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[MANILA] The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will seek private funding to help strengthen scientific training across the region through its Virtual Institute of Science and Technology.

Science and technology ministers from ASEAN members made the decision at their 3rd informal ministerial meeting, held in Tagaytay City, the Philippines on 26 November.

At the meeting, Indonesia's minister for research and technology, Kusmayanto Kadiman, said that although the institute is an "exciting" project, its sustainability is an issue. He said that maintaining the pilot courses and expanding the institute's operations would require considerable funding.

Initial funding for the institute came from the ASEAN Foundation and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. But according to Kanchana Kanchanasut, the institute's executive director, funds are running low.

The project, which was launched in May 2004, will allow universities in ASEAN countries to provide science and technology courses over the Internet. Students and teachers will communicate in 'virtual classrooms' using interactive voice and video programmes.

The institute could play a big role in building a knowledge-based economy, but would succeed only if the ASEAN members work together and actively seek sources of support, said Estrella Alabastro, secretary for science and technology of the Philippines.

At last month's meeting, the ministers agreed to allocate US$15,000 from ASEAN's science fund to help set up the pilot stage. As a result of this boost, the institute is expected to open in January 2005.

The delegates also agreed to invite key business leaders to cooperate on the institute during the 7th ASEAN Science and Technology Week due to take place in August 2005 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Korn Thapparansi, the Thai minister of science and technology, said ASEAN members should specifically target information technology companies when seeking private sector support for the institute.

Alabastro suggested attracting external support by emphasising that the courses will address the needs of industry and business. She also recommended identifying what the courses need in order to become effective educational tools.

A study by the ASEAN committee on science and technology determined that pilot courses on bioinformatics, sustainable ecotourism, and technology and innovation management would be most relevant to the needs of the region.

The ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.