Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Nature on Nanotech and Gene Tech in Taiwan offers an interesting look at Taiwan's high-tech dreams and their implications for the island's employment and technology situation:

Such aspirations are grounded in reality, because many of the country's senior faculty members and administrators trained and worked in top institutions in the United States and Europe. Some come back, mid-career, to care for ageing parents, and take a pay cut in doing so (see 'Low-tech, high-tech'). But schemes to address repatriates' salary issues are gathering steam as part of a bid to internationalize its workforce and to build better facilities in targeted areas.

One of the largest drivers toward Taiwan's goals, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), is steering that change. ITRI boasts about 6,000 researchers, of whom roughly 950 hold PhDs. "We've created about 130 companies in the past 30 years," says ITRI's president, Johnsee Lee. But he acknowledges that many of those companies have focused on contract manufacturing, licensing out technology and outsourcing. The biggest example of this phenomenon is also one of ITRI's most prominent success stories. The Taiwan Semiconductor Company, spun off from ITRI 20 years ago, makes chips for most of the world's laptop computers, and sells them under many labels, including IBM. "We have to change from being a follower to being a differentiator, by combining technology and industrial design," says Lee.

It's a long article and there is plenty there.


Arty said...

I think the article forget to mention one very critical thing especially for the young and upcoming scienists before age of 40. There is no promise that they won't be drafted if they never served in Taiwan's military even if they are a US citizen. If I recall correctly, it had happened before.

Of course the pay is seriously low. 30k to 40k US for an assistant professor at NTU with little start up fund. I mean CUNY Staten island gives about 60k and over 100k start up, and it is not even a tier 1 institute. Current tier 1 institute in the US is paying about 70k and 250k to half a million start up fund. Wong should know that private research institute pays even more since he is from TSRI. Si-Chen Lee, recently tendered an offer to a Nobel laureate chemist that carries an annual salary of US$210,000 — "about 2.5 times the regular salary earned by our rank-and-file professors", says Wong. I guess Wong forget to ask how much did his colleagues Sharpless, KC, Schultz, Peter Wright, Kurt Wuthrich are making.

In addition, Singapore, China, and even India is matching their pay to the US scale. I know someone got a job in India for 60k...and living in India where average income is about what 5k a year!!!

Scott Sommers said...

The article provides a 'typical' Taiwan-based history of the high-tech industry. It describes the 'miracle' as if it were pulled from the air by local intuition and ingenuity.

In fact, the Taiwan high-tech 'miracle' can be better described as technology transfer. There was a thriving technology industry in Taiwan long before the formation of ITRI. The export processing zone in Kaohsiung was assembling components for foreign firms as early as 1965. General Instruments established semiconductor assembly in Taiwan in 1967. RCA had been manufacturing TVs and semiconductors for years prior to the establishment of ITRI.

The significance of this is that the semiconductor industry was built on foundations developed by foreign investors long before there was ever a vision of a high-tech industry here. The implication that the Taiwanese have discovered a 'plan' or know how to do this in some systematic fashion is almost certainly not sustained by the facts.

Observe the failure of the biotech industry in Taiwan. As long ago as 1995, biotechnology was targeted as a growth industry. The success of biotechnology in Taiwan has not been as much in the growth of the industry as a percent of GDP, as it has a redefinition of biotechnology. Just take a look at the companies listed in the 2003 Taiwan Biotechnology Industry Directory. The site is operated by the International Development Bureau of the Ministry of Economic Affairs
Many of the listed companies are already closed. Other companies touted as examples of success produced products only marginally associated with biotechnology.

Arty said...

Btw, I went back to the print issue of Nature and found this:

I didn't realize Taiwan's HIV rate is that high. At least the CDC of Taiwan is honest I guess.

Scott Sommers said...

These are great comments. While we would all like to think that Taiwan is such a 'friendly' place, there are other things that matter. Running industrial from the point of view that it's only money that matters (and even that's not as good as implied) is certainly a disaster.

Mark said...

"Wong says, noting that only about 28% of Taiwanese scientists return after training abroad, compared with 98% of Japanese PhDs."

That's the key.