Thailand’s leader plants the seeds for a future in nanobiotech

Feb. 28, 2003 — Thailand is known for its white sandy beaches, gold-coated temples and spicy basil-flavored dishes. But the kingdom formerly known as Siam also wants to be known for nanotechnology.

When the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra started publicly pushing last year to make nanotechnology a new focus of Thailand’s biotechnology industry, some experts were dubious. Locals say that politicians often make statements pledging support for projects that never get off the ground. But it seems that with nanotechnology, Thaksin is being taken seriously, though many Thais are still curious to know what exactly the field is about.

“Fortunately, nanotechnology has attracted the interest of the people that matter,” said Yongyuth Yuthavong, president of the Thai Academy of Science and Technology, who is helping to get the national program off the ground.

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Thaksin, local newspapers report, has gone so far as to recommend that all Cabinet members read the book, “As the Future Catches You,” by Juan Enriquez, which names nanotechnology, along with genomic and digital technologies, as the fields that will determine the productivity of a country in the future.

Having amassed his fortune in the information technology sector before becoming prime minister, Thaksin is well aware of how to capitalize on breakthroughs in science, Yongyuth said.

“Most people think that Thailand cannot [get involved in nanotechnology] because they don’t understand it. It’s too far from reality,” said Teerakiat Kerdcharoen, an assistant professor at Mahidol University’s Center of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Bangkok. “But the prime minister doesn’t believe that; he believes that we can also do something more sophisticated.”

According to a Thai official, a new center to coordinate nanotechnology efforts across the country will be established this October with a proposed budget of $4 million. The center will provide “proactive support of the various activities of researchers,” Yongyuth said. The center will be supported fully by the government initially and will be used to administer programs and build research facilities.

By investing in nanobiotechnology, Thailand hopes to differentiate itself in the region. Many nations in Southeast Asia have specialized in information technology or biotechnology, like Malaysia and Singapore respectively. Thai officials recognize that their country is further behind Taiwan, Japan and Korea in nanoelectronics. Because Thailand already has a good health care infrastructure, experts have recommended that the kingdom specialize nanobiotechnology.

“We need to start from existing knowledge, and learn from other countries,” Teerakiat said.

One main problem Thai scientists and officials hope to overcome is lack of human resources available to tackle big nanotechnology projects. The center will send 150 graduate students over the next five years to the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia to gain further knowledge in the field.

Three national centers, specializing in biotechnology, information technology and material science, have been operating in Thailand for several years. The fourth center specializing in nanotechnology will work with these existing centers and be supported by universities and private agencies.


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