Low mobility of young scientists may hamper innovation

Low mobility among young researchers within Asia and globally may be hampering wider research collaboration, exchange of ideas and more creative and innovative research, says a wide-ranging new study of young scientists in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Only 8% of young researchers from these countries who earned their doctorate or advanced research qualification less than a decade ago were working outside the country of their citizenship, according to the just-released report, Global State of Young Scientists (GloSYS) in ASEAN – Creativity and innovation of young scientists in ASEAN.

After obtaining a PhD, short-term experiences abroad of up to three months’ duration are more common than long-term experiences, with collaboration with researchers from other continents – mainly North America and Europe – more common than within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN region.

The report was published by the Global Young Academy, which has members in more than 50 countries. It includes extensive surveys with some 450 young researchers in the region.

Research collaboration within ASEAN is also low, with just 18% of respondents reporting such collaboration, while 41% reported only collaborating with researchers within their own country, and mainly within their own institution, the report found.

Higher levels of collaboration, particularly in published papers, were reported from Indonesia. Thai young scientists and scholars reported less collaboration with researchers from other continents, the report found.

Academics from Malaysia and Cambodia do best in co-authoring publications with colleagues in other countries, with academics in Malaysia particularly successful at publishing in foreign countries.

‘Less creative’

Japanese studies have found that young scientists in that country are less creative than in the past, says Bangkok-based Orakanoke Phanraksa, one of the report’s authors and an expert on intellectual property policy.

She said one of the original remits of the study was to identify factors that have an impact on the creativity and innovation of young scientists and scholars.

One reason may be low mobility, which reduces opportunities to learn different approaches and ways of thinking.

Interviews with young researchers on their experiences abroad found that mobility provides “meaningful opportunities for learning, exchange and personal growth”, the report said.

“These experiences allow them [young researchers] to see ‘things from a different angle’, get to know different solutions to a problem and also learn of different approaches on how to solve problems in general. All these experiences can therefore be considered conducive to advance the creativity and innovation of young scientists and scholars in ASEAN countries.”

However, opportunities for longer stays abroad have not been taken up. “The majority of our interviewees were less interested in mobility in the ASEAN region than going to countries with more mature higher education and research systems,” the report said.

Almost 70% of young Asian researchers from the four countries said they do not plan to leave the country where they are currently residing or working.

This was particularly true of Singapore. One young scientist interviewed in the report described the relation between Singapore and its ASEAN neighbours as very unequal.

“To move from Singapore to any of the other ASEAN countries to do research is career suicide. It is more often the other way, where ASEAN countries move to Singapore to do research,” the scientist said.

Increased pressures

Increased pressures on early career researchers is a major reason for limited mobility, the report found, with an increasing trend in ASEAN countries in the past two decades to pressure young researchers to meet performance targets and publish papers.

“Those who have graduated overseas and return home face a very different environment with limited infrastructure and funding when they return home. In some cases this causes them to be more innovative, but it can also hamper creativity and innovation,” said report co-author Phanraksa, a patent lawyer.

“Asian young researchers are also encouraged to produce more papers, and more applied research, and there are more patent applications than in the past, but this does not mean these are quality applications,” she said.

Around 40% of young researchers in the four ASEAN countries of focus in the report are affected by ‘bonding’ arrangements, particularly those who earned doctorates abroad with government scholarship funding.

Some of the ‘bonding’ conditions only allow young researchers to spend time in a ‘top 100’ in the world university, which reduces opportunities for mobility within the ASEAN countries compared to high-performing countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Japan, the report found.

Often researchers are forced to return home during the early part of their research career, where they may not receive adequate training and develop the skills required to contribute to science and research on a global level and, at the same time, be responsive to national and regional challenges in Asia.