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Growth is tied to innovation

Update: August, 16/2012 - 09:11

by Thu Phuong

Some local newspapers have painted a gloomy picture of Viet Nam's so-called decline on the World Intellectual Property Rights (WIPO) index. They pointed out correctly that the nation had been listed 76th out of 141 countries in its global rankings.

While the ranking is, indeed, 25 positions lower than last year, according to WIPO analysts, it does not indicate the country is under-performing in terms of creativity and innovation. They said the change was due to the addition of new economies and other adjustments to the index's framework.

But as the nation moves towards middle-income status, being placed at the bottom half of the global rankings is worrisome. It is beyond Viet Nam's wildest dream to catch up with its neighbour, Singapore, ranked third globally. And it is far from Malaysia (32nd) and Thailand (57th).

How far does Viet Nam have to go to be judged a success in creativity and innovation? Of course, it's impossible to measure, but by looking at the current performances in education, training, science and technology, there is not much room for confidence.

Some think that gaining a place at university is a hard-won effort, and truly it is because, while some universities require a minimum score for three subjects of 24-25 points, at others, entry is too easy. For example, the passing point to a few universities – mostly private – was a low 13 this year, which means three or four out of 10 points for one subject is enough to make the university dream come true.

Worse, some students are even invited to join a university or college without sitting for an entrance exam. The names of the establishments are new, indicating their thirst for new students – or money, to be precise.

Undoubtedly, the quality of their training promises little in the way of a rosy future for national innovation. Some would argue that the number of these universities are too few to worry about. Probably true. Yet the number of doctorate holders and professors versus the few internationally-recognised scientific papers or patent applications can be viewed as alarming.

According to Nguyen Van Tuan from the Sydney-based Garvan Institute, international standards require each professor or associate professor to produce at least one peer-reviewed scientific paper. If this was applied in Viet Nam, the country should have had at least 8,000 such papers by 2009. But Tuan said the figure for Vietnamese papers published in international journals was about 1,000 at the time – one-third of those from Thailand and a sixth of those from Singapore.

According to an article published last month on e-newspaper VietNamNet, Viet Nam had only five patents granted in the United States between 2006-10, and none in 2011 – yet it has 9,000 professors. The number granted, as pointed out in the article by two Ph.Ds, was "an important and objective index to judge a country's scientific achievements". Viet Nam's total was disturbing, especially when compared with seven in Indonesia, 53 in Thailand and 647 in Singapore in 2011.

But, let's not under-estimate the country's capabilities. Viet Nam has had an amazing number of student champions at international competitions, for instance, at the Olympiad in maths, chemistry or informatics every year.

The country does have world-recognised talents, for example, 40-year-old Professor Ngo Bao Chau, winner of Fields Medal 2010, often described as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics. Other Vietnamese professors of note include Trinh Xuan Thuan, a writer and astrophysicist, who won this year's Cino Del Duca World Prize from the Institute of France for his efforts to popularise science; and Hoang Tuy, a mathematician named in September 2011 as the first recipient of the Constantin Caratheodory Prize from the International Society of Global Optimisation for his pioneering work.

Why can't these figures be multiplied? Looking at what our children are taught at school, the explanation is simple. At either State or private schools, children are asked to learn by heart or repeatedly do sums before exams. In the end, most of them get high marks or at least, are not failures.

Looking at payment and incentives made to scientists, all would agree that they are insufficient to lead a conservative life let alone to devote time to developing breakthroughs or new technologies. A recent conference in Ha Noi heard that a professor or associate professor in agriculture received VND5 million (US$240) a month and a PhD VND4 million ($195). Not much of an incentive to do anything!

But why does innovation matter? Ben Verwaay-en, chief executive of Alcatel-Lucent said: "Innovation is a crucial element of competitiveness. For organisations, companies, and countries to remain competitive and to grow, they must innovate."

Viet Nam must grow and become more competitive! I pin my hopes on the world's leading scientists who have gathered in HCM City this week for a three-day international conference on advances in computational mechanics. Many of them are Vietnamese. I also pin my hopes on reforms that would enable children to have a more innovative and creative education instead of learning by rote. — VNS

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