UWN – Universities fear researcher pipeline is under threat

Article from University World News

With increasing global and regional competition for doctoral students to fuel expansion in technology-based industries, even top universities in Asia are beginning to worry about a continued pipeline of well-qualified students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas as countries expand research in key areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and other areas.

Global competition has been enhanced by the rivalry between China and the United States in technology, with the US also pressuring Europe and Japan to curb research with China that is deemed sensitive.

For Asian countries attracting foreign STEM PhD students, the largest contingent has come from China. Countries such as Japan are already talking of more stringent vetting of PhD students from countries including China for more strategically sensitive PhD subjects, and having to rely on local students or foreign students from other countries in the region.

At the same time Beijing has initiated a campaign to keep PhD students and young researchers at home as it expands in major STEM areas as part of its own recently announced drive for self-sufficiency in technology.

Singapore has recently announced increased research funding for new emerging high technology areas and expanding doctoral places at its universities.

However, “in certain areas, especially in critical areas like artificial intelligence (AI), it’s very competitive, and the US is pretty strong,” according to the National University of Singapore (NUS) President Tan Eng Chye.

“There is a need for us to have a strong pipeline of Singaporean and Singapore-based researchers in this particular area [AI] and there are also other areas of critical expertise like quantum engineering where countries can be a bit more protective over such manpower,” Tan told University World News.

“In areas where the US and China are competing, there are concerns of too many talents straddling both [research] ecosystems,” he added. “When the elephants fight, we have to find ways to make sure that we don’t get trampled as well.”

Others in Singapore note that there is a lot at stake in being able to attract the best PhD students to drive expanded research efforts, a view that is echoed elsewhere in Asia as rivalries deepen even as research budgets are rising in the most advanced countries.

Tan noted the Singapore government “adopts a broad view” on research talent – “They can be based anywhere; talents don’t need to be based in Singapore. But there could be some strategic technologies where it may be important for Singapore to have enough expertise,” he said.

China is not only expanding research within the mainland and hoping to retain its best research students, but also hoping to leverage Hong Kong’s attractiveness for foreign research talent in STEM fields, who will also collaborate with researchers on the mainland.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in November 2020 announced a HK$2 billion (US$257 million) scheme to attract STEM researchers from overseas, including a new global STEM professorship scheme allocated HK$500 million (US$64 million) in this February’s budget to finance some 100 “renowned scholars and their research teams” in Hong Kong.

Tan of NUS pointed to several new high-technology research programmes that have received stepped-up funding from the Singapore government in the past five years such as SG$400 million (US$300 million) for AI in Singapore slated until 2023.

“We have a centre for quantum technology at NUS, which is one of the top five in the world, and it is very strong in fundamental research on quantum information and quantum technology. And we are also mindful of its applications. We have a quantum engineering programme, which allows us to segue into direct applications,” Tan said.

But others are also stepping up research funding in AI and quantum technologies, including the US, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, South Korea, Taiwan and China, creating huge simultaneous demand for young researchers in these fields. Many university departments in these fields say they will not be able to attract the best without special measures to encourage young talent to apply to university PhD programmes.

In December 2020 Singapore announced an increase in spending for its next five-year Plan for Research, Innovation and Enterprise, known as RIE2025, to SG$25 billion (US$18.7 billion) over five years, compared to SG$19 billion (US$14 billion) for the previous 2016-20.

“About one third of the SG$25 billion [RIE2025 money] is for research funding and talent development for universities and this includes PhD students and research fellows – the critical manpower that is required for research,” said Tan, adding that NUS would be hiring top talent “quite aggressively”.

“We should position ourselves especially for the [globally competitive] research areas,” he said.

Demographic decline and brain drain

Concerns about research talent in strategic sectors come at a time of demographic decline in the very countries in Asia that are globally competitive in cutting-edge research in emerging technologies, including Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

This could mean a smaller pipeline of top students that can be recruited into PhD programmes and greater concern about top talent heading to the US or elsewhere rather than staying at home for PhD studies or early research careers.

While Taiwan spent a record 3.5% of GDP on technology R&D in 2019, it has been particularly badly hit by a demographic squeeze. An ageing research talent base bodes ill for new and emergent research areas, experts note.

Recent figures from Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology show that researchers aged 55 or older had increased as a proportion of Taiwan’s research population, at 8.8% in 2019, up from 7.1% in 2015, while those aged 45-54 were 17.7% of researchers, up from 16.5% in 2015.

However, researchers aged 35-44 were 34.7% of the research population last year, down from 35.5% in 2017, and those aged 34 or younger made up 38.9%, down from 42.1% in 2015, ministry data showed. The ministry has budgeted TW$1.8 billion (US$63 million) for this year to cultivate young research talent.

Researcher mobility

“Demographic changes challenge us in terms of the supply of domestic R&D power. I believe we should embrace the new labour environment and build a flexible institutional infrastructure that will employ brain power from abroad more easily,” Park Hyun-Wook, vice president for research at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), told University World News.

But foreign research talent is not a panacea in a world of competitive science, and mobility among international researchers is particularly high. Legislator Lee Joo-hwan of South Korea’s People Power Party said in a February National Assembly committee meeting: “China is aggressively pushing to secure IT experts.”

South Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT reported recently that during 2016-19 some 71 ministry-funded research programmes had to be terminated before their five-year term was completed because of early departures of foreign researchers. It estimated some KRW8.2 billion (US$7.3 million) was “wasted” as a result – around 24% of its total KRW33.6 billion research budget.

Lee, who has called on the government to come up with a long-term plan to retain such talent, was quoted by the Korea news agency Yonhap as saying that the problem was particularly acute in ICT, including memory chip-related semiconductor technologies, where there is stiff global research competition.

Shortage of PhD applicants

According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, Beijing is also making renewed efforts to attract Taiwanese research talent. Last year China offered high salaries to recruit young Taiwanese researchers in areas such as health, agro-ecology and information technology, further increasing concerns in Taiwan of research talent shortages.

Top institutions have concluded that without special schemes to attract and develop STEM research talent, they will not be able to compete in Asia, let alone globally.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted global student and researcher mobility from March 2020 onwards, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education reported that even at its most prestigious universities, including National Taiwan University, National Chengchi University and National Tsing Hua University, some 132 departments had registered no new Taiwanese students for their masters or PhD programmes in 2019 and some universities had to shut down their PhD programmes due to lack of interest.

But National Taiwan University (NTU) believes it can still attract more students to its technology PhDs. “Most departments in NTU want to have a bigger quota for PhD students,” noted Chen Ming-Syan, executive vice president at NTU, referring to ministry of education quota controls on total student numbers.

“At NTU we are setting up new PhD programmes, including in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, Internet of Things and so on. Students graduating in those areas are very popular, very marketable in the job market. Industry companies are asking the ministry of education to allow more natural talent in our universities,” Chen told University World News.

“NTU recently set up several incentive programmes to help outstanding students with research potential to discover their research interests early and think about their future career plans for academic research,” Chen said. “We encourage faculty members to discover students of good research potential (domestic and overseas students) in time and recruit them into our PhD programmes.

“In addition, to enable PhD students to successfully find a job after graduation or to take up positions in foreign academic institutions, NTU also encourages PhD students to go abroad to work as a research associate or as a postdoc after graduation to broaden their vision and increase their international experience.

“After our efforts, the number of new PhD students increased prominently – about a 30% to 40% increase a year in recent years,” Chen said.