Sustaining Asean's science and technology future
January-March 2016
By: Allison Sonneveld

In the October-December 2015 edition of Strategic Review, David L Carden and Montira J Pongsiri rightly highlighted how science and technology can help address looming sustainability issues for the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Clearly, there is a need for greater science and technology collaboration throughout Southeast Asia, and Carden and Pongsiri illustrate the constructive role of the US Mission to Asean in addressing issues ranging from urban sustainability to air quality to fisheries management, all of which have important benefits for health and the environment in the region.

Yet it is surprising that Asean’s own mechanisms were not mentioned for their potential to contribute, especially given that it has a long history of interaction in science and technology, and an evolving agenda of relevant research priorities. Is this because Asean’s science and technology activities are not sustainable or able to deliver meaningful research outcomes?

Enduring science and technology coordination

Asean’s formal science and technology activities date back to the establishment of its Committee on Science and Technology (COST), which first convened in 1978. The high-level body is a focal point for coordinating regional interaction on science and technology and has responsibility for developing the Asean Plan of Action on Science and Technology (Apast), which guides collaboration.

Since the 1980s, the Asean Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology has brought together the grouping’s leaders and science and technology ministers to discuss issues of significance to Southeast Asia. Ministers have met informally since 2000. Non-member states such as China, the European Union, India and New Zealand also engage with Asean in varying capacities, although the establishment of the US Mission to Asean in 2010 as a culmination of decades of bilateral interaction is perhaps the most comprehensive in science and technology.

Contrary to what Carden and Pongsiri state, Asean does in fact have long-term planning initiatives in place that could help address regional sustainability. COST coordinates and funds several science and technology flagship programs that have aims in developing an early warning system for disaster risk reduction, building climate change resilience within Asean and reducing the incidence of infectious diseases in Southeast Asia.

The extant Apast, a strategic blueprint for the 2007-11 time frame (which was later extended to 2015), identifies several avenues of cooperation that address issues such as climate change, renewable energies, transboundary marine pollution and environmentally friendly materials development. The draft successor to Apast plans out to the year 2020 and is expected to be organized around the eight thematic tracks that were identified during the Krabi Initiative in 2010. These tracks include green technologies, food security, water management and biodiversity for health and wealth. The fact that the action plan’s scope is being revised to encompass innovation (with the new name ApastI) illustrates Asean’s capacity to champion a science and technology research agenda that, if needed, could one day be more focused on sustainability.

The changing scope of Asean’s science and technology priorities is linked to the launch of the Asean Economic Community at the end of 2015. Asean has flagged a desire for the region’s economies to be more focused on generating growth from higher-value activities and for members to “move up the technology ladder.” In August 2014, at the 8th Informal Asean Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology in Bogor, West Java Province, ministers agreed to a new vision that seeks to build “a Science, Technology and Innovation-enabled Asean which is innovative, competitive, vibrant, sustainable and economically integrated.”

This could essentially place an imperative on Asean to commercialize science and technology research, in the hope that the Southeast Asian region can develop new products, markets and industry clusters. It is not a new idea, considering that the European Commission has been operating a Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program for several years, which seeks to build ties among academia, industry and government.  However, Asean’s shifting science and technology research agenda could become problematic if it seeks to achieve goals in both commercialization and sustainability. The twin pursuits are not necessarily incompatible, but could confuse what is already a patchy implementation record, especially if not adequately resourced.

Implementing visible progress

It is encouraging that the US Mission to Asean, through its assistance, is providing useful tools that can support policy makers in making informed decisions, as part of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to the Asia Pacific. After all, the mission’s stated objective is “to advance US interests in a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Southeast Asia.”

Yet is it not always obvious how well Asean’s own science and technology projects have progressed over time. Take its flagship projects, for instance. Some, such as the Asean Science and Technology Week, are high-profile events that showcase research to the region and help build networks. Others are seldom communicated or struggle to meet their goals.

Other than being identified in an action plan in 2007, many of Asean’s research activities are not visible. A ministers’ meeting in 2011 in Ho Chi Minh City gave a favorable update, with 11 projects having been completed, 23 implemented and 33 under appraisal. But there have been few details about the aims of these projects, their link to the flagship projects or their specific findings, which could be of great value to the region.

Asean’s biofuels flagship, which has a worthy aim of shifting regional fossil fuel consumption toward biofuels, does not appear to have made much progress at all. Its primary aim to secure 5 percent of the region’s transportation market by 2015 had not been met as of Strategic Review’s press time, and only planning for strategy, a research and development framework and methods had been completed. In fact, despite commencing in 2011, the majority of the flagship’s activities are still ongoing.

Asean plainly needs to improve its communication and resourcing of its science and technology activities. Currently, information is only spread through the Secretariat’s website; the Asean Science and Technology Network Website (Astnet); ad hoc file uploads on the government websites of member states; and other official web pages. It would be far more beneficial to have Asean-related science and technology documentation on a single website, which would be a welcome resource for researchers to network and collaborate.

Astnet is an ideal platform for hosting this information. Originally raised as a flagship in 1997, Astnet was created to collate resources on Asean’s science and technology projects and COST administration, and in doing so foster continuing education, technology transfer and competitive research and development. Prior to late 2015, the website linked to Asean databases and publications and contained a forum for discussing COST and subcommittee matters.

The problem is that Astnet has not been adequately supported. It was not until 2005 that the website was established and, despite encouraging statements about its value through Apast, has generally not been maintained over time. In recent months, its forum was empty of users, its most recent news announcement was in 2009 and its links to the Asean Science and Technology Journal were out of date.

There is cause for optimism about the website’s future, as its content and design was recently updated. Although Asean’s historical science and technology documentation has now been scrubbed in favor of more recent meeting outcomes, the Secretariat appears to be committed to reinvigorating Asean’s online science and technology presence.

Funding successful solutions

Of course, these projects require that resources are effective. The Asean Science Fund (ASF) is the grouping’s main mechanism here, though many other opportunities exist bilaterally through initiatives such as the Asean-US Science and Technology Fellowship and the Asean-India Science and Technology Fund.

The ASF is generally used to finance COST, its subcommittees and research projects. It has successfully reached its target of around $11 million, predominantly through member contributions. Unfortunately, this is not a sizeable amount when considering the 119.9 million euros ($127 million) that the European Union allocates to the FET Flagship initiative, or even the $480 million that China pledged to Asean to reduce poverty in 2014. But while the ASF is small by these standards, Asean has recently started looking to the private sector and dialogue partners for additional support.

Asean, of course, has its own goals as a regional entity that are distinct from those of the European Union. Yet it is still worth recognizing that funding is only one component of a successful research program and does not automatically guarantee success. The Human Brain Project, one of the European Union’s flagships, encountered public controversy as its original objectives in experimental neuroscience became sidelined in favor of computer brain simulation. Likewise, its Graphene Flagship has struggled to identify commercially viable applications for its research findings.

Should Asean decide to award these kinds of competitive grants (and this is possible given that in 2012 leaders agreed to establish an Asean Innovation Fund to support projects in line with ApastI), it will also be critical to ensure quality. Some 60 percent of the submissions to the European Union’s FET Open program, for instance, are reportedly of substandard quality, although that is partly owing to the flexible guidelines used to encourage multidisciplinary submissions.

The outlook

It is perhaps too early to tell how Asean will draw on its science and technology programs in the future, but continued US capacity-building will definitely help Southeast Asia develop evidence-based resources to address shared regional issues. Science and technology tends to be a safer and less sensitive area for interaction, especially at a time when the region is facing transboundary tensions that are difficult to address.

Collaboration can contribute to a positive and sustainable future for Southeast Asia, although the best solutions will be ones that are resourced, visible and entrenched within existing Asean mechanisms. This way, as Cardin and Pongsiri argue, we can see Asean building informed Asean solutions.


Allison Sonneveld is a research officer with the Australian Army. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, or the Australian government and Department of Defense. 

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