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[MANILA] Laos is one of the ten South-East Asian nations preparing to form a single market at the end of 2015. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community (AEC) is intended to boost regional growth by creating a common market that will enable the free flow of goods, services and skilled labour — including scientists — between member states.
As part of negotiations to create the AEC, member states recommended the research areas each plans to focus on. Although this work is ongoing, the Lao government is pushing to prioritise renewable energy and agriculture.
Laos remains one of the world’s least developed countries, as classified by the UN. While it is urbanising rapidly, two-thirds of people live in rural areas, making agriculture a key element of the economy. The nation is also one of the six countries through which the Mekong River passes, offering opportunities for hydroelectric power.
The making of MOST
Science development in Laos is driven by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).
While Silap Boupha, a director at the ministry, insists that R&D is important to Laos’s overall science and technology strategy, just 0.04 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) was spent on R&D in 2002 — the last time such data were collected.
Also, as of 2002, Laos had 37 researchers for every million people, the lowest proportion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The UNESCO Science Report 2010 found that Lao researchers published just 52 articles in scientific journals — the second-lowest proportion per capita of all ASEAN nations.
Nonetheless, MOST reached several landmarks this year. In late June, it staged the country’s first national science and technology summit, and in August staged the first-ever National Science Week.
On renewable energy, Boupha tells SciDev.Net the government will develop biomass, biofuel and wind energy with a view to deriving 30 per cent of national energy consumption from renewable sources by 2025.
He says one of the main points of the country’s five-year economic plan that runs to 2015 is “ensuring sustainable development by following the ‘green growth’ path and balancing economic development with social and cultural development and the protection of the natural environment”.
Hydroelectricity will also be a focus, he says, adding that the government hopes to develop small hydropower plants to provide electricity to 90 per cent of rural areas, up from the current 70 per cent, to promote “economic improvement and poverty reduction in remote rural areas”.
Poverty reduction is a pressing challenge for Laos. In 2012, World Bank research found that 30 per cent of its population were living on less than US$1.25 a day.
The bank sees hydropower and mining, which accounted for over 21 per cent of government revenue in 2013, as core drivers of the Laos economy. In June 2014, the World Bank agreed to provide Laos with an extra US$17.8 million in grants and credit as part of the bank‘s project to support capacity building in these sectors.
But any hydropower development that might affect other Mekong Basin countries is a contentious issue. A 2012 study found that “continued hydropower development will have a devastating impact on the livelihoods of millions of the basin’s inhabitants”. 
Loss of land
This predicted loss of arable land could undermine plans to invest in agricultural R&D. Agriculture accounts for 39 per cent of Laos’s GDP and employs 80 per cent of its labour force, according to the Asian Development Bank.
With this in mind, Laos has recommended that it should focus on initiatives including modernising agricultural production, creating value-added food and agricultural products, and improved management of natural resources, once the AEC is formed.
The focus on agriculture may even result in more scientists moving to Laos because there is an attractive pool of research funding for that sector in the country. Support worth US$30 million was announced for Laos agriculture last month by the World Bank and multilateral financing mechanism the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.