Member states of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), home to some 600 million people, expect to enter 2015 riding on the waves of strong economic growth and a burgeoning middle class. This development coincides with the launch of the integrated ASEAN Economic Community next year.
However, some South-East Asian economies are developing so quickly that research and innovation are not keeping pace with national economic changes. This is happening even as ASEAN leaders have recognised the crucial role of scientific research and technology as a key factor in sustaining growth. Not enough research, whether basic or applied, is being done right now in the universities and other public institutions where most research happens in the region.
There are also not enough mature innovations and technology for adoption by business and industry to fuel the engine of economic growth in South-East Asia. For the moment, South-East Asian countries are banking on Western technology and innovations.
Aside from a lack of indigenous research and innovations from the public sector in the region, there is the problem of relevance to the needs of industry.
Industrial technologies available are very slowly adopted by industry. Production and capital intensive technologies have very slow rate of transfer especially in the Philippines. “This is true with agricultural production technologies and more so with processing and manufacturing of consumer goods,” Tito Contado, a former consultant for UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) in Indonesia and a chief extension and education officer at FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization), tells SciDev.Net.
In particular, small and medium-sized enterprises do not do their own research. They have to depend on public research which moves at a slow pace.
Bridging the divide
There is a need, therefore, to bridge the divide between public research and what the industry needs.
One model for bridging this divide is the science and technology park, which serves as a halfway house between public research institutions and industry. This is an area where mature technology is commercialised and tested on a small scale before full adoption by the private sector.
South-East Asian governments should invest more in such science and technology parks, subsidising the further development of mature technology and assisting incipient business enterprises.
On a smaller scale are business innovation centres based in schools of business and entrepreneurship where would-be entrepreneurs can avail of faculty expertise in setting up businesses, including learning market research and product testing, and navigating through the maze of business regulations.
I have seen this model in American colleges and universities. Perhaps, South-East Asian public and private universities can put more resources into developing such business innovation centres.
There is also need for South-East Asian government policy towards business and industry to be more user-friendly.
“Government policy and practice are unfriendly or unsupportive of people who can adopt production technologies. Registration system is difficult, unreasonable and expensive. Entrepreneurs have to pay a lot to get permits and to obtain certification from government regulatory bodies. Taxation policies and practices for start-ups are unreasonable and oppressive. There is a lack of incentive for entrepreneurs to grow and continue with their business,” says Contado, who experienced the very restrictive government regulations when he founded his own business after he left FAO.
A long range solution is to create a culture of techno-entrepreneurship — through legislation, education and incentives by government.
Says Contado: “Governments could start and support production enterprises in agriculture, food, health and wellness consumer production industry. This sector of the economy will not only use technology from research but will also produce the goods and services needed by society and become a major generator of jobs.”
The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) published a study in 2013 on the effectiveness of research and innovation management at policy and institutional levels in four ASEAN member countries — Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The study was part of its project on Innovation, Higher Education and Research for Development, funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. 
The main conclusion of the study was that “in all four of the Asian countries studied, commercialisation of research and innovation is recognised by policymakers as important, but there has been little significant progress on the ground”.
This observation definitely applies to the other countries in the region such as Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. Singapore would be the only exception.
OECD study recommendations
We endorse the main recommendations of the OECD study to address current gaps in research and innovation management that can apply to all of South-East Asia:
First, governments should invest more in capacity building and the expansion of research in universities.
Second, institutional leaders should be up to date about global research trends and funding sources for research and innovations.
Third, policymakers need to know the training needs of researchers in universities and research institutes regarding the processes of commercialisation.
Fourth, government policymakers must allow institutional autonomy for universities if these academic institutions are to be expected to contribute to research and innovation.
Fifth, regional collaboration in research and innovation management must be promoted.
A possible model for this collaboration is the new Centre of Excellence (COE) established in Malaysia by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants to engage innovative research being undertaken in the region. 
The COE will work with universities, the public sector and key industry players in South-East Asia to make sure research and innovation are market driven and relevant. Outputs will include research reports and cutting edge technology that will address issues raised by the industry. These will be crucial in shaping critical business decisions and driving strong economic performance.
If science research is to boost the region’s burgeoning economic growth, governments must make it easier for business to grow, and research institutions and industry must come together.
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.