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Human resources, never obsolete

Interview - May 8, 2012
The mission of the Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology (SIIT) is to produce young, qualified engineers and scientists with technical knowledge. Director of SIIT Dr. Chongrak Polprasert, discusses the institute’s focus on research and how it’s providing the country with highly skilled workers

What is SIIT’s philosophy of teaching?

Our philosophy is to have capable and competitive human resources – this is the most essential element for Thailand and for regional development. Equipment can become obsolete, but people and human resources do not. People have to be trained, and that is why we are training our students here who are mainly undergraduate students, to have exposure to the latest technology in industry. In our curriculum, the last year of study is dedicated to students having internships in industry (six months or one year) or extended training with industry. We also have another option where students can go abroad as well. We have an exchange programme with about 30 universities in Asia, Europe and the US so our students can be exposed to new environments and learn about new technology. We also have students coming here from Europe, the US and Japan for three to six months or one year. I think it is important to train human resources to be capable to adapt to new technology so that when they leave, they can do research. Research is important, but we must accept that we should not compete with researchers in the developed countries in certain areas. For example, we cannot compete in high tech industries, but we can compete in Thailand and the region in terms of environmental control, renewable energy, agriculture or biotechnology. 

What are the major research breakthroughs at the institution in recent years?

Our school of civil engineering has a strong research team called Construction and Maintenance Technology Research Centre (CONTEC), which emphasises concrete technology. We have a new innovative type of concrete that can withstand more shock load. Concrete technology is something we are quite strong in, and we have received research support from various state agencies and private sector companies.
The environment is another area we focus on, I am personally involved in this. As Thailand becomes more developed, a lot of industry comes in, but there are also a lot of hazardous chemicals being used in industry and agriculture. These are like silent killers for people – they do not kill you straight away, but these chemicals can be ingested into the human body slowly. People have symptoms maybe 20 to 30 years later, and then you get cancer so it is too late. We are trying to develop technology to manage this toxic and hazardous waste. It is not easy. We are using nanotechnology and nano-materials with certain bacteria to biodegrade and make those compound hazards safe for the environment. Hazardous chemicals can have a negative impact on industrial development. There are technologies available, but some industries do not care or do not know how to invest. So we try to work with them.

It sounds like partnerships are very important for SIIT. Could you tell us more about your strategy with regard to partnerships alongside companies, governments and other universities internationally in research and innovation?

Our main role is to share knowledge with students, and create knowledge for the public to use for progressive purposes. The Thai government is trying to give more research support, but if you look at the whole picture, the percentage of the research budget from the Government is still quite low compared with those in Japan, the US or the UK. But I encourage my faculty colleagues to do more research, although to do this we need money. That is why we are writing proposals and making ourselves known to potential donors and clients.
There are two kinds of research – problem-solving research and knowledge creation research. The latter is a bit more difficult because they do not know how successful we will be so we have to show them that we have the knowledge and capability. If we have graduate students, we can do preliminary research to show them and when the agency knows that we are capable, they will give us the budget to do more research.

PM COMMUNICATIONS: It is a catch-22 situation because you need to do more research to get more budget, but you need more budget to do more research. What kind of research partnerships do you have with international universities?

We believe that, among other things, the country needs to have a good logistics supply chain for development. This is a big issue for Thailand. During the flooding last year, most things stopped – even food in supermarkets and markets, because our logistics were not very well prepared. So we are doing research in order to develop logistics supply chain strategies and apply this research with certain state enterprises. Of course, there are many categories but I think the project is going well.

It is a very competitive environment for universities to attract funding because there are many research agendas and projects, but a limited number of organisations.

That is why we have to be selective and focus on niche areas of research, like in ICT embedded systems. We have a project with a hospital to develop technology to track diabetes in patients by looking for cataracts. Sometimes people with diabetes have problems with their eyes, so we have an embedded technology system to look at people’s eyes and if they have an issue, we will tell them to take care of their health. We also have a project with a hospital for artificial knees and looking at the materials that would be suitable for artificial knees.

Every faculty member has to have a PhD degree. Here every faculty member has to do teaching and research. I believe that if you just teach using a textbook day in day out, there is nothing exciting. But if the faculty member engages in research, then he/she will also be able to use new information to teach to students. This makes it more exciting for students and they can learn about new technology all the time.

The Government of Thailand’s priorities are in reducing inequality and corruption, as well as encouraging political reconciliation and reconstruction. But there is not really much talk about high-end research, beyond political talk. In terms of action, what kind of assistance do you receive from the Government and what more would you like to see done?

I think our industry has to help as well. Most do not invest in research, but they buy research technology from abroad or from their mother companies. When they have problems, they use researchers from their mother companies abroad. I hope this will change in the future, but I do not know how successful the Government will be in trying to support research if there is no demand for it. I was in Seattle, the home of Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, and my university received lots of grants from companies. Companies also donated money to universities. It requires support from all sectors. We do research in the search of new knowledge, but we also want to be satisfied that our research is used by industry. I think that in order to be successful, the industrial sector has to change. They have to do local research and invest more in research, like they do in the US or Europe.

In advanced economies like Switzerland, the UK or Holland, one of the main incentives for private sector companies to engage in research with universities so they can recruit these people into their companies when they graduate. To what extent do you believe that you provide a benefit for companies in that there is a ready-made pool of highly-skilled labour available for them?

Companies benefit because they get cheap labour to work for them, and they can find talented students to work for them. Half of our graduates get employed with good companies and state enterprises.

When you look at ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), many people consider Singapore as the leading research centre. Where would you say that Thailand is positioned in ASEAN in terms of its leadership in research?

Singapore is the island nation, and I think their main resource is human resources, so it is important for them to invest in human resources and show their competencies. I think Malaysia is quite good as well. The former prime minister wanted Malaysia to be a super corridor for high-tech. Even the leader in Laos has a vision now, although it used to be a landlocked country. Now they want to become a land-linked country. I think research is important for Thailand. The present government has a vision to move Thailand forward. I think we are in the top three in ASEAN in terms of research. I hope that when we overcome the funding issues and other domestic problems, we will move forward.

You spoke about the research programme you have in Vietnam to solve the Agent Orange problem. What other international research programmes does SIIT have and what is your strategy to build a portfolio of international influence in ASEAN or further afield?

We are the international institute of technology and we want our students to be more international to fit in with the upcoming AEC. We plan to increase the number of international faculty members to be about 20% in the next five years and we want to have 10% to 15% international students in the next five years as well. We aim to have more exchange students. Now we have exchanges with universities in Germany, Finland, France and Japan. We also have faculty members from Europe and the US coming here and we also send our faculty members there on visiting programmes. Exposure to new environments is important, but we have to be selective with research as I said before. We have to do whatever is relevant to the country and the region’s needs. In the future, I think energy, the environment and biotechnology will be the key issues that our institute should and will pursue.
Thailand is now being scrutinised more by European countries for greenhouse gas emissions and environmental protection, so we must have good technology in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health. We have received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we are working together to try to develop something called smart toilets for poorer communities. There are people who suffer from health issues due to poor water and sanitation conditions. So we are trying to come up with cheap toilets that may produce by-products like fertiliser.
Another of our key projects for the future concerns food security and human sustainability. We have about 7 billion people and in the next 20 years it will be 9 billion, so more people means more demands for food. Most countries do not produce enough food, and to produce food, you need fertiliser and arable land; these key resources unfortunately are diminishing.

How do you promote SIIT’s niche research agendas to huge donors that can transform university programmes?

The human connection. We must make ourselves known to these people as well. Contacts are important, and that is why I always try to get our faculty members to go abroad and make contacts and go to conferences and bring professors over here.

Where do you want to take the institution in the next five years as the AEC starts to integrate and develop?

Our vision is to make SIIT one of the top institutions in the region in terms of students’ priorities and choices. We also want to make our research useful for Thailand and the region. We have to be selective and we hope that those research areas such as environment and food security will be picked up by the Government and agencies and so on. If they do not do something now, it will be like gasoline. When I was younger, gasoline in Thailand was about 3 Baht per litre and now it is 30 Baht per litre. That has an effect on food prices, so if these increase then poverty will increase as people get hungrier. Not many people are aware of this, but they should start now. If they wait 30 years, it will be too late. There are no alternatives to food.