The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will collaborate on research by setting up thematic 'research clusters' to tackle problems of the region, the first conference on Pioneering ASEAN Higher Education Research Clusters agreed in Bangkok.
ASEAN representatives said the first three clusters based on the region's research strengths would concentrate on health and medicine, possibly coordinated by Singapore and Thailand; agriculture and food, with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia at the core; and energy, environment and biodiversity, with the Philippines and Indonesia the research coordinators.
"There are many outstanding researchers from many ASEAN countries, but when looking into the research profile of each individual ASEAN country, it is noticeable that the impact factor is still nominal. This is the reason why ASEAN should cooperate to combine and to secure our efforts to strengthen our research visibility in the international community," Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said, opening the 26-27 November conference.
Abhisit added: "Research performance and the quality of human resources are significant indicators of the competitiveness of a country." Research was also the foundation of an 'inclusive economy' that benefited all, and for long-term sustainable development.
"Some countries may have the technology and know-how to most effectively conduct research and some may have the capable experts and researchers, while others have the resources or setting for proper field work," the prime minister continued.
"To establish a strong research network, our universities must first have a closer look at their own region and its potential for collaboration. Different ASEAN countries have different research strengths and I think it is a suitable time for us to share our perspectives and wisdom, share our strongest research areas."
The project, which will be university-based, will be steered by Thailand as part of the region's move towards a single ASEAN community by 2015, which includes harmonisation of higher education.
Thailand already has expertise in this area, having set up national research clusters to strengthen its research base. Other ASEAN countries will coordinate harmonisation efforts on student mobility, higher education leadership development, and e-learning.
Thailand's Minister of Education Chinnaworn Boonyakiat told the conference: "Each member of ASEAN has a diverse set of research expertise and strengths. So as to avoid unnecessary duplication, ASEAN countries should work together to synchronise aspects of their research capacity and excellence."
"Through the proposed ASEAN research clusters members can pool their resources, share their facilities and exchange their human resources for the benefit and prosperity of the region as a whole," Chinnaworn said.
Wanchai De-Eknamkul, Secretary of Thailand's National Research University Project Committee, told University World News the process would start by mapping research in the ASEAN region, "so that we can see the picture clearly, which country is doing what research".
"The universities at the core [of the clusters] will be the strongest in the region in that field. We must start with the strength of the research, it should not be top-down saying these are the subject clusters we want. Then each country can decide which clusters they want to join.
"Representatives from each country are concerned about their readiness for research clusters and about the money. We decided we would first look at common topics and interests," said Wanchai.
National research clusters exists in Malaysia as well as Thailand. But regional research clusters are an ambitious goal which will need reform of the way research is conducted in higher education institutions, said Chaiyudh Khantaprab, Director of the Science and Technology Postgraduate Education and Research Development Office, PERDO, which oversees some 30 universities and research centres in Thailand that are part of the country's inter-university research consortia.
And some countries with weak research universities may not take part initially. "We realise there may be something like six to seven ASEAN active members with Laos, Cambodia and Myannmar not able to participate in the beginning," Chaiyudh said.
A major obstacle is big differences in research capability, from world-class in Singapore to almost non-existent in countries like Laos and Cambodia. Countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam fall somewhere in between.
"Some of these countries have only had research universities for a very few years, and some countries have none," Yongyuth Yuthavong of Thailand's National Science and Technology Development Agency told University World News.
Some delegates questioned whether a country like Singapore, whose research performance is way ahead of even mid-ranking countries in the region such as Thailand and Malaysia, would join the clusters.
"Singapore is in the premier league, while we [Thailand and Malaysia] are first division. They will have to cooperate with us in the spirit of ASEAN or they will be isolated," Chaiyudh said.
Once the research clusters are formed, there may well be collaborations with partners known as ASEAN+6 or ASEAN and China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. "Singapore cannot afford to be snobbish," Chaiyudh said.
Financing may also be a major sticking point, although this has not yet been worked out.
"Member countries may have to contribute in proportion depending on their gross domestic product," Chaiyudh suggested. Funds may also come from national research agencies to their own universities involved in regional clusters.
"And eventually the jigsaw will be put together in one ASEAN picture," he said.
ASIA: Going for world-class research universities
ASIA: Increase in exchange of scientists
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters