Pivoting towards an Asia’s innovation century

R&DBy Eugene Sebastian

Australian universities have a huge role to play in helping Australia build effective relationships with Asia. If there is one significant opportunity to further strengthen Australia’s link with the region it is through the pursuit of research and innovation collaborations.

Traditionally, Australian universities have focused most of their research attention on Europe and North America. While these interactions continue to be important, they are being exceeded by newer partnerships predominately in Asia.

Economies such as China, India, Japan, Singapore and Korea understand that non-linear growth can only be achieved through technology and science. To back their strategy, they are investing substantially into research and taking steps to build scientific and economic linkages with global businesses. The Chinese university and research system in particular is fast improving in quality – with China now among the top handful of countries in the world in terms of its research output. Similarly, India is also on track to achieve like standing.

China rising

China has one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is an emerging research and innovation powerhouse. China’s economy is set to overtake the U.S. within the next three years. It already ranks second after the U.S. in spending on research and development (R&D) with over USD220 billion. Its R&D investments will surpass the U.S. in 10 years as it pursues its goal of spending 2.5% of GDP on R&D in 2020.

China already produces more science-based doctorate than those awarded at U.S. universities. It is also the second highest producer after the U.S. of research output in the world and could surpass the U.S. in 2013. China is already considered a global leader in many areas such as material science, chemistry and engineering.

Emerging India

Though India is behind China, its R&D landscape is fast improving. India already ranks as world’s leading exporter of information-technology services and ranks third after America and Japan in terms of the volume of pharmaceuticals that is produced.

Optimism for India’s R&D growth is influenced by four factors. First, its R&D expenditure is growing. According to the OECD, India’s R&D expenditure grew by 8% a year in constant prices, rising from USD13.8 billion to USD22.9 billion, a level similar to that of the Netherlands and Sweden.

Second, India is improving its research performance. In the past, science policy literature would refer to India as a ‘sleeping giant’, however, over recent years its trajectory has dramatically changed as shown in its growing scientific publications. The number of Thomson Reuters indexed papers having at least one author address in India has risen from 16,500 papers in 1998 to 30,000 in 2007. The rate of India’s growth has outpaced developed countries such as Germany and France.

Third, more companies are shifting their R&D to Asia in search for new technological competencies, better adaptation to local markets and lower costs. Together with China, both countries are attracting a huge amount of new R&D investment. In the latest R&D survey, China and India combined host 61% of U.S.’s offshore R&D operations. According to research firm Zinnov, 30 percent of the top 1,000 R&D spenders have a presence in India. There are, for instance, more than 5,000 pharmaceutical firms in India, employing about 340,000 people.

Finally, India’s higher education institutions are more linked with industry. Its highly acclaimed educational institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institute of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) conduct R&D in collaboration with central and state governments as well as industry players on a regular basis.

Engaging Asia’s innovation future

Asia’s changing landscape reinforces two important reminders: recognising the importance of being involved and connected to the biggest global challenges and that the innovation landscape is changing underpinned by Asia’s fast growing economies and its super-funding in research and research systems reforms.

Australian universities research enmeshment into the region growing. Over the past decade research collaborations between Australian and Indian researchers have grown quickly. Australian share of joint research papers with India has more than doubled within a decade, currently ranked number 9 after USA, Germany, UK, Japan, France, Canada, Italy and China. China is now Australia’s third largest partner in joint research papers.

Today, more universities are turning to Asia for R&D to deliver effective, high impact solutions to many leading cross boundary issues – from climate change, renewable energy to clean water, advanced engineering and biotechnology.  More universities are partnering with the purpose of advancing its level of science and engineering, accelerating research performance – increase in number of research and internationally co-authored publications – and accessing new source of funding from foreign governments and industrial partners.

At the Institute of Life Sciences in the heart of India’s state of Orissa, Australian and Indian scientists are using nanotherapeutics and molecular diagnostics to attempt to detect and treat human cancers at an early stage.

In Mumbai, India’s most populous city, Monash and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB) have developed a research academy in Mumbai. The joint academy is attracting the best PhD students and academic talent in fields such as advanced engineering, clean energy technology and biotechnology – all of strategic importance to Australia and India. With 130 enrolled Indian PhD students, the academy is set to increase its enrolment to 300 a year from 2015.

These collaborative endeavours serve as tangible examples as to how universities can develop deep ‘innovation-based’ partnerships with colleagues in Asia. It also demonstrate how such partnerships can deliver ‘win-win’ educational benefits while placing a high-value on international research collaboration as fundamental and core to both continents engagement agenda. The potential for Australia in Asia is enormous compared to anytime in its history.  Australia needs to embed itself in Asia’s research and innovation century.

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