Funding Science and Technology in an Internationalized World

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Dr. Teofilo A. Abrajano, Jr.

Dr. Teofilo A. Abrajano, Jr.

I am not an expert in education and research specific to the ASEAN region or the on-going effort to set a common framework for ASEAN educational integration and internationalization. I will therefore make no effort to regurgitate what I have just recently learned about these important discussions, as I was attempting to contextualize my present contribution.  I will simply use the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework as an inevitable supposition for any realistic strategy for promoting science and technology in the ASEAN region. One message from this contribution is that ASEAN educational and research integration is not just something to agree to; it is something we need.

What I will specifically address is the strategy for funding science and technology in educational institutions, a subject that I have a fair bit of experience on as a former senior executive at the US National Science Foundation and now the Director of the Office of Competitive Research Funds at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

In the former capacity, I helped draft the latest NSF Strategic Plan, which charted the US approach to transforming the frontiers of science, stimulating innovation and addressing societal needs through science and technology (http://www.nsf.gov/about/performance/strategic_plan.jsp).  In my present capacity at KAUST, I oversee the design and implementation of the University’s strategy for achieving its ambitious goals of becoming a global leader in research and innovation and catalyzing and diversifying the Saudi economy.

I recognize that the Philippines and other ASEAN countries are quite unlike the US and Saudi Arabia, but let me point out elements of the research and education funding strategy that should be relevant in every country context, including ASEAN countries: (1) the essential role of basic research, (2) the urgency of community- and country-wide integration and (3) the need for international partnerships.

The goals of funding science are to transform knowledge and to bring about a positive impact on people’s lives through discovery and innovation. Some mistakenly assume, however, that these two objectives are separately achievable—the former by supporting basic research, and the latter by supporting applied or targeted research.

Although never articulated as such, some national science funding strategies, based on where the money is allocated or spent, clearly consider basic research as a luxury they can ill afford. Such a premise for developing a national strategy for science investment is patently shortsighted and one dimensional, and this is a serious detriment for sustaining a nation’s knowledge ecosystem and global competitiveness.

The assumption that knowledge application can be divorced from knowledge creation is false. This is precisely the reason why we have come to describe research environments as knowledge/innovation ecosystems; opting to forego basic research is akin to suggesting that we can do without the ecosystem life-support. There is no choice to be made between keeping the soil or the plant, or sacrificing the root for the sake of the rest of the tree.

Knowledge creation and utilization is a continuum in multiple dimensions (Pasteur Quadrant, e.g.,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasteur’s_quadrant), and a weak basic research posture necessarily harms our ability to compete in identifying the next big leap in technological innovation. Basic research is to application as sin is to confession.

Abrajano (center) talks with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology President Jean Lou Chameau (left) and Prof. John Archer (right) during a student poster session in a symposium Abrajano hosted at KAUST.

Abrajano (center) talks with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology President Jean Lou Chameau (left) and Prof. John Archer (right) during a student poster session in a symposium Abrajano hosted at KAUST.

The dilemma of limited resources matched against a great demand for innovative solutions to urgent problems faced by many ASEAN countries is solved not by severing the roots from the tree, but by building substantive and sustainable partnerships. This approach to enriching, diversifying and linking strengths and expertise serves to lead to ecosystem productivity and stability. The call for ASEAN integration in education and research is one such example of a path to enable nations and universities to cross-utilize talent and resources—indeed by treating the knowledge and innovation enterprise as an ecosystem.

These partnerships must exist at all scales of the system, beginning with strategic collaborations at the country level—from integration of education and research strategy of the university with the local community and the private sector to the sort of structured national framework that is a prerequisite for compliance with the ASEAN regional framework.  I must warn, however, that these partnerships work best when they are organically developed by the principal investigators and educators, not when they are bureaucratically imposed from above.  Those charged with formulating these frameworks must focus on “enabling strategies,” including maximizing stakeholder input and locating adequate resources. Imposing extraneous requirements is most certain to discourage buy in and impede participation and collaboration.

In his recent Nature article entitled “The Fourth Age of Research,” J. Adams exalted the essentiality of global collaborative partnerships. An earlier Royal Society report likewise concluded that international research collaboration is crucial to all countries and educational institutions. The Philippines must pay cognizance to these truths in its science funding strategy beyond laissez-faire, and ASEAN integration is the first step towards a win-win solution to the resource requirements of today’s global innovation competition.

Participating in these partnerships, however, requires that we do not surrender our ability to create knowledge through basic research. Excellence will always seek excellence and our attractiveness as serious partners in these collaborations requires that we are active creators of knowledge.  Not only does global partnership require it, basic research is essential for the training of our future innovators.
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Dr. Teofilo A. Abrajano, Jr. is the director of the Office of Competitive Research Funds at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He holds a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences from Washington University, and finished his BS in Geology from UP. He received the UPAA Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005. Email him at [email protected]
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