APEC ASPIREs to make a difference

September 14, 2012

For sure, you have never heard of Dr. Rossa Wai Kwun Chiu. But in Vladivostok last week at the APEC Leaders’ Meeting, Professor Chiu was the star of a very special party – winner of the US$25,000 APEC Science Prize for Innovation, Research and Education (ASPIRE) Prize.

Professor Chiu is a discrete and unassuming chemical pathology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Morningside College, but her prize provides a valuable illustration of a hidden talent that Hong Kong has in science and innovation – in spite of general views that Hong Kong has little to boast about in science and R&D.

The prize, on this year’s theme of “health innovation”, was awarded for fostering cooperation among economies to support healthy lifestyles, productivity and economic growth. The prize aims to draw attention to the vital importance of cross-border scientific and technological cooperation. Dr. Chiu, won the prize for her research on, and development of, a non-invasive prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. In the past, the tests for whether a baby still in the womb has Down syndrome have been invasive and uncomfortable at best, and occasionally dangerous. Thanks to her work, the clinical use of non-invasive testing for Down syndrome detection is now routine in Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere.

She won the ASPIRE prize not for the discovery itself – significant as it is – but because of the cross-border collaboration that underpinned it. She worked with scientists from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States to advance her research, which successfully used next-generation DNA sequencing in DNA plasma of pregnant women for the diagnosis of Down syndrome and performed large-scale clinical studies to validate the test.

Hong Kong may not rank among the world’s leaders in Research and Development. In fact by most measures we are a downright laggard, because most R&D is in sectors that don’t have any footprint in Hong Kong – like defence industries, pharmaceuticals, the motor industry and so on. But in one particular area we seem to have a flair – for coordinating distributed research.

Giving substance to this seemingly distinctive flair is our proximity to Mainland China. Here is an economy that is pushing the limits of resource use in many areas of manufacturing, for example, but is failing to attract international collaboration on development of novel resource-efficient technologies in large part because of international anxieties about protection of intellectual property. But Hong Kong, with a rock-solid IP protection regime, proximity to the Mainland manufacturers, and sophistication in coordinating globally distributed research, has found a niche that has huge potential. Clearly the Chinese University is capitalizing on this niche strength. So too is the Science Park next door, with dozens of projects drawing global manufacturers to focus on breakthroughs that will have value making Mainland Chinese manufacturers more resource efficient.

APEC’s ASPIRE award had particular relevance in Vladivostok this week as APEC leaders disbanded a malfunctioning working group on industry, science and technology to create a new public-private sector initiative that can provide real-world relevance to university-based research. Within the next three weeks (warp speed for government officials) the Policy Partnership on Science, Technology and Innovation (PPSTI) is to be set up, not stuffed with government officials, but drawing heavily on private sector members from across the region. Business leaders from each APEC economy are being asked to appoint three private sector members to join the advisory group.

The PPSTI is one of three initiatives launched in APEC this year to draw experienced business executives with real-world experience in to tackle some of the region’s keenest challenges. The second – launched in Kazan in June at the year’s second cluster of senior official meetings – is the PPFS – the Policy Partnership on Food Security. This is tasked to coordinate regional efforts to ensure a sustainable supply of affordable and nutritious food by 2020. With global food prices soaring to record levels in the wake of devastating droughts in the US corn belt, this new initiative is attracting close attention. To the discomfort of many officials, business has insisted that the first task is to draw up short term and long term business plans that set targets, and milestones that will measure progress towards 2020.

The third, and perhaps the most ambitious initiative, was endorsed by APEC Finance Ministers in Moscow two weeks ago, and was last week approved in Vladivostok by APEC leaders. This is the Asia Pacific Financial Forum, which is to be tasked to develop deeper and more sophisticated capital markets in Asia. This Forum was conceived in the 2008 global financial markets crash, when governments and businesses across Asia realized that their pooled funds were almost all invested in the sophisticated capital markets of the US and Europe, were dangerously vulnerable as turbulence continues in these markets, and could not be withdrawn because our own capital markets were neither deep enough nor sophisticated enough to absorb them.

For most people who think of the APEC leaders meetings as vapid talk-shops, initiatives like these three business-government bodies demonstrate that much more substantial work is being done in the APEC region that they acknowledge. APEC has more than 60 working groups that meet over the course of the year (I spent more than 100 days participating in them over the past year). None of them draw up treaties or the kind of legally binding deals that have mired the WTO, and the European Union. Instead, they concentrate on capacity building in the region: inviting businesses and Government officials to put best and worst practices on the table, and allowing other officials take them or leave them. For example, the APEC Business Advisory Council last year worked with APEC officials to form a set of Non-Binding Investment Principles. Private sector investors laid out principles that gave them confidence to invest in an economy. Government officials were left free to adopt them or ignore them. The message from business was simple: nothing is legally binding here, but if you don’t follow the principles then your economy is highly unlikely to attract foreign investment. This learning, sharing and capacity-building focus makes APEC distinctive – and valuable in a way many other international fora are not.

From Vladivostok, Russia steps down as APEC chair, and passes the baton to Indonesia, at the very heart of the APEC region. There will be much for us in the private sector to sink our teeth into. Like Professor Chiu and her research into diagnosis of Down syndrome at the Chinese Unviersity, it may not be glamorous work. But it is valuable, and will undoubtedly contribute to the APEC region remaining the world’s most dynamic and creative part of the global economy.

* The translated Chinese version was published in Ming Pao on September 21, 2012.


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