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How a snapshot of ASEAN scientific capabilities can guide us


In the first study of its kind done on the ASEAN1 countries as a group, Australian and Vietnamese researchers have provided a useful snapshot of the scientific landscapes and capabilities of our regional neighbours, and how those attributes are likely to drive their economies.

The study adopts very similar criteria and methodology to those used by the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, Sir David King, in a paper he published in Nature in 2004. King made comparisons across the 31 countries that contributed to the top 1% of the world’s most highly cited publications from 1993-2002.

King made effective use of spider plots to create national ‘footprints’ showing disciplinary strengths and weaknesses. At a glance, he made it possible to see whether a country was strong in life science, engineering, mathematics, clinical medicine and so on – and to see how it compared with other countries. He also made it easy to compare inputs versus outputs (amount of money spent on R&D versus numbers of publications and citations).

Like King’s work, the ASEAN analysis, undertaken by Professor Tuan Nguyen from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Dr Ly Pham from the Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, uses data provided by Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge (formerly known as the Institute for Scientific information). The ASEAN study also uses spider plots for at-a-glance comparisons. It is published in Scientometrics, now online.

Nguyen and Pham set out to examine the relationship between scientific research (measured by patents and number of publications and citations) and the ‘knowledge economy index’ (KEI) in ASEAN. The KEI, developed by the World Bank, allows us to assess a country’s performance in the adoption and diffusion of knowledge2. That is, its preparedness for moving towards a ‘knowledge economy’, a term that emphasizes the importance of knowledge, knowhow and skills in driving the economy.

Economic development is directly related to technological competitiveness, which in turn is made possible by scientific research.

“Compare the farmer in Vietnam who works in a rice field and earns $500 a year with the producer of microchips in Singapore who earns four times that in one hour,” said Nguyen.

“In a very simple way, that explains the knowledge economy – the knowledge and technological capability behind what you sell.”

“Those countries that support science and research, along with the means to translate the outcomes, become masters of their own destinies. Those that don’t become dependent.”

“The ASEAN countries offer a good opportunity to explore this question because their levels of economic development are so variable.”

As it happens, there are four rough groupings of development, with the three poorest countries (Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar) very low on the KEI. Indonesia, Vietnam and The Philippines come next, followed by Thailand and Malaysia. At the top by a long way is Singapore. The higher a nation’s KEI, the greater its number of scientific publications.

Spider plots on Nguyen’s paper show that Singapore is strong in biomedical sciences and exceptionally strong in engineering. “It is clearly Singapore’s strength in engineering, its ability to translate its ideas into technologies or products, that has led to its economic growth and strength,” he said.

“Australia (ranked 11 in the world in the 2009 KEI) is ahead of countries like Taiwan and Singapore (ranked 18 and 19 respectively), but we are moving down the scale and they are moving up.”

“While we’re not part of ASEAN, the analysis is a wake up call to look closely at our own strengths and weaknesses. As UK experience has shown, a strong science base is not enough. It needs the corresponding infrastructure and technological capability for knowledge transfer between research bodies and industry, and this is where Australia falls short.”

“Most scientific research, particularly biomedical research, in ASEAN countries is done in collaboration with more developed countries, especially the USA, Europe and Japan.”

“Despite our proximity, Australia has little research collaboration with ASEAN countries. This is a pity, as collaborative ties invariably lead to an enrichment of ideas on both sides, as well as further opportunities. In my opinion, we could be doing much better.”

1. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

2. Measurements used to calculate the KEI include economic incentive and institutional regime (rule of law); innovation (royalty and license fees payments and receipts, published journal articles and patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office); education (tertiary education enrolment rates) and information infrastructure (telephone, computer and internet penetration).

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research was founded in 1963. Initially a research department of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, it is now one of Australia’s largest medical research institutions with over 500 scientists, students and support staff. Garvan’s main research programs are: Cancer, Diabetes & Obesity, Immunology and Inflammation and Neuroscience. Garvan’s mission is to make significant contributions to medical science that will change the directions of science and medicine and have major impacts on human health. The outcome of Garvan’s discoveries is the development of better methods of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately, prevention of disease.


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