by Thu Huong Le
HA NOI (VNS)— When Nguyen Van Thuan, an associate professor in the Department of Animal Biotechnology of Konkuk University, Seoul, posted a heartfelt article in a popular online newspaper about his intention to return home – for good – the reaction of readers was overwhelming.
Most suggested that he should not return to Viet Nam to start over academically since the research environment obviously could not reach the level of South Korea.
"My Korean colleagues were also very surprised at my decision, considering the research environment at Konkuk and the many important research results we have announced," Thuan said.
These days, Professor Thuan is busy getting ready for his return to the HCM City this week, where he would start works on developing a centre on infertility treatment. At the same time, he would also teach and conduct research at the International University within the Viet Nam National University.
At a recent national conference on implementing the scientific development strategic plan from now until 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan noted that South Korea, with 48 million people, spent US$53 billion a year on scientific development.
"With 80 million people, that number is $1 billion for Viet Nam," Nhan said. "At that rate of development, after two years we would fall 100 years behind South Korea."
So, following other Asian powerhouses such as South Korea and China, Viet Nam is making an effort to bring back scientists as the country wants to make research and development a sharper focus during its next phase of growth.
In December 2012, the Ministry of Education and Training introduced a draft regulation on preferable policies to attract Vietnamese scientists home to teach, research and conduct technology transfer in higher education institutions for a short-term visit, which could prompt them to return for the long-term.
The draft regulation suggests preferable policies on visas, income tax exemptions, insurance, accommodation and other rewarding policies for scientists returning.
However, creating a good research environment required money and other forms of support that could not be bought, said Dr. Eren Zink, who studies the politics of science in Viet Nam and wrote a paper titled "The science of returning home: a study of Vietnamese scientists with advanced international degrees" for his doctoral thesis in 2010.
Zink, now a lecturer at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University in Sweden, interviewed 60 Vietnamese scientists who had pursued advanced studies abroad and then returned to Viet Nam.
"Talented researchers should have more freedom to design their own research projects; often younger researchers have the most cutting-edge knowledge, but they are rarely allowed to decide how the research project should be designed," Zink said in an email interview.
But things are changing, said Do Tien Dung, director of the National Foundation for Science and Technology (NAFOSTED), an agency with an annual budget of VND200 billion (US$9.6 million) set up in 2009 to reward talented Vietnamese researchers and encourage them to conduct world-class research in Viet Nam.
About 4,000 scientists had received NAFOSTED stipends, and the number of young scientists now accounted for 60 per cent, many already having finished their studies abroad and with research published in international scientific magazines, Dung said.
"We are only interested in the quality of the scientific proposals, not in their past experiences or what institutions they worked at," Dung said. "Here they will find fewer hurdles with paperwork and procedure for grant approvals."
Also to encourage its fellows to return home, Phuong Nguyen, country director at the Viet Nam Education Foundation, which sends about 40 Vietnamese fellows a year to the US to pursue advanced studies in science-related majors, said the foundation organised an annual conference with discussions and speakers centered on the theme of "on the way home."
Since 2010, the foundation has reduced the number of months that VEF fellows can stay in the US after finishing their studies from 36 to 18 months. According to Phuong, the decision came after talks with ministries and leaders who expressed the need for the fellows to return home sooner to contribute to scientific development back home.
"We want to show them that there are opportunities back at home," Phuong said.
Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, who received a master's degree in geographic information sciences for development and environment from Clark University in the US in 2010, said she returned home because "what I studied in the US is better applied here, considering my familiarity with the country's geographical conditions."
Thuy, now a researcher at the Viet Nam National Satellite Centre, said she and other young fellows who went abroad obviously never expected the facilities at home could match the level in the US. "We get used to it: the paperwork, the lack of rewarding policies and other conditions."
Pham Bao Yen completed her Ph.D in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and returned in 2011 as a researcher at the Ha Noi University of Science in molecular biology. Yen said she was surprised by the modern equipment in the laboratories but also faced difficulties such as the likes of the availability of chemicals.
In 2008, the Ministry of Education and Training submitted a proposal to the Office of Government to attract expatriate Vietnamese scientists back to the country.
The scheme aimed to attract scientists back to Vietnamese universities and institutions with attractive salary packages and funding support for research projects, equipment and laboratories, expecting to cost $80 million over the following eight years.
But it did not come to fruition.
Professor Thuan said getting the talent back home should not be a short-term scheme, but a long-term process. Still, he believed his return would pave the way for more Vietnamese students at Konkuk to consider returning home as a valuable option.
"My biggest hope now is that within the next 2-3 years I can conduct successful research on asexual animal cloning in Viet Nam," he said. "I return when the country is in need, it's more valuable than when ‘the house is already built'." — VNS