In conversation with
Dr. Pichet Durongkaveroj In Interview

Minister of Science and Technology |

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FDI Spotlight: Thailand is at a point where it is looking to move further towards innovation, research and development to create that culture in the country and obviously the ministry will have a huge role to play in that. Could you outline how your Ministry fits into the overall goal of Thai development and what is your responsibility to the nation will be?

Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj: A country’s development depends upon not only its economic development but it must also move into social development, as well as doing well environmentally. So we need to have a good balance. Keeping that in mind is one major picture guiding the country. Another major point is also when we talk about science and technology or innovation, we are not just talking about the sector itself. We are also talking about the applications in other sectors. So, we talk about science and technology in the service sector, in manufacturing, agriculture, and you also have to talk about fundamentals such as graduates of science and technology, human resources, the infrastructure needed, laws and regulations that are conducive to the government. What I have been telling the Thai public is that when we touch upon the role of science and technology, we must also talk about the role of science and technology in all 20 ministries, otherwise, we will not have a complete picture of where we are going. So we have a macro picture of a well-balanced development, the specific picture about the role of science and technology, and we must talk about the two combined and where this journey is taking us.

For the past eight months, we have been quite clear in our direction and intentions. From the point of view of science and technology and innovation, we want to create a situation where STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) would be a major instrument to move the country forward. That is the goal that we envision and we would like to strive towards that goal. To do so, we must address at least five pillars of development. We must look into how we can create a use for STI in economic development, secondly for social development, thirdly for energy and climate change, fourth is human resources, and last but not least I would call it science and technology infrastructure as well as its enabling factors. So if we can have these 5 pillars, we will be able to achieve a society of innovation, a knowledge-based society, moving towards a high-income society.

In the end of last year, we endorsed a program where private sectors can enjoy a 300% tax deduction if they invest in research. This will be open to international companies operating in Thailand as well as multinational companies. And for the first time, we also included the notion of tax exemption for innovation work. In the past, it was only science and technology.

We are now submitting a law to the cabinet and then to the parliament that will enable any intellectual property, that has been realized through the funding of the government, to be utilized or make use of by those who can. In the past, by law, only the public agencies who are certified research funding agencies, will own those intellectual properties. So this law will relax this obligation. And then universities or companies that are involved in this research may not be able to own the IP but will be allowed to use these IPs and to commercialize on them.

Recently we have presented a proposal to enable universities that have a lot of laboratory outputs, which have been on the shelf, to be able to create a spin-off situation and monetize it. It was very difficult in the past since there was no interest, but now we are creating incentives to draw all these underutilized labs successes into commercialization.

Lately, we have introduced the concept of industrial technology advice to help small companies identify their factory problems and inefficiencies by seeking experts who can help the factories. If there are no domestic experts then international experts will be found. This has been successful for the past 15 years but the scale is too small so we are requesting ten to twenty times of what we have been doing. For example companies like Thai Union Group, Science Event Holding, and PTT all are doing a lot by pumping up their research work for innovation. In February, our ministry submitted a proposal through the cabinet announcing a program on talent mobility. This program allows public workers and public researchers from universities to work in the private facilities, both part time and full time. They will be able to work as if they are working for the government so that their public service years are counted. For those who are under scholarships and have to pay back their time, this time in the private sector will also be counted.

How would you say is the level of collaboration and dialogue between the education sector and industry in Thailand?

Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj: Let me address two entities, rather than just one. One is what you have just mentioned, higher education. The other is public research institutes. What we want is to create a better platform, a larger platform so they can work together not only for the long-term result but for a more focused outcome. Universities do not have the culture for “in time” project results whereas private companies do have this orientation. It is about dollars and cents. A lot of times there are controversies over the intellectual properties as to who owns the output of the research. How will they divide it if it becomes profitable and if it is a joint investment how do they split the intellectual property?

So we have been talking a lot about the challenges regarding the gap between basic research and commercialization. We are in the process of creating the so-called special innovation zone, to help bridge this gap and to have cumulative research activities in different areas. You may have heard of the governments’ initiative on special economic zones, but this is a physical area based zone. For us, the innovation zone can be anywhere, it can be in Bangkok, it can be in Chiang Mai, it can be anywhere that there can be innovation. We can create packages to let them do it freely, collectively and let them enjoy certain privileges. For example, Kasetstart University has lots of research personnel, laboratories, and services but lacks private business because they don’t offer any incentives. So our job is to use the facilities, use the people they have, put in more people from the private sector, create collaboration, incentives, joint research projects, investment, and relaxed government regulations.

Speaking of being globally competitive, what does ASEAN, the creation of the AEC, mean for these industries and for the scientific and technological development of Thailand?

Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj: I have been involved in the ASEAN circle, especially in science and technology for over a decade and I can tell you that we still need to do a lot of work of enhancing both the bilateral and the multilateral corporate relations in the region. Partly because we are not as strong as APEC, but APEC has some major players and a big pool of central funds. More importantly, there are two groups in ASEAN in science and technology. One is well advanced in the ASEAN sense and the other still requires a lot of capacity building. The two are trying to merge.

If ASEAN must be stronger in innovation, we must do a few things. First, we need to have a more pragmatic policy and action plan for ASEAN to work together, something that we are now working on and supposed to be finished this year by the time the ASEAN leaders meet. Secondly, we need to look into the exchange of personnel within the region, which is very fundamental. If you have quality human resource then you can do something. Thirdly, we need to put some focus on certain issues that we have mutual interest and mutual benefits in. So if we have a good plan by the end of this year and if the initiative proposed by Thailand under the scheme Called ASEAN Thailand Mobility is realized we will be very successful in working together.

What do you believe Thailand can offer to the potential international investor or academic research partner? What would you like to see the world offer to ASEAN and Thailand at this time?

Dr Pichet Durongkaveroj: I went to give a speech in Geneva in early May and talked to the Secretary-General and the committee on science and technology for development, which consisted of about 45 countries. We discussed the future of Thailand with regards to science, technology and innovation. I showed them the road map we have, told them what we have done, and what we will be doing. The response was very good, not only from close friends but also from significant others like The United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Finland, Singapore and The Philippines. We have been very active in ASEAN and have been working with many countries around the world to better prepare for the community that is coming. We have been working with the European Union on the horizon 2020, with The UK on the Newton Fund, closely with Japan on many scientific joint researches as well as the rail system both with China and Japan. We certainly would like to help bridge the global community to ASEAN as well, in any area that we can be of help.

As a bridge to connect to a dial-up partner, we have ASEAN +3, ASEAN +6 and US and ASEAN, and so on. Let me finish by saying we have initiated a program called Science Diplomacy. Science Diplomacy is a platform whereby Thailand will be more prepared and proactive in doing STI work with our partners wherever they are in the world.This will help us to have a good map of our strategic partners and the incorporated science, technology, innovation, involvement and collaboration, especially the focus we will have bilaterally and multilaterally. For example, bioenergy with Brazil, agriculture with The United Kingdom, rail projects with China and Japan, satellites with many countries and so on. So I think we are in good hands having a solid platform for the future in a balanced way.