Chapter 11
RED capabilities and IT development

There is practically no research and experimental development (REWED) per- formed in the business enterprise sector of Vietnam. Most modern tech nol- ogy is brought into production through the imports of machinery and o ther products from abroad, through joint ventures and foreign investme nts, through transfer of know-how in the form of licenses, consultancy servi ces, etc. Of course, some high-technology is generated locally, e.g. through the polytechnic universities and some of the other universities and through a few national Ran institutes. (1)

Nonetheless it is easy to find examples of incremental technical chang e in Vietnamese industry, and even some extraordinary shifts in production t ech- nology, but the typical industrial firm -- whether in the north or in the south of the country -- is still a plain production unit, very much depende nt on technological advances outside of the firm.

This description also covers the IT industry of Vietnam, which ha s no particular high-tech features. During the preparations for this report , we have visited a limited number of companies producing computer softw are, which probably would qualify as original prototype development. T hese companies have close links to university departments or research labs.

We have found no specific plans by the government to enhance RKD for industrial purposes. And there are no public policy programs to foster i nno- vative capabilities at the level of the firm. Until today, R&D activitie s in Vietnam are performed essentially by three types of institutions only.

FE Laboratories and other R&D or technical units within a ministr y or under the auspices of a government agency. (In the industrialized countries these specialized units typically correspond to industrial laboratories within firms or la bs linked to other business structures.)

FE University and other higher education departments which perfor m research and experimental development as part of their normal activities. Far from al l departments at Vietnamese universities have the personnel, equipment and other resources to perform research and very few have any kind of IT equipment -- apart from a PC or workstation for administrative purposes.

A small group of national R&D institutions of which the most important i s the National Center for Natural Science and Technology with facilities in the north as well as in the south of the country. In 1993/94, the governme nt brought two of these national centers the National Institute of Technology and the national laborato ry for atomic energy to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environ ment.

This institutional set-up makes R&D in Vietnam a separate activity from tec hnological innovation. The government has created a number of specialized R &D institutions, some of them relatively well-equipped, but not managed to connect them very well to the industrial firms. What's missing too are strong technological capabilities, located with or closely linked to production. To phrase this differently: Vietnam has no "national system of innovation". (2) As Vietnamese REED activities are not organized to easily and effectively s upport industrial firms operating in the modern market economy, most busine ss enterprises do not rely on the R&.D institutions as they try to develop products and new manufacturing processes. Or in economic terms the supply of research results is not in line with the demand, since there is only little interaction between scientific research and industrial technology.

The institutional set-up for the country's REED activities and, more partic ularly, the formal linkages between R&D and industrial production have been changing constantly over the last thirty years, notably during the last te n years. Some of the instituti onal and procedural changes were triggered by shifts in the macro-economic policy or by the general drive towards a market economy. Other changes were generated by the government's policies for science and technology. Still o ther changes were actually uni ntended consequences of the fiscal crises in the public sector. When visiting a number of IT firms and institutions, we encountered a gap b etween the country's scientific and technological activities and its indust rial production. If there are links between science and technology, these t end to be formal arrangements rather than functional partnerships, which makes Vietnamese R&D economicall y ineffective. Nearly all persons interviewed expressed similar opinions. B ut this situation may be changing along with the establishment of high-tech centers (3) or 'technology park s' in the two metropolitan areas. Efforts by some foreign companies to transfer. more systematically technology and skills between foreign subsidiaries and local companies, e.g. a subcontractor, is another such example. We have noticed that industrial managers seems much more interested in technology and entrepreneurship issues now than five years ago.

What really matters to the emerging IT industry in Vietnam are informal, practical links between specialists at the R&D units and in the firms. Such links have been emerging and are enforced by the economic circum- stances; few REcD scientists and engineers can afford not to have 'two jobs'.

The government has come to accept a growth in research outside of the R&D institutes as well as consultancy work by R&D scientists and engineers outside their formal job position.

In recent years, commercial contracts and other formal arrangements have helped mobilize some R&D in support of industry. Moreover, a rapid expansion of independent, privately-owned consultancy firms has also been tolerated, although not encouraged, thereby supporting the drive towards further commercialization of the country's research results and technology.

In Vietnam there is a substantial number of R@D institutions in the field of microelectronics and information technology. Most of them are rather small units and seldom well-equipped such as a university department for informatics or computer science or a multi-disciplinary research groups at one of the polytechnic universities. In several of these units, there may be a small number of scholars and engineering experts who communicate their research results internationally; most REED scientists and engineers do not expose their research to a larger audience. Even some IT firms have staff members with formal research training (Ph.D.).

Actually, in most areas of information technology and related scientific disciplines, Vietnam does not lack first-class IT experts. But the number of such experts is low in comparison with other countries in the region. Vietnam has a rather small pool of top-expertise in IT.

A main negative feature is the lack of coordination between the many IT units and firms and the low intensity of cooperation between many of leading computer scientists and engineers. At the Polytechnic University of Hanoi there are at least four separate departments or units engaged in advanced training of computer engineers and other specialists, but there seems to be very little coordination between the four units, such as for exchange of equipment and sharing of costly facilities. We think that the government should impose cooperation to avoid waste of scarce resources and to stimulate joint, multi-disciplinary activities in both teaching and research.

It is impossible in a report like this to present all units per forming R&D of relevance to IT in Vietnam. That would require a separate do cument. But we will introduce two of the leading institutions in the field of mic roelectron- ics and information technology and mention some of the many o thers. The Institute of Information Technology as well as the Institute of Technology have their headquarters in Hanoi, although they perform research and exper- imental development in the rest of the country as well.

Foot Notes:
  1. The general descriptions in this chapter are taken from Jan Annerstedt & Nguyen Thanh Ha, Demolishing the ivory tower: The drive to commercialize research and experimental development in today's Vietnam, in Vu Cao Dam (ed): Science, Technology and Society in Vietnam, Hanoi: Institute for Science Management, 1993, pp. 109-130.
  2. The term "national system of innovation" was coined by Christopher Freem an in his Technology Policy and Economic Performance: Lessons from Japan, L ondon: Francis Pinter, 1987, and further developed in part 5 of Giovanni Do si, el al (eds), Technical Cha nge and Economic Theory, London: Francis Pinter, 1988. However, it needs fu rther clarification t.o become a useful analytical tool, particularly for c omparisons between nations.
  3. There are several being planned in both Hanoi and HCM City. The first to start functioning will probably be the Hanoi International Technology Cent er, which is being built in 1994 by the Schmidt Group, a Hong Kong-based fi rm.

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