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  • What will keep Vietnamese researchers at home?

Will Vietnam's science stipends be enough to keep scientists at home or will corruption, entrenched hierarchies and poor facilities prevail, asks Mike Ives?

[HANOI] When Pham Van Cuong returned to Vietnam in 2004 after earning a PhD in Japan, he was happy to get his job back at Hanoi University of Agriculture. The only problem? His monthly US$200 salary (the countrywide average for Vietnamese scientists) was not enough to support his family.

Like his colleagues, he began supplementing his basic salary with consultancy projects and additional teaching. But, while that extra work helped pay his bills, he says it also encroached upon valuable research time.

Seven years later, Cuong now earns an extra monthly US$300 research stipend from Vietnam's National Foundation for Science and Technology Development (NAFOSTED), a two-year-old government agency that has spent US$33 million investing in research since 2009. Its stipulation is that researchers publish in international journals.

The young agency is trying to reward talented Vietnamese researchers and encourage them to conduct world-class research in Vietnam rather than in countries with more advanced research facilities. But corruption and a deeply embedded hierarchy within Vietnamese universities, as well as limited funding, could prevent this effort from significantly reforming Vietnam's science sector.

A few hundred extra

Cuong is one of about 2,000 Vietnamese scientists who have received NAFOSTED stipends since 2009, says Phan Hong Son, the new foundation's executive director. Together, they represent about six per cent of all full-time scientists in Vietnam. Average monthly stipends begin at US$150, says Son, and approximately 400 of the 2,000 scientists are 'principal investigators' whose monthly stipends can reach US$800.

Cuong told SciDev.Net that his NAFOSTED stipend, along with a separate grant, takes his monthly salary to US$700, and makes him more professionally productive and financially secure.

Vietnamese scientists are very happy about what we're doing, says Son. They are grateful for the financial security and recognise the increased contribution to international science, he says.

Is increasing the funding enough?

But simply increasing funding will not fix endemic problems in Vietnam's research environment, says Eren Zink, an American PhD candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University in Sweden, who studies the politics of science in Vietnam.

Zink says that powerful hierarchies within university departments constrain younger scientists from pursuing ambitious research projects.

Younger Vietnamese scientists are often more qualified to win internationally oriented research grants, says Zink, who has interviewed about 40 Vietnamese scientists for his doctoral dissertation. But in Vietnam, it's not acceptable for very junior people to earn more than their senior colleagues, so older scientists discourage younger colleagues from building research teams based upon scientific competence.

Younger researchers submit to the pressure because it is necessary if they wish to keep their job and support their family, Zink told SciDev.Net, adding that most Vietnamese researchers work at universities not for money but for the stamp of legitimacy that academic affiliation conveys to prospective international donors, as well as the possibility that their supervisors will send them abroad for training.

Phan Hong Son agrees in part, but says that Vietnam's new science foundation, which was modelled on the Swiss National Science Foundation, aims to help young researchers break into such hierarchies and conduct research in Vietnam rather than seek higher salaries and better-quality research facilities abroad.

Before, it was very hard for young scientists, even if they were smart, [to get research funding in Vietnam], Son told SciDev.Net during an interview in his Hanoi office. But now it's different because NAFOSTED is equal opportunity: we're interested in the scientific quality of proposals and the ability of the applicants, he says.

But Zink remains sceptical, telling SciDev.Net that funding awarded on the basis of merit is likely to be redirected within the social and kinship networks of Vietnamese universities. Vietnam's research environment is corrupt, he says, reporting that Vietnamese scientists say they are expected to return a large part of their research grants through unofficial payments within these networks typically up to 30 per cent.

The civil servant culture

NAFOSTED comes at the end of a four-year lobbying process started by Hoang Van Phong, the minister at Vietnam's Ministry of Science and Technology. Phong's initial 2006 proposal, to raise domestic scientists' monthly salaries to US$1,000, was too controversial within government circles, Son recalled, because other agencies did not think scientists, as civil servants, deserved special treatment.

In 2008, Vietnam's Ministry of Education and Training requested US$4 million from the Department of Science, Education, Culture and Social Affairs to kick-start a proposed US$80 million programme designed to lure expatriate Vietnamese scientists home. But this failed too. According to Son, the programme was just as controversial as the 2006 proposal because scientists, as government employees, would normally have their salaries set according to seniority and rank by Vietnam's Ministry of Internal Affairs or Ministry of Finance.

Empowering scientists in South-East Asia

Neighbouring China has had more success in bringing researchers home. Government programmes brought more than 4,000 scientists back between 1994 and 2009. China last year announced a plan to give returning scientists five-year start-up packages, including US$146,000 annual salaries and access to modern research equipment.

Vietnam's science reforms are part of a regional trend to empower scientists in South-East Asia, says Jrg Pfister, secretary general of the Swiss Academy of Sciences, who was a consultant to the Vietnamese government on science reform between 2000 and 2007.

Pfister says that while South-East Asian countries have typically pursued a top down approach to scientific funding, leaders across the region have begun to grant scientists and science foundations more autonomy to set national research priorities.

Many [South-East Asian] countries used to be developing countries with a weak scientific base and a vulnerable science environment and infrastructure, Pfister says. That's started gradually to change; several of these countries have a less vulnerable scientific infrastructure than they did ten years ago.

Vietnamese authorities have been slow to reform their science sector, says Pfister. But they were working from scratch.

Son says NAFOSTED follows examples set by Malaysia and Thailand. Malaysia's Science Fund gives domestic scientists up to US$900 in monthly research stipends for up to two years of research focused on communications, biotechnology and other fields. And, between 2007 and 2011, Thailand's 18-year-old national research fund will have given US$45 million to Thai PhD candidates.

Yet even Vietnamese scientists with NAFOSTED stipends are not guaranteed a living wage in the medium or long term. Cuong says that, when his NAFOSTED grant ends, he may need to search for short-term consulting or teaching work in order to make ends meet.

Lucky few

And clearly not everybody can benefit from the NAFOSTED scheme, even in the short term. This year's NAFOSTED budget was US$20 million just four per cent of Vietnam's total US$500 million science budget.

The majority of scientists are still struggling even to find time for research, says Phuong Nguyen, Vietnam country director at the Vietnam Education Foundation, which promotes educational exchanges between Vietnam and the United States.

Salary is the main issue that prohibits faculty from devoting themselves to research, because they have to moonlight a lot to earn a living, she says. Some private institutions in Vietnam pay more viable salaries than the government does, but the effort varies from institution to institution.

Hoang Tung, a biotechnology professor at Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City, claims that his university's salary policy, which pays professors with master's degrees US$500 and those with PhDs US$1,000 per month, is unique in Vietnam.

Bureaucracy and infrastructure

In addition to low salaries, bureaucracy and infrastructure also cause problems. [Vietnamese] scientists probably spend at least 50 per cent of their time dealing with paperwork, thus their productivity is low and very soon the scientists lose interest [in research] simply because they are too tired, says Tung.

And Cuong points out that some of his friends at other Vietnamese universities are not even qualified to apply for NAFOSTED research stipends because their laboratories cannot support international-quality research.

But Son is looking ahead. NAFOSTED's success will be judged on how many young scientists it helps and how many publications in international journals it has supported. International publications have doubled in number since the beginning of the scheme, he says.

And, while the foundation has only limited funds for equipment, it is planning to launch a funding stream to create centres of excellence. These will have more scope for investing in infrastructure.

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