Vietnam's not got talent?

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Government struggles to lure overseas Vietnamese talent back home; experts say it may take years

Nobel laureates attend an international physics conference in the central town of Quy Nhon this week. On the sidelines of the conference, there was a debate about how to lure back overseas Vietnamese talent. There was consensus that if Vietnam is serious about doing so and reforming the science sector, the most important issue would not be money but the political willingness to create favorable conditions for the academics. Photo by Dao Ngoc Thach

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Jean Nguyen and her family moved to the US, where she then graduated at the top of her class at West Point,  America's premier military academy, ten years later.

US President Ronald Reagan called her an "American hero."

Nguyen's story, and the story of US-Vietnam relations, came full circle that day.

West Point was a driver of the killing of millions of Vietnamese and a million more Laotians and Cambodians during "The Vietnam War," which had caused Nguyen to leave.

The country now finds itself lacking talented and trained workers, specialists and leaders.

Historically, the cause has been war and colonialism and their lingering aftereffects. Currently, it might have to do more with bloated bureaucracies and business and management culture. Experts are mulling over what can be done in Vietnam to keep talent around, and draw in talent from overseas.

"˜No limit to what Vietnamese can do'

Jean Nguyen is an example of Vietnamese resilience.

"Imagine what this girl had to overcome: being Vietnamese, being a girl, being a foreigner [to be] the best student in the most prestigious American military academy," Marek Karliner, an Israeli Stanford post-grad who attended the West Point ceremony in 1985, told Vietweek.

"I was very impressed and since then I have realized that, given the conditions, there is no limit to what Vietnamese can do," Karliner, who was attending an international physics conference that wrapped up last week in the central town of Quy Nhon, said.

Indeed, Vietnam has never been short of talent. Stories of students acing international contests and achieving top-notch performances at foreign universities are legion.

Three years ago the country celebrated as French-trained Vietnamese mathematician Ngo Bao Chau won the Fields Medal, the math version of the Nobel Prize.

But, nearly four decades after the Vietnam War, the country remains bogged down in an education quagmire that threatens to drag down the workforce and stall the country's development, leaving analysts to grapple with the question of what Vietnam has done with its talent.

While Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly pledged measures to tackle the poor state of higher education and the poor remuneration of academics, the rhetoric has not been matched by action, experts say, prompting a rising number of the nouveau riche, as well as middle and upper income families in Vietnam, where the annual per capita income was around US$1,555 last year, to send their children abroad for higher studies.

Analysts say they are "escaping" an education system that is rigid, of suspect quality, and riddled with scandals.

70 percent of Vietnamese students who go abroad to study choose to stay in foreign countries after graduation to further study or work, according to the Ministry of Education and Training. More than 30,000 Vietnamese students were studying abroad last year.

The lack of incentives for overseas Vietnamese, or Viet Kieu, to lure them back home has kept a lot of Vietnamese talent from benefiting the country.

According to the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese, of the 4.5 million Vietnamese living around the world, 400,000 have bachelor's and higher degrees, but only some 1,000 of them have returned home to work.

In 2004 the Communist Party passed a resolution aimed at attracting overseas Vietnamese home to support development in every sector.

The resolution has succeeded in pulling in a rising amount of remittances and investment from overseas Vietnamese, but has failed to woo academics back to the country.

Those who do return often leave again, lamenting their work is hindered by red tape, lack of a free hand, and poor working conditions.

"The number of Vietnamese academics who have returned home to settle down has remained very small," Nguyen Van Tuan, a scientist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Australia, said.

"Given the unfavorable working conditions and environment in Vietnam, coupled with the family obligations of Vietnamese scientists, I'm expecting no major breakthrough in the short run."

At home, analysts blame the squandering of talent on the seniority- and inertia-based hierarchies at government agencies and institutions that have discouraged and demoralized high-caliber graduates.

"Some important government agencies"¦ all have bizarre regulations reflecting very conservative, outmoded perceptions that contribute nothing to the minimal basic conditions scientists require," Hoang Tuy, a prominent Vietnamese educator, wrote several years ago. This remains relevant today.

He cited the example of a professor's hourly salary being determined by his rank within the bureaucracy. On the government salary scale, the most senior professor is paid less than a medium level bureaucrat.

"There are so many salary grades that the majority of hardworking, talented scientists can never reach the highest grade"¦ unless they work until the age of 90 or 100," he wrote.

"A knowledge-based economy is in fact an economy that relies on intellect and talent"¦ [But] science and education stagnate while talent is profligately wasted."

In his resignation speech to the National Assembly in 2006, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai admitted to a "failure" in overhauling the country's education and science sectors.

Last year the Party deferred issuing a resolution on an across-the-board overhaul of the education system, saying more time was needed because the resolution failed to tackle core issues.

Trailing behind

National development can be built only on solid scientific and technological bases. The chain scientific knowledge, education, technological achievements, economic growth has to be followed all the way and there are no shortcuts, experts say.

Although Vietnam invests more in scientific research as a percentage of gross domestic product than many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the research capabilities of Vietnamese universities lag far behind those of their neighbors.

For instance, in 2005 Vietnamese researchers produced around 2.5 peer-reviewed science and engineering articles per million people or just around half Thailand's rate.

Last year Vietnam was ranked 76th out of 141 countries in the Global Innovation Index published by French business school INSEAD and the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization, and behind Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Foreign companies have warned that the poor quality of universities will hinder Vietnam's economic growth and made it difficult for them to find enough graduates in finance, management, and information technology.

The European Chamber of Commerce (EuroCham) in Vietnam said last December: "If Vietnam is to reach international standards in its educational institutions, it will need to"¦provide the necessary legislative and regulatory environment to enable recruitment and retention of capable staff from around the world."

More political will

There seems to be an increasing political will among Vietnam's top leadership to give science a lift and lure back lost talent.

After Ngo Bao Chau won the Fields Medal in 2010, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the setting up of the Institute of Advanced Research in Mathematics and installed Chau as its director.

The institute aims "to improve mathematical research across the country, creating a new environment and a new research space for mathematicians."

Last month deputy PM Nhan, an East Germany- and US-trained technocrat who was admitted to the Party's decision-making body, the Politburo, last April, urged agencies concerned to expedite site clearance so work on the University of Science and Technology of Hanoi can go ahead.

He would not brook any scrapping of funding by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has lent $190 million for setting up the school, he warned.

The $213-million university, which would take in 5,000 students when it opens in 2016 or 2017, "seeks to establish a new model university focused on science and technology an important driver of innovation and a key to sustained growth in Vietnam's living standards," Norman LaRocque, senior education specialist at the ADB, said.

France has donated about $140 million to the university.

It was also Nhan who, at the Quy Nhon conference August 12, reiterated that the development of science, technology, and education would be the country's top priority.

The conference, which brought together 180 international physicists including five Nobel laureates, was initiated and has been hosted since 1993 by Tran Thanh Van, a world-renowned Vietnamese-French physicist.

Though its remains a bit of an alien event to most ordinary people, insiders have high hopes that the participation of world-renowned scientists would help stimulate science education in Vietnam.

But experts liken science to a plant that takes a long time to grow, and say it needs long-term and uninterrupted care.

"Those who seek immediate returns from the investment in education and science make a serious mistake," Jean Iliopoulos, a French scientist attending the conference, said.

After World War II, it took Europe billions and billions in aid and half a century to get back on track.

When Finland faced a serious economic disaster in the nineties, rather than neglecting research and innovation, it decided instead to increase investment in science and research to more than 3 percent, one of the highest in Europe, paving the way for the Scandinavian country to have one of the highest living standards in the world today.

Elsewhere in Asia, despite the devastating legacy of the Korean War in the 1950s, South Korea was determined to join the world-class science community, and did so successfully after about a half-century of struggles.

Singapore was a raggedy town that had been plundered by the British at the time of independence. It only became the science and research powerhouse it is now around 15 years ago.

On the sidelines of the Quy Nhon conference, there was a debate about how to lure back overseas Vietnamese talent.

There was consensus that if Vietnam is serious about doing so and reforming the science sector, the most important issue would not be money but the political willingness to create favorable conditions for the academics.

"What we desperately need is a more open mind in management," Nguyen Trong Hien, a senior scientist at the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told Vietweek.

He said he was "troubled" because a meeting with local amateur astronomers on the sidelines of the conference was canceled at the last minute because it had not gotten "approval" from local authorities.

"If this had happened 20 years ago, we could have been more sympathetic. How long will we have to wait to have a chance to compare notes with our colleagues comfortably?

"The ultimate goal of a scientist is doing research and science education. We don't have any other hidden political agenda and are not interested in it at all.

"The authorities need to get rid of such backward mindset at once."

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