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  • Life as a scientist in South-East Asia


From Cambodia to Singapore, Shiow Chin Tan finds the situation for scientists varies enormously across South-East Asia.

Irrigation innovations, climate change impacts, flu epidemics, rice research, neglected diseases, biofuels — South-East Asian scientists are not short of challenges, so why isn't science always a popular career choice?

When I travelled around the region, as part of my IDRCSciDev.Net Science Journalism Award, I found a huge range of attitudes towards science. One of the most common problems for scientists was money.

Poor pay

For example in Cambodia, Chan Roath, director of the Department of Research in the Ministry of Education, said that a government researcher's salary does not even cover basic expenses.

"The government staff salary cannot support a family. Most scientists have to take up a second job to help make a living," he said.

For many Cambodian scientists, including Chan Roath himself, this second job is teaching general science at one of the many private colleges that have sprung up in Phnom Penh. 

Others do consultancies on the side. About five per cent are fortunate enough to work directly with international agencies, which pay much better salaries.

In the Philippines, where earning a living as a scientist is not as acute a problem as in Cambodia, many still shy away from research careers because they do not pay as well as a job in other fields.

The same situation occurs in Malaysia. One senior lecturer at a public university said that most of his promising Masters students prefer to look for a private sector job rather than pursuing a PhD.

"I have to lure them with a research assistant position, which comes with pay, and even then I still have to persuade them to continue their studies," he said, explaining "many graduates simply want to start earning money as soon as possible".Clearly, scientists are highly thought of here. That, in itself, must surely be part of the reason for Singapore's success.

In the Philippines, many still shy away from research careers

Flickr/IRRI Images

Studying costs money

And it can be expensive to study. Ruby Cristobal, an officer with the Science Education Institute (SEI) in the Philippines' Department of Science and Technology, pointed to a 2003 study revealing that lots of interest in science and mathematics among high school students had not translated into college entries.

One reason, she said, is the higher cost of taking up a science course in college. In an effort to address this issue, the government has provided about 200 million Philippine pesos (US$4.1 million) for science and technology scholarships since 2007.

Yet even with full scholarships provided, Alice Asuncion, SEI scholarship and training division chief, said uptake has been poor.

"The applicants look at the money. For example, our physics BSc scholarship was undersubscribed, but when we increased the monthly stipend last year we suddenly had a lot of applicants."

Lack of resources

But salary is only part of the problem. Science resources are also in short supply.

In Cambodia, the deficiency is so acute that science undergraduates at the Royal University of Phnom Penh are taught only theory — there is barely enough in the budget to run one laboratory per department of the university's science faculty.

Hang Chan Thon, dean of the science faculty, said that promising undergraduates have to be sent on scholarships to Thailand to obtain practical laboratory experience and to learn how to conduct proper research.

"There is not a lot of research in science because of a lack of resources. Labs are too expensive to maintain, and we also lack human resources, especially PhDs," he said.

And he cites himself as an example. Even though he is dean of the science faculty, he holds only a Masters degree from Vietnam.

Larry Strange, director of the Cambodia Development Research Institute, agrees, saying:

"There is not yet a strong culture of research here. The universities have good people, but very poor resources and very limited experience in designing and implementing experiments."

He says that the private sector is responsible for most science and technology development.

Brain drain

Back in the Philippines, the island archipelago famous for its globally mobile citizens, brain drain is a constant problem.

Jaime Montoya, president of the National Research Council of the Philippines, told SciDev.Net that the government considers science and technology so important that two years ago it set up a congressional committee to look into what is holding it back.

"One of the reasons the committee was set up was that we have lost significant regional and global competitiveness in the field of science and technology — we are losing many of our active scientists and researchers to other countries," he said.

The government understands the need to create an enabling environment for scientists and keep them at home, he said, noting that there are programmes to bring back prominent scientists who have established themselves abroad to share their expertise and help train local scientists.

The Philippine government is trying to keep scientists at home

Flickr/IRRI Images

Thais prefer poetry

Nurturing good scientists also weighs on the mind of Sakarindr Bhumiratana, president of Thailand's National Science and Technology Development Agency.

Thais are better at producing artists and poets than scientists and researchers, he said, explaining: "One of the reasons is that we do not invest enough in science and technology infrastructure. Awareness of its importance is still very low among the general public and we need to invest more in increasing this awareness".

Bhumiratana added that the need to generate indigenous know-how is not politically obvious because Thailand is doing well commercially and can import the necessary knowledge. "But we need to generate our own knowledge to be competitive globally," he said.

The lack of a strong government in the last couple of years may have made it difficult to set a strong political lead for science and technology, but Bhumiratana is glad of one thing: national investment in research has at least remained steady at around 0.26 per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP) for the last decade.

"We wish it would double in relation to the GDP, but it is good that it has at least been maintained," he said.   

Success in Singapore

At the other end of the spectrum is the advanced city-state of Singapore.

With few natural resources, and unable to offer a cheap labour base, this small country is keenly aware that its global competitiveness lies in intellect and innovation.

With that in mind, the government committed more than 13 billion Singapore dollars (US$8.9 billion) to [science and technology] for 2006–2010, and gross expenditure on research and development reached 2.6 per cent of GDP in 2007.

Biopolis and Fusionopolis, two self-contained complexes designed to foster collaboration between scientists from different disciplines, are examples of the nation's forward-thinking.

Fusionopolis aims to foster multidisciplinary collaboration between scientists


Biopolis focuses on biological sciences, while Fusionopolis caters for material and physical sciences, as well as information and communication technologies.

Both complexes offer recreational as well as scientific facilities, with pubs, restaurants and greenery. Fusionopolis has serviced apartments, a shopping complex and even its very own station on Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system, so researchers can live and work within the complex.

According to Nur Sahara Mohamed Sadik, assistant head of corporate communications for Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), the idea is to create a "work-live-play-learn environment" that lets researchers relax and mingle, in the hope of sparking new and creative ideas across scientific disciplines.

She added that part of the aim is to attract the best brains from around the world to work in Singapore and contribute to its knowledge growth.

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