AsianScientist (Sep. 16, 2016) – The leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in the Laotian capital of Ventiane from September 6-8, 2016, last week. 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, 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 Vietnam.
According to the UNESCO Science Report (2015), the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community is likely to spur the cross-border movement of researchers and greater specialization. This, in turn, should broaden co-operation in science and technology, the report said.
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 11 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, 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, the report found. Together with Australia and New Zealand, ASEAN countries produce 6.5 percent of the world’s scientific publications (2013) but only 1.4 percent of global patents (2012); moreover, four countries account for 95 percent of those patents: Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.
Among ASEAN countries, only Singapore has a level of research intensity comparable to that of Australia: 2.18 percent of GDP in 2014.
As for the other ASEAN countries for which data are available, the Philippines devotes 0.14 percent of GDP (2013) to research, Vietnam 0.19 percent (2011) and Indonesia just 0.08 percent (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 percent to 1.26 percent (2014) of GDP since 2008 and Thailand has doubled its own research intensity to 0.48 percent 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.”
Although scientific collaboration in the region is still strongly linked to global knowledge hubs such as the US, the 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.
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 1,000 technicians per million inhabitants (full-time equivalents), compared to just 162 in Malaysia, 170 in Thailand and 462 in Singapore.
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 Vietnam, 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 percent to over 35 percent in Singapore and 37 percent 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 percent) among ASEAN countries. The next highest proportions are found in Singapore (14 percent) and Malaysia (13 percent).
Research with economic relevance
The end of the commodities boom in 2013 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 favor relevance.”
Source: UNESCO; Photo: Shutterstock.
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