The Covid-19 crisis shows why scientific research is of utmost importance to us. It is not to assert that we cannot figure out a remedy for Covid-19 due to lack of research, but to direct attention to the importance of research as a life-saver
With a 2.1 percent expenditure in health and education, Bangladesh stands as the lowest in South Asia. The country lacks in quality research facility and laboratories, and along with recent scandals of plagiarism, there is a collective indifference and inefficiency in research. The Covid-19 situation cannot be a more apt example for us to realise the dire importance of researches, especially scientific researches.
According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics' comparative picture of 2017-2018, Bangladesh's expenditure of 2.1 percent (as percentage of GDP) in health and education is the lowest when compared with South Asian countries like Afghanistan at 3.9; Bhutan at 7.1; India at 3.8; the Maldives at 4.3; and Pakistan at 2.8 percent.
The Center for Policy Dialogue has pointed out a decline from 12 percent in 2009 to 11.9 percent in 2020 in educational expenditure.
The education budget of the fiscal year (FY) 2019-2020 of almost Tk80,000 crore is split among three divisions: the Education Ministry, the Science and Technology Ministry, and Madrassa Education.
The trifling allocation of Tk50 crore in scientific researches stands in a sheer contrast with the federal government spending of the US, which spent 110 billion dollars for research and development (R & D) in 2017 and much more in recent years. This contrasting image is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of our impoverished research scenario.
Our position in the rankings of international research and its impact factor shows that we are perpetually at the same level as countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan (no offence meant to these countries).
Though in the last FY budget the government has increased around Tk14,000 crore in its education allocation, it is still small compared to other GDP-based allocations.
The Covid-19 crisis shows why scientific research is of utmost importance to us. It is not to assert that we cannot figure out a remedy for Covid-19 due to lack of research, but to direct attention to the importance of research as a life-saver.
Gonoshasthaya Kendra's success in devising a quick and cheap Covid-19 testing kit is a wonderful example of what scientific research and initiatives can do in times of global emergency, not to mention during a national one.
Congratulations go to Dr Bijon Kumar Sil and his team for their life-saving endeavour, and to Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury for his life-long patronisation of public health, education, disaster management, and employment.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's apt naming of the institute as "Gonoshasthaya Kendro" (meaning People's Health Centre) is reflected in its activities concerning public health and mass well-being.
Moreover, Dr Zafrullah's initiative in helping out the construction of Corona-rehab centre with the help of Akij Foundation is another example of individual efforts for the collective good, though (as of March 28's Prothom Alo report) that humanitarian initiative is being blocked by the local ward commissioner.
The government must intervene to facilitate such a medical facility when our national health service itself has many missing links.
In the meantime, had we had enough public health-related research centres, we could have, at least, made available the testing kits to millions of potentially corona-infected people.
Had we had enough state patronisation in research, Dr Sil would not have sold his SARS testing patent to China. It would have been our own national achievement and property.
IEDCR is expected to perform more in such scientific research, paving the way for control of diseases and the invention of life-saving drugs. As the "R" of "IEDCR" stands for research, our layman expectation is high from this government-backed organisation.
However, we do not find any published research on their website apart from a list of topics they are conducting research on and the profiles of two PhD researchers currently working with them.
IEDCR, receiving state subsidy, should improve their research mettle. Bangladesh as a densely populated country is extremely vulnerable to epidemics, earthquakes, natural disasters and the like. Hence, any pandemic can cause severe human loss and collateral damage which, as an aftermath, would slow the development process.
The government can form a national commission for the prevention of epidemics, taking in experts – comprising biochemists, pharmacologists, microbiologists, public health specialists, molecular biologists and the kind – in order to chalk out a scientifically feasible plan to check the outbreak and save millions of lives.
Everyone must not play the Corona-expert in this sensitive period, rather let the above-mentioned experts share their relevant knowledge in this field. When experts are not reached out, quackeries start to emerge.
WHO Director-General's statement (on March 27, 2020) on the danger of quackery and untested therapeutics is a stern caution against any unverified remedy claimed by anyone. The US President Donald Trump's claim about the effectiveness of malaria drug for Covid-19 was thus waved off.
We have experts; however, the problem occurs when we do not exploit their expertise for the better. Only then, non-experts occupy the vacuum.
I can remember one instance when I asked my molecular biologist friend to return to Bangladesh from MIT (he is a post-doctoral fellow at MIT) – he pointed out to the sheer lack of research facility in Bangladesh and therefore remained at MIT. He is one among thousands – showing us how we are letting a brain drain happen due to educational and research deficiency.
The Indian government's reverse brain drain project can be a model for us to create work and living facility for our numerous overseas resource personnel.
Time has come to rethink the infrastructural development of research facilities. Research and development are closely interrelated, and their complimentary inter-dependence is globally acknowledged.
Without sufficient bolstering of research, our development will stumble at every step. Hypothetically, had we spent 1,000 billion dollars in the last decade for education, health and research, perhaps, we could have saved a 1,000 million people's lives today.
The author is Associate Professor at the Department of English, Jahangirnagar University