Research collaboration a growth-driver for Asian economies

Research collaboration within Asia and internationally, fuelled by rapid expansion of the region’s higher education sector, will propel Asian countries to new economic heights in the future, a conference in Hong Kong heard.

Trends in research output are already showing a decline in United States and European Union shares of international research, and a rise in Asia’s share, participants at the event organised by the British Council on research networks for innovation in East Asia were told.

“In Asia, annual [research] growth rates are high,” said Gerard Postiglione, a professor in the faculty of education at Hong Kong University. This has been driven by huge growth in higher education and the number of researchers in the region.

“If Asia is to rise to be the world’s economic driver it needs to be driven by the knowledge economy. The trajectory needs to be upwards, but the way for that to happen will have to be through research collaboration,” he told University World News just after the 27-28 September conference.

Postiglione, who was involved in a study published this year by the Asian Development Bank, Regional Cooperation and Cross-border Collaboration in Higher Education in Asia: Ensuring that everyone wins, pointed out that the region “has a cultural tradition that is very collaborative in nature”.

However, he noted, “so far economic integration has not led to regional collaboration in university research to the extent that would be expected.

“Research collaboration is behind Asia’s economic curve,” Postiglione told University World News. “One would expect more dynamism for research and technology collaboration across the region, but it is still at an early stage.”

Growth in research output

Even Hong Kong’s universities, which are top in the region for research performance and recruiting international faculty and researchers, have not tapped research potential in East Asia and South East Asia to the extent expected.

“When we do research collaboration we look to the West,” said Roland Chin, chair of Hong Kong’s Research Grants Council. “Most of our colleagues are Western-trained,” he said, admitting: “We have neglected a lot of the talent in this region.”

Nonetheless, as research output in Asian countries has been rising rapidly, there has been a shift from national to bilateral research projects and, more recently, a trend that sees a number of countries in the region engaging in research collaboration.

The British Council’s senior advisor on education research, Janet Illieva, presented a new analysis mapping research trends and collaboration in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region.

It showed that growth in research output has been above the global average of 3% over the past five years in eight ASEAN countries that feature in the soon-to-be-released British Council study – Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

In the same period, research growth was 38% in Malaysia and 24% in Indonesia, according to analysis of bibliometric data from the SCOPUS database of research published from 2007-11.

Crucially, she said, research produced in international collaborations on average doubled the research impact achieved nationally in terms of citations.

“For the most productive research countries in Asia, around 80% of their citation index is explained by collaboration,” said Illieva. “The higher the international collaboration rate, the higher the impact for the top research countries.

“This is a strong argument for multilateral collaboration.”

In Indonesia, research papers with international co-authors were six times more cited than nationally produced research – a proxy for quality, Illieva said.

Quoting from research by the Royal Society in Britain, she said the research impact was even greater when more collaborating countries were involved. It is at its highest when around 10 countries collaborate, but even beyond 10 countries there are still increases in impact.

“Until a few years ago internationalisation of higher education was just a concept and there was no clear, measurable benefit in international collaboration. But now there is, and with such outcomes we could expect to see a shift from bilateral to more multilateral collaborations,” Illieva told University World News.

Shift towards collaboration

She noted that a shift had already occurred towards trilateral collaborations: two ASEAN countries and a third country, usually Japan or a country in the West.

Postiglione noted that top scientists in Asia still tend to collaborate with Western universities, in part because many of them were trained in those countries. However, they are also beginning to collaborate with top-tier universities in Asia.

“A top-tier university will only enter into agreement with universities in their own tier. But scientists themselves collaborate with colleagues in universities across tiers and top-tier academics hook up with universities in a network of tiers in order to advance knowledge.”

The conference, part of the British Council’s Global Education Dialogues series, heard that developing countries and emerging economies in Asia such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar were keen to see greater collaboration with universities in more developed parts of the region such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.

Thailand and Vietnam have set up national schemes to build international research networks. Amaret Bhumiratana, director of Thailand’s Royal Golden Jubilee PhD Programme, said the country planned to build 75 international research networks.

Thai researchers are already working with institutions in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and South Korea. But the Thailand International Development Cooperation Agency is now funding collaborative research with neighbouring Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Rick Rylance, chair of Research Councils UK, said: “The future is one of networking rather than exclusivity. Rising costs, particularly in the natural sciences, will force cost sharing.”

Postiglione believes Asia is on course to catch up with the West in R&D and this can be accelerated through more research collaboration, particularly in interdisciplinary research and research on global issues.

Built on the back of developments in the region’s knowledge economy “by 2050 the world’s economic driver will be Asia”, Postiglione predicted.