Research collaborations between Europe and South-East Asia are increasing, but critics say regional initiatives must start producing practical outcomes.
[BRUSSELS] Scientific collaboration between South-East Asia and the European Union (EU) has soared over the last decade, especially on joint societal challenges, and looks set to continue.
New data and endorsement of further scientific collaboration between ten countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the 27 member states of the EU were presented at the ASEAN-EU Year of Science, Technology and Innovation 2012 closing event in Brussels this week (11-12 December).
- Scientific collaborations between Europe and South-East Asia are on the up, conference hears
- This trend looks set to continue, with the ASEAN playing a major role in the EU's research programmes
- Experts say regional-level cooperation should move 'from dialogue to action'
"We aim to increase our international collaboration," the EU deputy director-general for research and innovation, Anneli Pauli, said at the event. "Cooperation with regional blocks and countries is also a key feature of our strategy and, in this context, I can say ASEAN is a special case."
The two regions are home to one sixth of the world's population and are major trade partners, with the EU providing the largest amount of direct foreign investment to ASEAN countries. In addition, the EU is now the top collaborator in science for most of the ASEAN countries, ahead of other traditional partners, China, Japan and the United States.
The director-general of the EU's Directorate-General for Research & Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, said the EU's new research framework, Horizon 2020, will be even more open to international collaboration than previous ones and that ASEAN is a "preferred partner".
The year-long celebration of science ties was part of a wider research networking project, SEA-EU-NET, which was funded by the EU's FP7 research framework and ran between 2008 and 2012. The project aimed to expand collaborations in a "more strategic and coherent manner" and has involved more than 20 science institutions.
The network was deemed a success and is set for another four years of EU funding, as SEA-EU-NET 2, which will focus on research in food, health and water.
Soaring collaboration: the facts
The recent data show that the number of publications produced by ASEAN and the EU in collaboration has more than doubled over the last decade.
"The participation of ASEAN is also increasing in the European framework programmes," Alexander Degelsegger, a researcher and project manager at the Centre for Social Innovation, in Vienna, Austria, who presented the data, told SciDev.Net at the conference.
"The bilateral programmes and mobility are increasing, the European research area is growing and, above all, ASEAN output is growing, as well."
There are currently more than 190 participants from ASEAN in FP7, and they receive almost €24 million (around US$31 million) in funding, according to Pauli.
The next stage of the SEA-EU-NET project should move from dialogue to action
These participants mainly work in the areas of agriculture, fisheries, biotechnology and health, most of them coming from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, but Brunei and Myanmar each have only a single participant.
Degelsegger's research also pinpoints which institutions have the most co-publications in the fields of agriculture, biotechnology and food, showing that top collaborators and those with fewer collaborations both share some of the same research partners — knowledge that may help build more effective networks in the future.
"They can benefit from these networks that are already established and from the international partners they already have," Degelsegger told SciDev.Net.
Words of caution: 'tune the piano, but then play it'
But there were also words of caution voiced at the meeting.
The second stage of the SEA-EU-NET project should not just be "more of the same", but must lead to more intensive research collaborations, according to Maximilian Metzger, deputy director-general of international cooperation in education and research at the German science ministry.
He likened the network to playing a piano.
"You have to tune a piano, otherwise it doesn't sound good," he told SciDev.Net. But, he added, there is no point in tuning it over and over again, without playing it. "My message is: tune it once and then start playing — even if it's not perfectly tuned."
There was a risk that "all these dialogue platforms" just end up perpetuating the dialogue, Metzger said, adding that dialogue should "lead to action" and that the next stage should "start joint projects".
"Why not put money together, earmark budgets for that?" he asked.
Metzger said that, as bilateral science collaborations between the nations work well already, such projects should explore what value a region-to-region ASEAN-EU collaboration can add to that, with concrete new actions starting immediately, rather than waiting for all ASEAN countries to reach the same level of development.
He added that a method for the richer ASEAN countries to support the poorer ones should also be considered.
"We have mechanisms in the EU, where the richer countries contribute to the development of the poorer ones. Why not [have that] in the ASEAN?"
Increasing industry participation and mobility
Ahmad b. Ibrahim, senior advisor for Malaysia at Fraunhofer, Europe's largest application-oriented research organisation, agreed with Metzger. He added that there should be more effort to promote research and development (R&D) within the industries in the region.
"One of the challenges [in the region] is to get industry to really embrace science," he said. "Many of our industries don't go into innovation.
"In Malaysia, for example, we have many EU investments, industries, businesses. Why can't we link the innovating research in Europe with its counterpart in Malaysia and decide on joint projects between the EU and Malaysian businesses?"
Another challenge highlighted at the meeting was the lack of two-way mobility of researchers between the two regions.
For example, more than 130 scientists from ASEAN came to the EU on Marie Curie Action grants, whereas just one scientist went from the EU to ASEAN. Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, some delegates suggested this might not change until ASEAN institutions make it more attractive for EU scientists to come and work there.
See below for a video about SEA-EU-NET: