Why SEA hosts very few ‘influential scientific minds’

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Speed read

  • Thomson Reuters list is a who’s who of the most impactful science researchers
  • Singapore’s all-out support for research offers a good recipe for success
  • Providing a competitive research environment can woo researchers back home

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[KUALA LUMPUR] With the latest report of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds in 2014 comes the realisation that out of more than 3,000 names on the list, only a handful are from South-East Asia.
Released on 18 June by the media firm Thomson Reuters, the report recognises “Highly Cited Researchers” from 21 fields of science and the social sciences who have published the highest number of articles that rank among the top one per cent most cited for their subject field and year of publication from 2002 to 2012.
“By analysing these citation connections, one can identify the most impactful people, publications, programs, and more. The listings in Highly Cited Researchers truly reflect positive assessment by peers,” said Gordon Macomber, managing director of Thomson Reuters Scholarly and Scientific Research.
Validation of good work
Several countries in South-East Asia celebrated the inclusion of some of their leading scientists in the list.
Among those in the list is Yan Shuicheng, an electrical and computer engineering associate professor from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Yan considers his inclusion a “good milestone” for his researches in the past decade.
“To be on the list means that the researcher is research-excellent in both quality and quantity,” Yan tells SciDev.Net. “When many researchers from one country are on such a list, it indicates that the country has an established research culture and has gained a good reputation internationally.”
Abdul Latif Ahmad, a chemical engineering professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia who is also in the list, agrees: “Being on the list is an honour, which shows that one’s research is relevant and competitive”.
“As a researcher and academician, disseminating and sharing our knowledge with others is very important,” Abdul Latif says, adding that he is “personally very satisfied” that his research findings have benefited others.
Similarly, Saidur Rahman Abdul Hakim, a mechanical engineering professor from the Universiti Malaya in Malaysia, says that his inclusion in the list is “strong motivation” for him to reach greater heights in research.
However, such celebration has been tempered with the fact that only 22 scientists are from the region — which represents less than 1 per cent of the total scientists. If Singapore, with 14 scientists on the list, is taken out of the equation, the nine other member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) just have 8 scientists on the list. In fact, only Indonesia (4), Malaysia (3) and Vietnam (1) have scientists on the list, which means six other countries have none.
What are the factors behind the low number of scientists from the South-East Asian region? And what gives Singapore an edge over its neighbours?
Recipe for success
Certain criteria are necessary for a country to have good research output. “Having the necessary talent, sufficient research funding, good facilities and infrastructure, and established research institutes are all crucial in encouraging and maintaining a robust research culture,” says Abdul Latif.
“On top of that, countries should find ways to accommodate their talent, so that there won't be much 'brain drain',” Abdul Latif adds. He notes that opportunities for wider networking and research collaboration abroad to encourage joint publications, supervision and research funding are all motivators to nurture and attract researchers.
For a success story close to home, South-East Asia can look to Singapore, which currently leads the region in science and research. In the past years, the country has transformed into a hub of sorts for researchers all over the world.
One reason lies in “starting them young,” Yan says. “Singapore provides very good opportunities for junior faculties, which I think is very important in nurturing young researchers.” Yan himself was awarded the 2011 Singapore Young Scientist Award and the 2012 NUS Young Researcher Award.
Abdul Latif adds that the Singaporean government is willing to spend on importing good academic faculties from abroad. This leads to a substantial percentage of researchers based in the country, which adds up to the “brain gain” of Singapore.
Ronald Mendoza, associate economics professor at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in the Philippines, acknowledges Singapore’s unique position in the region, noting its “strong public policies to support research and development”.
“But due to other more demanding issues such as poverty or political instability, research is often not given top priority. This translates into a lower allocation for research funding,” Abdul Latif notes.
Although Malaysia fares better than its neighbouring countries with regards to research funding, Abdul Latif says the availability of funds remains one of the main challenges in conducting research.
Additionally, Saidur Rahman underscores the need for long-term sustainable research policy and good research opportunities. Like Yan, he agrees that grooming young scientists is important for long-term research success.
“However, many researchers here who are looking to mentor young scientists sometimes find it difficult to identify suitable potential students because the students are not equipped with the necessary skills,” Saidur Rahman says. He suggests that more seminars and workshops on scientific writing could be a solution.
Inadequate incentives and non-recognition of researchers also prove detrimental to research growth. As Abdul Latif notes, “Not much appreciation is being given to top scientists compared to those who pursue career paths in sports or entertainment.”
Not built in a day
Although it seems that research in the region is not making ripples in the international scientific world, Yan points out that South-East Asia is nevertheless making strides in its research efforts.
“It requires more time,” he says. “If we check the figures, the number of researchers cited for this region has increased a lot compared with the previous list in 2001.” Singapore had only three researchers cited in the 2001 list.
It should also be noted that studies with a local slant will unlikely create much excitement internationally, even if they have impactful applications.
For instance, angle-closure glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness, but it disproportionately affects mostly Asians, says Yan.  Thus, medical imaging analysis research for glaucoma usually does not make international headlines unlike research in genomics, which the Thomson Reuters report said was the “hottest” field of study in 2012.
Greener pastures abroad
The Thomson Reuters report lists researchers not under their home country but based on their affiliated research and academic institutes. An example: Vietnamese media reported that three Vietnamese researchers made it on the list. But only one name is listed under Vietnam since the other two researchers, who are based in universities in the United States, were listed under USA.
On the other hand, it is not likely that these researchers would have had access to the same infrastructure, funding and collaborative opportunities if they were to remain in their home country.
“These Vietnamese researchers are among the best talent the country has, but if they had remained in Vietnam, they might not have made it on the list,” Abdul Latif notes.
He adds that the working environment abroad is often more competitive. Researchers have to work harder to maintain good quality output and productivity, he says.
But despite such “brain drain”, Mendoza thinks that experience abroad can also translate into more competitive researchers. “In a way, international experience is part of strengthening human capital,” he tells SciDev.Net.
Perhaps, when a researcher’s home country can offer a more competitive research environment and provide enough incentives, it can woo these science researchers to return home.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.