Asia-Pacific Analysis: ASEAN looks to science for boost
- In 2015, South-East Asian nations will formally launch the ASEAN Community
- Science and technology will be a key factor in achieving the integration’s goals
- Leaders cite the importance of cooperation in advancing science and technology
ASEAN was founded on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand following the signing of the Bangkok Declaration. They were joined by Brunei Darussalam on 7 January 1984, Vietnam on 28 July 1995, Laos and Myanmar on 23 July 1997 and Cambodia on 30 April 1999.
In 1997, on the 30th anniversary of ASEAN’s foundation, member countries signed the Bali Concord II adopting ASEAN Vision 2020 which calls for greater integration.
Science in ASEAN Community
What does the formation of the integrated AEC mean for the development of science and technology in the region?
The main driver for the ASEAN integration is of economic interest — to transform the region into a highly competitive single market much like the European model.
Towards this end, ASEAN leaders have recognised the crucial role of science and technology “as a key factor in sustaining economic growth, enhancing community wellbeing and promoting integration in ASEAN (countries)” 
ASEAN leaders are conscious of common challenges such as infectious diseases, natural calamities and environmental disasters that are felt across national boundaries. They realise that solutions to these problems, seen as key to sustaining growth, do not rest on any individual country.
ASEAN science will have to become world class and globally competitive to meet these challenges. In the words of the ASEAN science ministers, science in the region will have to be “competent in strategic and enabling technologies, with an adequate pool of technologically qualified and trained manpower, and strong networks of scientific and technological institutions and centres of excellence”. 
Science ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’
In short, ASEAN will have to climb the technology ladder — not an easy task for a heterogeneous group with different levels of science and technology capability. Its greatest challenge is how to bridge the divide between the science ‘haves’ and the science ‘have nots’.
In the region, only three countries (Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) may be considered the science haves, while the other seven are the have nots.
According to an innovation and competitiveness ranking by Swiss-Korean consulting firm SolAbility in 2013, Singapore ranks first in Asia, followed by South Korea. Japan is number four, China, 11th, and only two other South-East Asian countries are in the top 50: Malaysia, 40th, and Thailand, 47th.
The key to advancing science and technology in the region is cooperation. The region’s science haves must help the have nots develop their science and technology capabilities.
It seems that the ASEAN countries are up to the challenge. In the past decade, ASEAN ministers of science and technology and their high-level science committees have been meeting every year, doing their homework in preparation for launching the ASEAN Community next year.
For example, to ensure harmonised competition and collaboration relevant to the goals set by ASEAN leaders, action plans in science and technology have been developed since the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology was established in 1978.
The plans set guidelines for identifying and developing programmes to ensure coordination to strengthen the science and technology capabilities of the region.
The nine programme areas are (1) food science and technology, (2) biotechnology, (3) meteorology and geophysics, (4) marine science and technology, (5) non-conventional energy research, (6) microelectronics and information technology, (7) material science and technology, (8) space technology and applications, and (9) science and technology infrastructure and resources development. Within these are several flagship programs such as early warning system for disaster risk reduction and biofuels.
We will see intense competition in the years ahead among the ten countries to develop their own science and technology capabilities. This competition can be good if it is friendly and managed.
A good strategy would be to develop a regional science centre for excellence in each of the ASEAN countries, such as Singapore’s world-class Biopolis international research and development centre for biomedical sciences, which would collaborate with national science centres in the member countries.
Each regional centre should play on the strength of its host country and be in a field appropriate to it. For instance, it might be best to have an ASEAN regional science centre for excellence in coral reefs conservation in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest archipelago and is located in the heart of the Coral Triangle.
A regional science centre for excellence in climate change research might be established in the Philippines, which is the most vulnerable to environmental disasters among the ASEAN countries. The region’s science ministers have recognised the need to address the impact of climate change on socioeconomic development and the environment.
We are confident the region will succeed in its journey towards an ASEAN Community as member countries compete along the peaceful “ASEAN way”.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.