Every year, talented young scientists from Bangladesh embark on their academic journeys abroad to pursue PhDs at prestigious universities around the world. This highlights a critical lack of high-quality PhD programmes at home. The migration phenomenon poses a question: why can’t these bright minds find appropriate opportunities in Bangladesh? This exodus underscores the urgent need to develop a rigorous academic and research infrastructure in the country.

A PhD is a pivotal stage for professional growth in science and technology. Too often, it is seen as narrowly, as just an advanced degree. Rather, it is a time when students cultivate a deep understanding of their field, acquire critical thinking skills and delve into knowledge creation. It is a process that sharpens their scientific acumen and prepares them to lead cutting-edge academic and industry research.

During their PhD training, students are at the pivotal phase of their lives – starting families and forming community ties. This makes returning to their home country less appealing. After spending years abroad in supportive environments, settling for limited research opportunities and resources becomes unattractive.

PhDs, science and Bangladesh

Bangladesh’s population growth has steadily stabilised as of 2024. The country’s reliance on sheer numbers to replenish its intellectual capital is no longer viable. It needs to nurture local talent, particularly in cutting-edge fields like health research.

Quality local PhD programmes are imperative to advance Bangladesh’s research and development needs.

Quality local PhD programmes are imperative to advance Bangladesh’s research and development needs. These programmes can produce high-calibre researchers. These are needed to spearhead Bangladesh’s scientific innovations in health security and economic competitiveness.

Through a robust domestic PhD culture, Bangladesh can seize new opportunities, creating sustainable expertise across sectors. In fact, it is time it builds the infrastructure needed to retain its best and brightest and attract talent from across the globe. The PhD-fostering agenda can represent a low-hanging fruit in turning the brain drain into a brain gain for Bangladesh.

Local researchers needed in health

Bangladesh has record-high population density along with rapid urbanisation. It is also going through a demographic shift. All these factors affect its healthcare system. Bangladesh’s geography exposes it to climate distress, further complicating public health challenges and necessitating unique health strategies. Health research will be crucial to address the country’s unique health sector challenges.

The country has made considerable progress in controlling communicable diseases among children. However, incidence rates remain higher than those in developed countries. Simultaneously, Bangladeshis are living longer. An ageing population has led to a surge in non-communicable diseases such as strokes, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. This dual burden of disease places unique strains on the healthcare system.

The pharmaceutical industry in Bangladesh has become very competitive, with most drugs now being produced locally. This has been a great supportive agent for the country’s health sector. However, evolving disease patterns require more expensive and sophisticated biological drugs. Certain health conditions, specific to Bangladesh, necessitate the creation of tailored therapies. To design pharmaceutical products for these diseases, there is a critical need for next-generation researchers skilled in high-tech medical research.

Bangladesh’s supply of PhD-trained professionals in the health sector is insufficient to meet its health sector challenges. Given this, Bangladesh cannot establish advanced technologies in medical science. There is an urgent need to develop a highly skilled workforce proficient in health science research for medical advancements.

Smartness through health research

Bangladesh has set a goal to be a knowledge-based society by 2041 as part of the branding to be a ‘smart country.’  The agenda heavily relies on the expansion of its higher education and research sectors. The development of PhD programmes, particularly in the sciences and medical research, can play a crucial role in advancing this agenda.

Investing in local PhD programmes goes beyond academic and research capacity. It will help Bangladesh independently address its health challenges. This investment will empower local researchers to design medical treatments and public health strategies, tailored to the Bangladeshi population. The country’s policy-makers must note that, to transform the healthcare landscape, there is no alternative to developing a local knowledge base.

Bangladesh’s policy-makers must note that, to transform the healthcare landscape, there is no alternative to developing local knowledgebase.

Gaps in educational foundation

Bangladesh’s higher education system is extensive. It has 55 public universities, three international universities and 114 private universities. These are all regulated by its University Grants Commission (UGC). The focus of the system remains predominantly on undergraduate and postgraduate training. The Masters programmes are largely teaching-based, lacking any substantial research component. In the sphere of doctoral education, only public universities are authorised to award PhD degrees. This restriction contrasts with standard practices in most countries, where private universities offer PhDs along with innovative research initiatives.

For instance, in India, private institutions such as the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences, Azim Premji University and Ashoka University have successfully integrated industry partnerships and international collaborations into their PhD programmes. This has enhanced their research output and global standing. In Bangladesh, top private institutions like North South University and BRAC University rank comparably to elite public institutions such as Dhaka University and Jahangirnagar University in the popular Times Higher Education 2024 Rankings. However, they are not permitted to offer PhD programmes. This policy not only limits the potential of these institutions but also restricts the research capabilities within the country.

The impact of this restrictive policy is evident in Bangladesh’s PhD production rates. According to a 2022 survey by the country’s data collection agency, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, out of a working population of about 111 million – 37.58% of whom are university graduates – only 51,704 hold PhDs. This represents just 0.1% of the university-educated workforce, a figure significantly lower than the 1% average in developed countries. It is far behind the percentages seen in the US, the UK, Germany and Australia.

Neighbouring countries like China and India are rapidly expanding their PhD outputs, with annual production rates exceeding 50,000 and 24,000, respectively. To remain globally competitive, Bangladesh must substantially increase its PhD output.

Insufficient benefits

The support given to PhD students in Bangladesh is insufficient. It meets neither the needs of the students nor standard practice. Most of these students are at a stage in their life when they are starting a family. The average PhD stipend (approximately USD 300 per month) barely covers basic sustenance, let alone supporting a family. To be globally competitive, Bangladesh cannot low-ball its researchers. Rather, Bangladesh must invest in its young researchers.

Bangladeshi institutions have made significant investments in developing centres of research excellence equipped with advanced research tools. However, these facilities are inaccessible to most PhD students. This not only impedes the progress of research initiatives but also discourages researchers from pursuing PhDs in the country.

Inadequate resources for health research

A crucial component of foundations for research is robust funding structures and incubation support to cultivate a vibrant workforce, particularly in the field of health. In Bangladesh, public funding for health research flows primarily through specific government agencies – namely, the Ministry of Health, the Bangladesh Medical Research Council, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Information. However, the funding envelopes for grants are quite small, usually ranging from USD 300 to USD 30,000, with little adjustment to inflation or increased costs for reagents in the clinical laboratory.

There are additional initiatives, like the Grants of Advanced Research and the Higher Education Quality Education Project funded by the World Bank and other global institutions. These grants are pivotal in directing funds towards building research capacity within universities.

In 2023, Bangladesh announced the establishment of an Integrated Health-Science Research and Development Fund, accessible directly by researchers. This progressive initiative has allocated USD 10 million to health research, to be disbursed through competitive grants.

Inaccessible funding

Bangladesh doesn’t have a centralised research funding portal.

Bangladesh doesn’t have a centralized research funding portal. This is a serious barrier within the country’s research ecosystem. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocates $48 billion annually, with approximately 83% distributed through 50,000 competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers across over 2,500 institutions. Of the NIH budget, 11% supports its own laboratories, with the remaining 6% covering research support and operational costs. Similarly, in India, the Department of Biotechnology spends $260 million on research, with $151 million (67%) dedicated to research funding and $99 million (33%) to its own laboratories. All this information is easily retrieved from the websites of these agencies.

Bangladesh is yet to share similar information regarding funding amounts in the country. This lack of clarity not only complicates the application process but also hinders strategic planning for research projects. While funding opportunities in Bangladesh are limited, even the available opportunities are not optimised for interested researchers. Given its resource constraints, Bangladesh’s output system has to get the most bang for its buck.

Non-alignment between medical doctors and trained researchers

In Bangladesh, there is a longstanding perception that health research is predominantly the domain of medical doctors. However, to truly advance health innovation, there needs to be an integrated approach that recognises the contributions of PhDs in public health, biological sciences and biomedical engineering. These researchers bring diverse yet specialised knowledge that can complement the clinical insights of medical doctors, creating a synergistic environment for health research. Therefore, it is crucial that publicly financed grant opportunities are accessible to all researchers, not just medical doctors, to foster a multidisciplinary approach to health.

Below par R&D Investment

Bangladesh’s current investment in research and development (R&D) stands at about 0.3% of its gross domestic product. This is significantly lower than that of other emerging economies such as Vietnam (which is 0.5%), India (0.7%) and China (2.6%). To be an R&D-intensive country, Bangladesh should increase its R&D expenditure to at least 2.5% of GDP by 2030.

Globally, not all research investments are made by the government. Research in major institutes is often supported by endowments and private funding – such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US. Bangladesh has yet to see similar investments by its private sector, particularly its thriving pharmaceutical industry, which would directly benefit from enhanced local research capabilities.

Suggested policy reforms

To advance PhD education and health research, Bangladesh must implement strategic policy reforms. These should address systemic deficiencies and leverage opportunities for a robust research environment. They must strategically target different facets of the education and research ecosystem.

Expand research fellowships to support PhDs: Bangladesh needs to enhance existing research fellowships for PhD students to provide comprehensive support. These fellowships must be merit-based and have a transparent selection process. By benchmarking against successful models from other countries, these fellowships should offer substantial financial support to cover living costs and family needs, making it feasible for students to focus on their research. This policy will relieve financial pressures on students while boosting output of research quality. It will attract more candidates to pursue advanced studies.

Authorise select private universities to offer PhDs: Bangladesh should allow top-performing private universities to offer PhD programmes. Currently, only public universities can award PhD degrees, a restriction that limits the potential contributions of private institutions. By permitting select private universities to conduct PhD programmes, Bangladesh could quickly increase its PhD outputs. Bangladeshi regulators are already accommodative of this proposal, and there is a working committee to oversee the reform process. This policy shift would necessitate rigorous oversight of regulatory agencies, like the country’s University Grant Commission, to ensure these programmes meet the highest standards.

Regularise information on research funds: Transparent access to funding opportunities is essential for fostering trust in the research sector in Bangladesh. Regularly releasing data on research fund usage would encourage more researchers to engage in funded projects. This would also represent an oversight mechanism. Bangladesh should establish an independent agency to oversee the distribution of these grants. This will improve the efficiency and fairness of funding allocations. This agency can be tasked with managing the funds and providing grant-accessing support to local scientists.

Strengthen research investments through private and public interplay: To expand resources for research, a pairing of private sector engagement and government commitment is essential for any country. Engaging private entities, such as philanthropic organisations, through structured tax incentives can channel investments from corporations and high-net-worth people. This approach not only supplements government funding but also aligns research activities with industry needs.

Bangladeshi policy-makers must ensure fund expansion for research, particularly in medical fields, to improve public health outcomes. This could involve increased allocations for relevant ministries such as education, health and science. Here the creation of the above-mentioned regulatory body for research investments will be very impactful. The policy goal should be to raise Bangladesh’s R&D expenditure to 2.5% of GDP by 2030, aligning with international standards.

Incentivise collaboration between medical and non-medical researchers: Integrating the expertise of medical doctors with that of other science PhD researchers creates a multidisciplinary approach to health. Bangladesh should adopt this integration policy. Its policies should encourage joint research, shared funding and interdisciplinary knowledgebase.

Health strides through talent

Bangladesh not surprisingly lags in several areas of higher education, specifically PhD education. PhDs are fundamental to cutting-edge local health research. However, targeted policy reforms can quickly address this lag. Implementing clear, actionable guidelines for establishing research fellowships, enabling private universities to offer PhDs, creating transparent funding systems and fostering interdisciplinary collaborations are winnable strategies.

Overall, a viable PhD culture will take an all-of-the-above approach. It also will have a ripple in the country’s economy. More specifically, it will address Bangladesh’s brain drain problem by retaining its brightest minds in the country. More importantly, it will advance the county’s goal of becoming a knowledge-based society by 2041, while strengthening its global standing in scientific innovation.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Senjuti Saha is Director at Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF). She is a scientist. She is also a board member of the Polio Transition Independent Monitoring Board of the World Health Organization. Her research focuses on pediatric preventable infectious diseases. She led the decoding of SARS-CoV2 genome in Bangladesh. She pursued her in doctoral studies in molecular genetics at the University of Toronto
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Yogesh Hooda is Lead for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Child Health Research Foundation. He is a scientist. He is also Chief Technology Officer at Synphonee. He has been Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. His research focuses on bacterial infections. He has received the Armand Frappier Award. He pursued his doctoral studies in Biochemistry at the University of Toronto.