» ASEAN Economic Community likely to spur scientific co-operation, says report
12.09.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

ASEAN Economic Community likely to spur scientific co-operation, says report

© World Bank Photo Library / Curt Carnemark. Paddy field in Indonesia

The leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in the Laotian capital of Ventiane from 6 to 8 September. The theme of this year’s summit was Turning Vision into Reality for a Dynamic ASEAN Community.

Launched in November last year, the ASEAN Economic Community groups 622 million people in a market worth US$2.6 trillion, according to the ASEAN website, and in 2014, was collectively the third-largest economy in Asia and the seventh-largest in the world. ASEAN groups ten countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam.

The UNESCO Science Report (2015) observes that the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community ‘is likely to boost economic growth in the region’. ASEAN countries have already successfully navigated through the global financial crisis of 2008, many of them managing to avoid recession altogether, thanks to the commodities boom. Between 2005 and 2013, GDP even grew by a cumulative 72% in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as well as by 61% in Cambodia and 53% in Indonesia.

According to the report, the ASEAN Economic Community is also likely to spur the cross-border movement of researchers and greater specialization. This, in turn, should broaden co-operation in science and technology.

A technologically competitive region by 2020?

Although the focus of ASEAN has always been on the creation of a single market along the lines of the European model, leaders have long acknowledged that successful economic integration will hinge on how well member states manage to assimilate science and technology. The ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology was established in 1978, just eleven years after ASEAN was founded by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Since this time, a series of action plans have been developed to foster co-operation among member states, in order to create a more even playing field in science and engineering. When ASEAN Vision 2020 was adopted in 1997, its stated objective was for the region to be technologically competitive by 2020.

Currently, however, innovation performance is generally weak in the region. Together with Australia and New Zealand, ASEAN countries produce 6.5% of the world’s scientific publications (2013) but only 1.4% of global patents (2012); moreover, four countries account for 95% of those patents: Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.

In Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, ‘a comparatively high share of R&D is performed by the business sector. In the case of the Philippines and Malaysia, this is most likely a product of the strong presence of multinational companies in these countries’.

High-tech exports from Viet Nam increased almost tenfold between 2008 and 2013, according to the Comtrade database, but the report recalls that ‘the majority of these high-tech exports were designed elsewhere and simply assembled in [Viet Nam]’.

The challenge for ASEAN economies with a strong multinational presence will be to draw on the knowledge and skills embedded in the large foreign firms they host to develop the same level of professionalism among local suppliers and firms.

Since 2008, many ASEAN countries have boosted their research effort, including in the business enterprise sector. The challenge will be for them to deepen and diversify business sector involvement across a wider range of industrial sectors, especially since the onset of a cycle of declining prices for raw materials with the end of the commodities boom has added ‘a sense of urgency to the task of developing innovation-driven growth policies’.

Among ASEAN countries, only Singapore has a level of research intensity comparable to that of Australia: 2.18% of GDP in 2014. Singapore’s ‘success rests largely on the alignment of policies designed to leverage national development from a strong multinational presence with policies promoting local innovation’. Singapore’s research effort appears to have been a casualty of the global financial crisis, with business spending having contracted since 2008. It looks unlikely that Singapore will reach its target of devoting 3.5% of GDP to R&D by 2015.

As for the other ASEAN countries for which data are available, the Philippines devotes 0.14% of GDP (2013) to research, Viet Nam 0.19% (2011) and Indonesia just 0.08% (2013), according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

The two countries which have made the biggest leap in research spending are Malaysia and Thailand. Malaysia has hoisted its research intensity from 0.79% to 1.26% (2014) of GDP since 2008 and Thailand has doubled its own research intensity to 0.48% of GDP (2014) since 2009.

Towards a freer flow of skilled personnel

The increased mobility of skilled personnel within the region should be a boon for the development of skills, job placement and research capabilities within ASEAN member states’, predicts the report. It should also ‘enhance the role of the ASEAN University Network, which already counts 30 members’.

Countries from the region are already collaborating more with one another, as reflected by trends in international scientific co-authorship. For the less developed economies, co-authorship even accounts for 90–100% of output; the challenge for them will be to steer international scientific collaboration in the direction envisaged by national policies for science and technology, as opposed to espousing the priorities of their wealthier partners.

Although scientific collaboration in the region is still strongly linked to global knowledge hubs such as the USA, UK, China, India, Japan and France, there is evidence of an emerging Asia–Pacific ‘knowledge hub.’ Australia, for instance, is one of the top five collaborators for 17 of 20 countries in the region.

The Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) intends to accompany the development of an Asia–Pacific knowledge hub. APEC completed a study in 2014 of skills shortages in the region, with a view to setting up a monitoring system to address training needs before these shortages become critical.

One of the driving forces for the freer flow of skills across ASEAN member states has been the demand from Malaysia and Singapore for ready access to technical personnel from elsewhere in the region. The mature economies of Australia and New Zealand count more than 1000 technicians per million inhabitants (full-time equivalents), compared to just 162 in Malaysia, 170 in Thailand and 462 in Singapore. The freer flow of skilled personnel from now on should benefit both supplier and recruiter nations. Malaysia and Thailand fall into both categories, whereas the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is solely a recruiter nation. It ‘’has the lowest proportion of researchers of all ASEAN member states’, observes the report, which predicts that ‘ASEAN economic integration is likely to provide this country ‘with more opportunities for regional scientific co-operation’.

Energetic efforts by Malaysia to staunch brain drain

Singapore currently absorbs about 57% of the Malaysian diaspora, according to the UNESCO Science Report, the remainder opting for Australia, Brunei Darussalam, the UK and USA. Brain drain has become a worry for Malaysia, despite the rise in tertiary enrollment in recent years. The Higher Education Strategic Plan has fixed the targets of increasing the participation rate in higher education from 40% to 50% and of producing 100 000 PhD-holders by 2020 by financing graduate students. The number of students enrolled in master’s programmes shot up from 35 000 to 64 000 between 2007 and 2010, while the number of PhD students doubled to 22 000. At the undergraduate level, too, enrollment levels have swelled by 47% to 495 000.

The aim is to develop an endogenous research capability to reduce the country’s reliance on industrial research undertaken by locally implanted foreign multinational companies, many of them specializing in electric goods and electronics. Between 2008 and 2012, Malaysia managed to triple the number of researchers (full-time equivalent) to 52 000. Since 2011, the Returning Expert Programme has also approved 2 500 returnees.

Academics make up eight out of ten researchers in Malaysia, suggesting that the multinational companies on its soil either do not count a majority of Malaysians on their research staff or do not conduct in-house R&D.

In most ASEAN countries, more than half of researchers are employed in the higher education sector. The notable exception is Singapore, where half of researchers are employed by industry, compared to between 30% and 39% elsewhere in the region. In Indonesia and Viet Nam, the government is a major employer of researchers. Of note is that women make up half of researchers in three countries: Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Malaysia and Singapore: big spenders on tertiary education

It is no coincidence if Malaysia and Singapore have the highest researcher densities among ASEAN countries: 1 780 (Malaysia) and 6 440 (Singapore) per million population, compared to a global average of 1 083. Together with Viet Nam, both countries stand out for their large investment in tertiary education. Over the past decade, the share of the education budget devoted to tertiary education has risen from 20% to over 35% in Singapore and 37% in Malaysia. Both countries also have the greatest share of PhD candidates among university students.

It is Myanmar, however, which has the highest proportion of tertiary students enrolled in science degrees (23%) among ASEAN countries. The next highest proportions are found in Singapore (14%) and Malaysia (13%).

Myanmar also has the highest proportion of women enrolled in tertiary education, in general. The report observes that ‘it will be interesting to see if Myanmar manages to maintain this high proportion of women among students as it pursues its [democratic] transition’.

Meanwhile, Malaysia is actively seeking to turn itself into a global education hub. It aims to attract 200 000 foreign students by 2020. Their number doubled to more than 56 000 between 2007 and 2012. However, just 17% of these international students come from ASEAN countries. Indonesia supplies the largest contingent (6 222 students) of ASEAN students but this number has only risen slightly since 2007.

ASEAN has adopted an integrated approach to science and innovation

The ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology launched the ASEAN Krabi initiative in 2010, which has since developed the ASEAN Plan of Action on Science, Technology and Innovation (APASTI) covering the period 2016–2020. APASTI was formally endorsed by ASEAN members in November last year.

For the UNESCO Science Report, ‘the interesting feature of APASTI is its integrated approach to science, technology and innovation. It seeks to raise competitiveness across the region by contributing to both social inclusion and sustainable development. APASTI identifies eight thematic areas: focusing on global markets; digital communication and social media; green technology; energy; water resources; biodiversity; science; and innovation for life’.

As part of the negotiating process for the ASEAN Economic Community, each member state was able to express its preference for a specific research focus. The Laotian government, for instance, prioritized agriculture and renewable energy. Proposals to develop hydropower on the Mekong River proved more contentious, given the drawbacks of this energy option.

Linking up to international advances in science

ASEAN countries are seeking ways to link their national knowledge base to regional and global advances in science. One motivation for this greater interconnectedness is the region’s vulnerability to natural hazards. The Pacific Ocean is vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly capricious weather patterns as a consequence of climate change. Cambodia has adopted a Climate Change Strategic Plan covering 2014 –2023, with financial support from the European Union and others, partly to protect its agriculture.

The Philippines is promoting technological self-reliance to reduce its own vulnerability to disasters. Every year, between six and nine tropical cyclones make landfall. In 2013, the Philippines had the misfortune to lie in the path of Cyclone Haiyan (known as Yolanda in the Philippines), possibly the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit land, with winds that were clocked at up to 380 kph. The Philippines has been investing heavily in critical infrastructure and enabling tools such as Doppler radars, generating 3D disaster-simulation models from Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology and the wide-scale installation of locally developed sensors for accurate and timely disaster information nationwide. In parallel, it has been building local capability to apply, replicate and produce many of these technologies.

The end of the commodities boom in 2010 has led resource-rich economies to devise science and technology policies offering economic alternatives in areas where countries show particular strengths, such as engineering in Malaysia. To some extent, this trend has created a dilemma for science and, in particular, for scientists. On the one hand, there is a strong imperative to produce quality scientific research: the careers of researchers in the public sector depend upon their work being published in peer-reviewed journals. On the other hand, ‘many national development plans are also seeking research relevance’.

‘Clearly, both imperatives are important for fostering development and international competitiveness’, observes the report. ‘The richer countries have the economic opportunity to pursue advances in basic research and to build a deeper and broader science base. Lower income economies, however, face accrued pressure to favour relevance'. The report concludes by saying that ‘maintaining career paths for scientists that allow them to pursue both quality and relevance will remain a challenge’.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015); see the chapters on Malaysia and Southeast Asia and Oceania.

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