospects for using it.

After the session, Chulavatnatol told me that he hopes people won’t get too wrapped up in thinking about numbers, and that the success of a country’s S&T sector depends very much on the country and its level of development.

“A least-developed country could spend 10 per cent of their GDP on science but they wouldn’t miraculously have an excellent S&T sector. And, similarly, if a country can produce excellent science on a smaller budget then that’s good too,” he concluded.

Katherine Nightingale, South-East Asia news editor, SciDev.Net

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