AAAS Policy Fellows Inspire New Program in Southeast Asia

Through the pilot project, eight scientists and engineers in the region will work on policy matters related to biodiversity, climate change, reducing disaster risks, health, and water management.

Eight of the flags of Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) members in ASEAN headquarter at Jalan Sisingamangaraja No.70A, South Jakarta, Indonesia. From left the flags of: Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. | Gunawan Kartapranata / Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by the 40-year-old AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships program, five Southeast Asian nations — Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam — are participating in a pilot project to increase the use of science, technology, and objective analysis in the political decision-making process.

The initiative, announced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has tasked eight scientists and engineers to work for one year on policy matters related to biodiversity, climate change, reducing disaster risks, health, and water management. The first multi-nation effort to use the AAAS policy-fellows model, the program is managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in partnership with the United States Mission to ASEAN.

"In any country, science, technology and innovation can be an essential piece of the development process," said AAAS science diplomat Norman Neureiter, senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. "This experiment in Southeast Asia, based on the AAAS model, will provide invaluable information on how best to leverage science to enhance regional development and promote scientific cooperation."

From left, Cynthia Robinson, Teguh Rahardjo of the Indonesia Ministry of Research and Technology, and Norman Neureiter | Teresa Leonardo

Neureiter, along with Cynthia Robinson, director of the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships, participated in a four-day orientation event in Jakarta, Indonesia, for the first class of ASEAN fellows. Robinson conducted a session to help fellows maximize their opportunities and accomplishments, and she moderated sessions on strategies to leverage science in support of policy-making.

Over the years, she said, colleagues in Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and Switzerland have expressed interest in the AAAS policy fellowships. A successful program with an environmental-policy focus was launched in Israel four years ago. In the United States, California, and Massachusetts have programs in place that used the AAAS experience as a guide. "We're particularly excited about the effort in Southeast Asia because it's regional," she said. "We hope that it will become a successful model for helping to inform policy in places where multiple countries face the same science-based problems."

As an example of such an issue, ASEAN fellow Nga Thi Thanh Pham plans to leverage her background in meteorology and weather forecasting to study Vietnam's early-warning system, which helps the public prepare for impending storms, floods, and other natural disasters. Every year, the tropical monsoon region surrounding Vietnam generates about 27-28 tropical storms, Nga explained. A handful of those storms inevitably make landfall in Vietnam, where the impacts of natural disasters can be exacerbated by a long coastline, mountainous terrain, and many rivers. A single storm can claim thousands of lives: Last year, super typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 6,268 people in the Philippines also forced some 800,000 people to flee their homes and claimed 10 lives in Vietnam, where it struck as a severe tropical storm. Between 1980 and 2010, natural disasters killed 16,099 people in Vietnam, according to PreventionWeb, a disaster-risk reduction website. The majority of those fatalities, about 94%, resulted from storms and floods.

Working for Vietnam's Ministry of Science and Technology, Nga will assess the country's current early-warning system, which relies on the Voice of Vietnam and Vietnam Television, and she will review lessons learned in other regions, too. "This type of work is so important in Vietnam," she said. "Their living heavily depends on the natural environment and agriculture. Saving more lives and promoting economic development depends on being able to better prepare for natural disasters. I do hope that my knowledge will prove useful in supporting storm-related disaster prevention."

Also in Vietnam, fellow Anh Tung Pham will provide analysis to support policy-making decisions related to helping cities adapt to climate change. In the Philippines, fellow Maria Ruth B. Pineda will help set up a governance structure for the ASEAN-Network for Drugs, Diagnostics, Vaccines, and Traditional Medicines Innovation, an information-sharing initiative.  In Indonesia, fellow Dyah Marganingrum will develop recommendations for improving water resource management.  Other fellows in Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand will work on a variety of issues related to biodiversity and climate change.  

At the Jakarta orientation event for ASEAN fellows, Neureiter's presentation focused on the value of international science diplomacy as a mechanism for improving cross-border relations based on shared goals for advancing science. The first such example of U.S science diplomacy took place in 1961, when Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and U.S. President John Kennedy, at the urging of Edwin Reischauer, then the U.S. ambassador to Japan, announced the creation of three U.S-Japan joint committees, including one on scientific cooperation. In 1972, Neureiter noted, President Richard Nixon also leveraged science diplomacy to help normalize relations with Russia.

"Science can be an important element of foreign policy," Neureiter said. "Taking advantage of that through programs such as this new ASEAN fellowship initiative can improve cooperation between countries and, we hope, result in better outcomes for their research."

Each ASEAN fellow was selected through a competitive, juried process. The fellows have been dispatched to government agencies, where they are working with supervisors on specific research and policy projects, while also staying in close contact with mentors, who are alumni of the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships now working in Southeast Asia.

The initiative was proposed by Montira Pongsiri, who was then the Science Advisor to the U.S. Mission to ASEAN and previously a mentor to AAAS S&T Policy Fellows at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in collaboration with alumna AAAS policy fellow Teresa Leonardo, the Regional Science and Technology Advisor at the USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia.

"We initiated this program to help build a cadre of leaders with the capacity to work at the science to policy interface," said Leonardo. "In ASEAN and elsewhere, decision-makers often do not have the time or expertise to weed through complex technical information that is poorly tailored to their needs. Through this fellowship, the participating scientists will develop skills to help bridge this gap in the application of science to policy and evidence based decision-making. By implementing this activity at the regional level, we're also building a network that will help share lessons and experiences across ASEAN; forming these people-to-people connections is hugely important."

Leonardo described her AAAS policy fellowship as a positive experience that enhanced her career options. "I am incredibly excited by the possibility of helping early-career scientists in ASEAN have a similarly transformative, eye-opening, and rewarding experience," she added.

Scientists in ASEAN who would like to join the mailing list for the next call for applications can sign up by writing to: aseansciencefellows@gmail.com