News of the WeekSOUTHEAST ASIA

Thai Scientists Secure Royally Inspired Windfall

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Science  21 Apr 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5772, pp. 350
DOI: 10.1126/science.312.5772.350b

BANGKOK—Thailand's king already enjoys wide popularity among his subjects, but now Thai scientists have an extra incentive to pay homage. To mark the 60th anniversary in June of the reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest serving head of state, the Thai government is launching a $500 million, 10-year effort to invigorate Thailand's scientific community by training thousands of researchers and funding hundreds of international collaborations.

The jubilee initiative is not expected to transform Thailand into a global scientific powerhouse. But in a region that has largely paid short shrift to R&D, the “Strategic Research Consortiums” project, if fully implemented, could seed the growth of top-notch research groups and serve as a beacon for other Southeast Asian nations. “What we need most is to form a critical mass of scientists,” says biochemist Wanchai De-Eknamkul, adviser to the secretary general of Thailand's Commission on Higher Education.

The pulse of Thai science is weak. In many Asian countries, roughly half of university degrees are awarded in science and engineering, UNESCO reported last year; in Thailand the proportion is just 26%. Less than one in four Thai university faculty members have Ph.D.s. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, Thai researchers published just 1072 articles in citation-indexed journals in 2003—a long way behind its near neighbor Singapore, with 3122. Like oases in the desert, eight Thai universities claim nearly 90% of the country's output. “It's a terrible imbalance,” Wanchai says.

Hoping to boost scientific fertility, the higher education commission has laid out 20 strategic research areas, from emerging diseases and basic physics to high-throughput drug screening and Thai specialties such as silk production. Teams will compete for funds; those with international links will have an edge. The 2006 budget, $15 million, will jump to $50 million in 2007. The commission has set ambitious goals. In the next decade, it expects awardees to train 9600 Ph.D.s, hire 2800 academic staff, form 700 international consortia, and establish 60 centers of excellence at Thai universities.

Strengthening Thai science would no doubt please King Bhumibol, who studied science at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, before ascending to the throne in 1946. During his reign, he has taken a keen interest in agricultural research, setting up six experimental stations throughout the country. Now, the jubilee funds will give Thai researchers a chance to show that the king isn't the only person here with a yen for cutting-edge science.

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