This month’s Far Eastern Economic Review featured an interesting article about Asia’s nationalist policies in the globalised field of science and innovation. Here are a few sections, but read the full story here (free access).

P.V. Indiresan, the former director of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras: “The future of both China and India is at risk, because neither owns the technology it operates; the intellectual property continues to remain in the West. The short answer to this problem is that we should develop our own technology; we should acquire so much intellectual property that the West will be as much dependent on us as we are on them.”

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There has been a real effort to reach out to Asian diasporas in places such as Silicon Valley and Cambridge University. Successful Chinese, Korean, and Indian scientists are being successfully lured back to their home countries to new labs in new research centers stocked with the most advanced equipment. The Shanghai and Beijing municipal governments offer returning technology entrepreneurs tax breaks, subsidized office space and access to government-investment funds.

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Mr. Wen’s (Premier Wen Jiabao of China, Ed) January speech about ‘independent innovation’ was accompanied by commentaries in Science and Technology Daily that quickly pointed out that self-reliance did not signal the abandonment of the ‘open door’ policy and that ‘independent’ did not equate to ‘insular’ or ‘closed’. Domestic firms themselves, moreover, have business strategies that may conflict with nationalist goals.

The very forces of globalization that are encouraging such knowledge transfers, however, are also undermining the abilities of Asian nations to effectively implement technonationalist policies or any top-down development strategy, for that matter. WTO restrictions on import quotas, tariff barriers, and export subsidies have gradually created more open and market-oriented economies. As a result, policy makers have gradually replaced state-led, highly centralized models of technological innovation with a more flexible and open system, increasingly dependent on foreign enterprises. As they have globalized, Asian societies have become less susceptible to top-down direction.

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The twin forces of nationalism and globalization could, however, push in opposite directions. Changes in the security environment are the most likely scenario that would lead policy makers to more forcefully control the free flow of ideas or talent. Already worried about the rise of China’s military power, the U.S. defense and commerce departments are currently considering new regulations limiting the ability of foreign students and researchers to work with information and technology that is export-controlled. Job loss in developed countries, especially among knowledge workers believed to be immune from the vagaries of international competition, could generate a backlash against globalization. A failure of Asian firms to actually work their way up the value chain and begin to control proprietary technology may also cause decision-makers to question whether they can truly break free of dependence on Western technology through integration with the global economy.

It will not be surprising to see innovation and technological challenges arising from countries not historically known for their scientific prowess. While globalization is a part of this story, an important and often overlooked element of this story is the nationalist agenda promoted by Asian states. The world may be flatter, but it is still populated by nation-states seeking to increase their wealth, power, and status.

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