Policy, sector gaps stall innovation for development

Management of research and innovation is emerging as a specialised area in higher education, but some South East Asian economies are transforming so rapidly that research and innovation policies are not being put in place fast enough or keeping pace with national economic changes.

According to research on South East Asian middle-income countries Malaysia and Thailand, and low-income Vietnam and Cambodia, by the OECD’s Swedish-funded Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development – IHERD – project, there is continued misalignment between university research and industry.

In some South East Asian countries such as Cambodia, industry is underdeveloped and universities are concentrating on teaching rather than research. In others such as Malaysia, industry is trying to move up the value chain even as research universities are trying to build links.

There may be different goals or changing goals that need to be managed at both the university and industry levels to align the two, according to Molly Lee, an education consultant for IHERD based in Malaysia and a former programme manager for UNESCO in Bangkok.

But lack of capacity in administration means that policy-makers and universities are not always able to bridge the gaps despite some policies being in place.

“In Cambodia and Vietnam things are very centralised. There are a lot of plans on paper but to what extent they are being carried out is questionable. They are short of human resources. They usually have good leaders but they don’t have the mid-level people to carry out whatever policies that they put in place,” Lee told University World News.

Basic versus applied research

In Malaysia the government’s aim of world-class status for five public universities has to be managed alongside the need for applied research to link up with the country’s existing industries and ambitions to shift up the industrial value chain.

“There’s always the dilemma – to what extent you want to get attention as a world-class university at the cutting edge of research and, on the other hand: is your research relevant to the community you are serving in your country or region?” said Lee.

Transforming universities into world-class research institutions means aiming for high-impact citation indices. “It tends to be research on issues and problems at the global level,” said Lee, rather than applied research or research based on local or national conditions.

Policy-makers “think the two goals are aligned and both sound good on paper. But when they try to carry it out in real life, there seems to be a tension between them.”

The Malaysian government is looking at the return on investment in R&D by assessing applied research, patent numbers, intellectual property and spin-off companies. But in all those measures “we are just starting and we are quite weak at it, and in particular fields – say biotechnology and nanotechnology – we have only a limited number of experts", said Lee.

Aligning with the economy

Globally, production is becoming geographically fragmented. In many countries in Asia, particularly middle-income countries, the balance between manufacturing and services is changing.

While Vietnam and Cambodia continue to rely significantly on low-skilled labour and natural resources for economic growth, Malaysia’s economy is described as transitioning from improving efficiency of production to sustain economic growth, to being able to use innovation and new technologies for new processes and industries to fuel growth.

“In the past, Malaysia offered cheap labour rather than expertise in attracting foreign investment, but it can no longer compete with countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh for cheap labour,” noted Lee.

“Malaysia is at a cross-roads where it must move up the value chain but somehow or other the country’s human resources don’t match, and then Malaysia does not have the kind of companies that can give it that push.”

In the IT industry, which is dominated by big multinationals, “most of the research is done overseas and then they just do parts over here in Malaysia”, she noted.

Nonetheless, there are small- and medium-sized local spin-off companies and start-ups that are vendors to bigger companies and serve the multinationals.

“But SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] don’t do much research; that’s the crux of the matter,” Lee said. It is also difficult to link up a myriad of evolving SMEs to university research departments, which move at a much slower pace over a much longer time frame.

“Often universities don’t know what industry is doing and the industry doesn’t know what universities are doing,” said Lee.

Research organisations

In all four of the Asian countries, commercialisation of research and innovation is recognised by policy-makers as important, but there has been little significant progress on the ground, according to IHERD research.

Some Malaysian research institutions such as Universiti Malaya have a corporate arm to match researchers with companies. “Universiti Sains Malaysia is one of the top, but we have lots of second-tier public universities and private universities that don’t do much,” said Lee.

In Cambodia, universities have been advised by the government to establish research offices but the system is not necessarily functioning well, according to IHERD research. Cambodia’s universities are “bogged down with teaching”, said Lee, and lecturers have little time for research.

Vietnam has a national research organisation, but the government decides the priorities and where the money goes. Vietnam is doing better than some middle-income South East Asian countries in innovation in the life sciences and agriculture.

A high proportion of research and innovation grants in the four countries are block grants from government, rarely allocated on a competitive basis. “So there is a lot of wastage in R&D if you compare with some countries, like Cuba, that do much better in the medical field,” Lee said.

Both Thailand and Malaysia are trying to promote more coordination among the various research funding agencies and are trying to get the private sector more involved and contributing more.

“But the bottom line is capacity building once you identify the gaps,” Lee said. “A lot boils down to individual researchers and their links, partners they have outside the university and with industry,” Lee said.

IHERD has been discussing regional training centres to share resources and expertise, in particular to improve research and innovation management, to improve expertise within countries and to provide access to regional networks of professionals.