Introduction to special issue

The Challenges Facing ASEAN Science

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Science  06 Mar 1998:
Vol. 279, Issue 5356, pp. 1431
DOI: 10.1126/science.279.5356.1431a

Science and technology (S&T) are necessary but insufficient factors in achieving social transformation and development. For Southeast Asia, a region in crisis, the development tasks are formidable. There are solutions, but they require a concerted regional effort. One important vehicle for achieving such changes is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967 to promote regional collaboration. Over the years, ASEAN also has provided a valuable framework for joint activities in S&T.

One challenge that demands the Association's close attention is the region's environmental condition. The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, last summer's forest fires in East Kalimantan and Sumatra, and the continuing denudation of forest covers throughout Southeast Asia are concerns whose climatic impacts transcend national boundaries. In such cases, ASEAN member countries have freely shared scientific and technical information, allowing for a range of practical solutions for the region and the world.

Member nations have recognized the need to leverage S&T expertise and resources to support economic development imperatives. As a result, our policies and programs are aimed at creating a business environment that fosters investments in advanced technologies and rewards innovation and risk. The rapid growth in new and traditional linkages between industry, government, and academe is the basis of an emerging model for economic development. Subsequent economic growth depends not simply on a new cycle of innovation, but on a new structure for innovation that ties basic and applied research even more closely together.

While S&T cannot be decoupled from its commercial applications, any policy designed to spur commercial innovation must go beyond S&T and include guidelines on competition, regulation, and other related areas. Without delay, the ASEAN science community must address the review and amendment of outdated procedures on intellectual property rights, copyright, and technology transfer laws. Our emphasis should be on speeding the rate of innovation rather than slowing diffusion.

At the same time, the peoples of ASEAN are its most important resource in economic growth and development. Hence, all productive sectors in ASEAN must work together to raise the quality of their work force through training, higher technical education, and research. Labor attitudes must be improved through a shift in emphasis from job creation to labor efficiency. The ensuing reorientation toward greater productivity requires a radical shift in society's focus away from material acquisition and conspicuous consumption and toward a heightened emphasis on self-reliance and quality.

In our rush toward modernization, hectares upon hectares of precious croplands have been cleared to allow construction of roads, factories, and buildings. As a result, the “rice bowl” countries in Southeast Asia were forced to import due to steadily plummeting yields. This makes a significant increase in productivity of the region's remaining farmlands all the more urgent if we hope to stave off food shortage, malnutrition, and starvation. The pressure is on ASEAN scientists to make full and efficient use of the region's land and natural resources through sustainable agricultural practices and environmental conservation.

In defining its vision for the future, ASEAN is guided by the strong need to develop an innovative, technology-driven, and information-intensive economy in Southeast Asia. Although industry must play the central role in inducing and sustaining economic growth and job creation, many other players must contribute to the drive to encourage and sustain innovation. In today's technology-driven global economy, ASEAN scientists are now thrust into the limelight and must assume leadership in critical aspects.

The science we generate and the technology we build should provide a strong foundation that can withstand the shocks caused by globalization. To gird our societies against the storm of financial uncertainty in Asia, we must constantly reengineer our science and technology agencies into more aggressive, entrepreneurial organizations. No effort must be spared in convincing our leaders that innovation—grounded upon our firm grasp of S&T—will help to create jobs, preserve the environment, and enhance the quality of life in Southeast Asia.

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