Economic growth, political stability fuel research rise

Regional growth and more political stability in the Asia region, allowing for greater investment in education and research, have reduced brain drain of researchers and academics and led to a rapid rise in research output from South and East Asia.

From 12,000 papers annually, research output in the region increased tenfold since 2000, accounting for 8% of global publications, says the Global Research Report – South and East Asia by the Web of Science’s Institute for Scientific Information (ISI). It notes there is still “unused potential” in the region’s research base.

The region has enormous resources, and vast potential for innovation and achievement, but Asian nations cannot afford to under-invest in scientific and technological education and research – they need to devote resources to research to keep pace with other nations that are expanding their research economies, said the report released on 3 October.

It looks at research in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

India led regional research producers with 75,000 papers per year. Singapore, Pakistan, Malaysia and Thailand followed, each with more than 5,000 publications per year – this is double the research output over the past decade. Vietnam emerges with the fastest research publications’ growth in the region. It has increased its indexed publication volume more than five-fold since 2009.

Factors behind research growth

Several factors have led to research growth in South and East Asia from 2000, said Jonathan Adams, director of the Institute for Scientific Information and co-author of the report.

As the region has become much more stable, combined with economic growth, it has enabled greater investment in education and other public services, and the expanding higher education environment has encouraged talented researchers to return and to stay within Asia, rather than moving to universities elsewhere, Adams explained.

“As economies expand, so governments can afford to look at factors like innovation investment that increase their competitiveness, so that results in a very healthy beneficial spiral upwards,” he told University World News.

Research growth has, however, slowed down in Thailand, the second-largest economy in the region.

The reasons are unclear but political instability and economic uncertainty must play a role, said Adams, adding that the level of investment in research and development (R&D) has not been sustained – and there is weak private-sector demand for skills and innovation.

Pakistan has one of the lowest levels in the region of gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) – 0.25% as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product.

Medium-sized research economies like Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka reached 1,000-5,000 papers per year. Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei have fewer than 500 papers per year.

While the data demonstrates the extent of research development across the region, it also reflects the disparities between population, wealth and research intensity and shows unrealised potential for further development in many areas, the report noted.

“That development must drive the infrastructure for higher education and research that is expected to lead to sustained growth in national knowledge capacity, reduce dependency on international partnerships and underpin technology innovation and economic competitiveness,” said the report.

To fully exploit the benefits of research growth in South and East Asia, the report recommends bridging the gap between economic development and research performance and investing in people, as the relative number of researchers in the workforce is still very small for many South and East Asian countries, and that must be linked to funding and development for higher education.

Universities in the region must be freed to pursue their own programmes of thought and innovation, the report added.

The innovative potential of every region (globally) is huge because of untapped numbers of talented people, Adams said, but South and East Asia has the advantage of nearby examples in the Asia-Pacific and of support from those neighbours, especially China, which is said in the report to be both “more tangible and more sustained” than the historical aid-based relationships with Europe and the United States.

Collaborations are important

Different levels and nature of collaborations also play a role in the research output a country generates, the report revealed.

There are a high number of international programmes and major international projects – notably in health, the environment and natural resources, and physics – and partly shaped by the nature of contemporary research challenges that need to draw on global expertise. The downside of international collaboration has been less than average domestic collaborations.

In February 2019, an unrelated report on research in South Asia by the World Bank and academic publisher Elsevier dwelt on how collaboration was shaping the research environment in the region.

In the report, South Asia: Challenges and benefits of research collaboration in a diverse region, India’s dominance shines through, garnering 88% of global scholarly output.

However, with under 20% of South Asian publications the product of international collaboration, India’s relatively low rate of international research collaboration pulls down the regional average.

As hinted by the ISI report, among South Asian countries, research output size appears to be inversely correlated with the frequency of international collaboration – countries with the smallest research bases are most likely to leverage international networks.

In all South Asian countries, most international collaborations include at least one researcher outside the region. The intra-regional collaboration is very low.

The overall citation impact of South Asian research was below the global average, and the citation impact of research produced in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and the Maldives exceeds the global average.

These countries compensate for their limited research bases by participating in large-scale collaborative projects, such as hyper-collaborated physics papers and internationally relevant medical research, including clinical guidelines, World Health Organization studies and publications resulting from the Global Burden of Disease worldwide epidemiological study.

A lack of a unified collaboration framework, with institutions in each country using different, independent systems to establish academic and scientific partnerships, was identified as one of the challenges for collaboration.

At just 1.3% of South Asia’s scholarly output are collaborations between academic institutions and the private sector; it is roughly half the global average. This has translated to fewer patent citations than the world average.

The region needs to enhance the quality of research collaboration by developing competitive funding mechanisms, with the aim of strengthening peer review processes and building the capacity of regional scholars, the report suggested.