Asian scientists have begun to make a global impact and are attracting foreign investment. But a number of remaining weaknesses mean it is premature to talk of a competitive threat to the west.

Clive Cookson – The Financial Times

In a finely landscaped technology park on the edge of Bangalore – a world away from the chaos of urban India – sits the John Welch Technology Centre. In the four years since General Electric of the US set up this showpiece of corporate research, its 2,400 scientists and engineers have filed 240 US patents and had 25 granted. Advances range from more efficient aircraft engine designs and a system for GE Capital to predict corporate defaults to “pedestrian-safe” car bumpers that protect people against injury in impacts of up to 40kph.
At another bioscience park outside Beijing, CapitalBio is emerging as a world leader in the new technology of biochips – devices that combine biotechnology and electronics for biological testing and medical diagnostics. The four-year-old company is already selling instruments to US drug companies and last month agreed a partnership with Affymetrix in California, the world’s largest biochip producer.
“Affymetrix had never imagined that there was such a big research effort in biochips in China, working to such a high standard,” says Cheng Jing, CapitalBio’s chief executive.
Dozens of similar examples are to be found in Asian science and technology centres. They confirm the impression given by recent headlines – such as news of breakthroughs in therapeutic cloning in South Korea – that several countries in the region are following in Japan’s wake as world-class centres for research and development.
Statistics, albeit incomplete, show a rapid surge in Asia’s research and development investment and scientific output. Thomson ISI, the research analysis company, says the number of “high impact” research papers from China has risen from just 21 in 1994 to 223 in 2003 (a paper’s impact is assessed by the frequency with which it is cited by other researchers). Taking a longer view, China’s contribution to the world’s scientific journals has increased from 0.4 per cent in 1981 to 5.1 per cent (40,000 papers) in 2003.
China’s research and development spending roughly trebled between 1998 and 2003, says Georges Haour, professor of technology management at IMD, the Swiss business school. There is scope for much more growth. China still devotes only 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product to research and development, compared with 2.5-3 per cent for the most successful industrialised countries – a level that South Korea and Singapore have already reached. India’s government plans to lift the country’s research and development investment from below 1 per cent of GDP to at least 2 per cent.
Some in the west fear Asia’s growing scientific prowess as a new competitive threat. Until now, countries such as China and India have essentially been cheap, efficient processing centres and workshops, for which the intellectual input came ultimately from elsewhere. If they can use science to climb the value chain and innovate effectively, western economies will have lost their last great competitive advantage.
Asian policymakers give short shrift to such arguments. “Fears in the west about the rise of Asian science are very much exaggerated,” says R. A. Mashelkar, the Indian government’s chief scientist. “Particularly in the US, people like to keep themselves on edge with talk of a ‘threat’ but in reality there is none.”
Many western authorities with experience of Asian science agree. Lord Sainsbury, the UK science minister, says that “people who claim that China is making unbelievable progress and will soon have the biggest high-technology businesses in the world” should remember the panic in the 1980s about the rise of Japan’s high-technology industry. “We thought then that Japan had some sort of magic formula not given to the rest of us,” says Lord Sainsbury, “but the formula turned out not to exist.”
Asia’s greatest overall advantage is its huge supply of scientists and engineers, particularly in China and India, at a time when students in the west are turning away from science and engineering. Companies in the US and Europe that find it hard to recruit top-quality research staff at home can exploit Asia’s trained workforce by building research and development centres there or collaborating with Asian companies and universities.
The European Union alone has 700,000 fewer scientists and engineers than it needs to meet its target of devoting 3 per cent of GDP to research and development, says Davinder Brar, chairman of GVK Bio, a fast-growing research services company in the Indian city of Hyderabad. “Faced with such a shortage, Europe may try to import talent – but why should Indians and Chinese move to Europe when living conditions at home are improving rapidly? The west can outsource the research to places such as India and China,” he says.
Asia’s other big advantage is cost. Western companies will never admit that they are doing research there just because it is cheaper. They say it offers intellectual resources that are not available at home. But lower costs help too. “Our strength is that we can deliver more intellectual power per dollar spent than anywhere else in the world,” Dr Mashelkar says.
The relative costs of doing research in Asia vary enormously according to circumstances, however. Vijay Batra, head of drug development at Ranbaxy, the largest Indian pharmaceutical company, says a three-month pre-clinical toxicology study on one compound might cost Dollars 850,000 in the US and as little as Dollars 100,000 in India. For clinical development, Indian costs might be one-fifth of those in the west.
In electronics and software development, the cost differential is smaller. Gopal Krishna, general manager of the engineering centre recently set up in Bangalore by AMD, the US microprocessor company, says costs in India used to be one-third of those in the US – “but they are going up fast and are perhaps half those in the US now”.
The pay of newly graduated researchers in India and China is generally around one-quarter of US levels. For more senior staff, it is usually at least half the US level and in exceptional cases may even exceed it. In Beijing, Mr Cheng says CapitalBio “made a special effort at the beginning to attract (Chinese expatriates) from abroad, with salary and stock options. We offered at least to match the salaries that senior scientists were receiving (in the US); the highest we offered was Dollars 120,000 a year. We no longer do this but we still have a very flexible compensation policy to motivate people.”
Neither India nor China keeps reliable figures on the emigration or return of their scientists. There is probably still a net outflow from both countries and moving back can be hard for researchers and their families (see below). But it is clear that Indian and Chinese scientists who have returned after studying and working in the west have played a vital role in revitalising research in their countries.
Laboratories’ preference in Asia for recruiting researchers with overseas experience, though, illustrates a key weakness of Asian science: Asian universities are generally not up to western standards in their teaching or research, even though student entry is extremely competitive. Their laboratories are often poorly equipped.
Even in South Korea, the region’s high technology superstar, there are complaints about declining academic standards and students’ loss of interest in hard science. “The quality of our science and engineering graduates seems to be deteriorating,” says Kim Chuljin, head of corporate technology strategy at Samsung Electronics. “With students from Korean universities we have to invest more time in on-the-job training than with those who have studied overseas.”
Such views led the government last year to bring in a controversial outsider – Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Stanford University in California – to shake up the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology.
Another problem is that, despite Asia’s huge output of scientists, there is little original research. Korea has gone furthest along the Japanese path of developing companies and products with global reach but no one pretends that original research has had much part in success so far. “We succeeded above all because we were so active in introducing new ideas and technologies from overseas,” says Mr Kim.
While Asia is strong in electronics, computing and software engineering – and also in chemistry – the life sciences are generally weak in the region. Governments are making a particular effort to catch up in this field, which many believe will become the most important technology during the 21st century. “We are investing now because, by the time the growth potential becomes apparent to everyone, it will be too late to catch up,” says Tan Chorh Chuan, vice-chairman of A-star, Singapore’s science funding agency, which is concentrating its spending on the biomedical sciences.
So far, Asia has been able to make a global mark only in a few new areas of the life sciences where western expertise is not entrenched. The obvious example is stem cell technology, where not only South Korea but also China, Singapore and India are racing ahead – helped by a general social and political acceptance of human embryo research that contrasts with the bitter debate in many western countries.
Such breakthroughs aside, civil servants and company executives throughout Asia lament a failure to innovate. “Our biggest problem is the weakness of the country’s innovative capability,” says Zhou Yuan, a senior official in China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. “Although we have a few good companies, the core technology in Chinese industry generally comes from outside China.”
Related to the lack of scientific innovation is the absence of a risk-taking entrepreneurial culture, which is reflected in turn in a shortage of venture capital to fund companies spun out of research laboratories or universities. Lam Kong-Peng, director of Singapore’s Biomedical Research Council, talks of the need “to educate Asian investors, who tend to be more cautious than western investors”.
“We are trying to create a new risk-taking culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” agrees Jackie Yi-Ru Ying, director of Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. Venture capitalists in Asia “do not have the experience or the interest in getting involved in early-stage seed funding”.
Although Asian governments strongly support growth in science and technology – and plan substantial increases in research and development spending – there are many complaints about bureaucratic procedures that hamper progress, particularly in the life sciences. In India and China, for example, executives say regulators take longer to approve clinical trials than in the west.
“We have undertaken (early-stage) clinical trials in the UK because we can get approval faster there than in India,” says Brian Tempest, chief executive of Ranbaxy. “India is moving in the right direction but there is a long way still to go.”
Such obstacles show that Asia is not yet as competitive in its scientific capabilities as is sometimes believed. Pavel Potocnik, the EU’s research commissioner, says that, rather than being a threat, Asia offers a scientific opportunity to the rest of the world. “There are many challenges that we all face – and instead of reacting in a protectionist way, we should welcome Asia’s growing scientific resources and work with them,” he says.
For many in Asia, indeed, innovation is not just helpful in breaking into foreign markets but essential in improving lives closer to home. There is recognition that the only way to overcome the continent’s many problems, from poverty to pollution, is through science and technology.
Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, says that even space programmes – sometimes regarded as a sign of national vanity – justify themselves by improving quality of life through earth observation and communications satellites. “Our main aim is to bring the benefits of high technology to the people – and poor people in particular,” he says.
A series of articles starting tomorrow on the Business Life pages will look further at the strengths and weaknesses of Asian science and technology.
Copyright The Financial Times

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