Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nanotechnology Development in Taiwan

One aspect of economy policy under the DPP is its forward looking technological aspects, whereas Ma's economic proposals, under Siew, are based on a back-to-the-future 1970s model that involves spraying concrete around Taiwan like so much fake snow at a Christmas party. A key emerging industry in world technology markets is nanotechnology, the science of "understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers (a billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is 100,000 nm)," and Taiwan has pursued it with vigor:

The government is planning to appropriate NT$23 billion (US$726 million) to fund the second stage of the "Taiwan National Science and Technology Program for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology" slated for 2009-2014, officials at the cabinet-level National Science Council (NSC) said Tuesday.

The first stage, which began in 2003 with NT$17.8 billion in funding, will conclude by the end of this year, officials told reporters.

In the first phase, more than 4,000 science research papers have been generated to date, dozens of top-notch research teams were initiated, and ties between industry, university, and research institutions have been strengthened, they said.

Program Director Wu Maw-kuen, who is also the director of the Institute of Physics under Taiwan's top research institute Academia Sinica, said the program office is now working on the outlines of the next phase by determining which items of research are worth further financial support.

Wu said the focus of the next stage will be nano-electronic and optoelectronic technology, nano-scale instruments, nanotechnology for energy and environmental applications, nano-scale biomedical research, and the various technologies' utilization in potential and traditional industries.

How does this sum compare? It is about half the US$1.444 billion the US Nanotechnology Initiative is spreading across 13 US government departments for nanotech research, though Taiwan's GDP is just a fraction of US GDP. Additionally, the Taichung Science Park was originally intended to be nanotech oriented.

The article also alludes to a key function and metric of Taiwan's universities: producing papers for foreign consumption. Pressure to publish in Taiwan universities is excruciating -- and not merely to publish, but to publish in top journals (the importance of chasing status in Chinese cultural is instrumental in this push). At NCKU where I am doing a PHD in international business, my fellow students generally try and place papers in just the top 2 or 3 journals. One can only imagine what will happen when the coming wave from China breaks over the world of academic journals.

One perennial problem in Taiwan's development is the university- government-industry triumvirate: the first leg is only weakly linked to the second and third. The government has been working on integrating the universities more into national industrial development. Part of the problem is that the technocracy responsible for the major input into government economic and technology policy formation is not university-based, but rather holds court in the think tanks in Taipei, according to a knowledgeable person I spoke to a couple of months ago, and it sees the universities as places for producing papers Taiwan can use to validate itself on the world stage (hence the government's proud announcement that its nanotech initiative had generated 4,000 papers). Another problem is the rigid execution so common in Taiwan's public policy -- all departments are ordered to have "industry-university cooperation" and so, by god, they shall. At one university I taught at "industry-university cooperation" in my department consisted of a proposal to teach English at a local airline. The private for-profit universities often frankly see such programs as merely another profit center.

Still other problems are the lack of high-quality universities -- the so-called "universities of technology" are largely voc-ed finishing schools that generally do not have access to high quality students, especially innovative grad students, so necessary for technology development programs. The testing system tends to shunt such students into the national universities, and when profs hit the big-time, they tend to move to one of the national schools as well. The Ministry of Education is often roundly criticized by the locals, but making modernity more than just a mask in the local universities is a daunting task.


Mark said...

From the article:
"And those that have already been used in pilot production or mass production include various materials, equipment, machinery, components and instruments using related nanotechnologies developed by Taiwanese researchers, according to the council."

In some ways this seems like it's more about looking cutting edge, than it is an attempt to actually become cutting edge.

In order to even have a hope of challenging silicon valley, it's going to take more than just Taiwanese researchers. Japan has made very similar attempts to make "all Japanese" biotech hubs, and generated little traction. In order to be competitive, they'll need to attract researchers from abroad, become more VC friendly, and offer some sort of advantage over the established centers such as silicon valley.

If the US continues to become more restrictive in terms of immigration, that might be an area for an upstart to get an edge.

Anonymous said...

That's funny, they actually implemented the 'English for airlines' program at my current institution of higher learning, Michael. In fact, you put your finger on one of the central problems of university research in Taiwan--the desire to bureaucratize everything and make it a function of grant-writing. I suspect that about 90% of my colleagues in TW think of research as something you do to gain recognition or get promotions, and not something you do because it's what you care about or believe is important.

In the humanities (such as they are here) this cynicism is esp. apparent, and the airline English program is a good example of it--"hey, let's funnel some money from the state to serve the private sector's English needs." I
wonder when/if the liberal arts in TW will ever rise from the squalor and begin to do something really useful--e.g., like teaching and practising critical thinking in the public arena (or wait, has that already been sold off?).

Anonymous said...

taiwan's gdp isn't "a fraction of the u.s.'s gdp". it's like about a 1/4 to 1/3 of it. that's not a fraction.

Anonymous said...

let me clarify the previous statement: i meant "a fraction" as in significantly smaller, less than 1%. taiwan's gdp is 25% to 35% of the u.s.'s gdp (depending on what source you look at) which is much bigger than "a fraction".

Anonymous said...

The lack of common sense that goes into students trying to even attempt to publish in a foreign language, in journals with a 90% rejection rate at the best of times is beyond me. There is little experience or benefit to be got from trying to publish in places beyond your means. Culture and face may push these PhD student to send work to top rate journals, but common sense needs to prevail as ultimately they are wasting their own time.

Michael Turton said...

taiwan's gdp isn't "a fraction of the u.s.'s gdp". it's like about a 1/4 to 1/3 of it. that's not a fraction.

Ummm...I think you are off by about a zero there, my friend. Taiwan's GDP is about $330 billion, US is about $12 trillion.


Anonymous said...

The lack of common sense that goes into students trying to even attempt to publish in a foreign language, in journals with a 90% rejection rate at the best of times is beyond me. There is little experience or benefit to be got from trying to publish in places beyond your means. Culture and face may push these PhD student to send work to top rate journals, but common sense needs to prevail as ultimately they are wasting their own time.

Do you know why? That's because no one knows WHO THE HACK IS YOUR professors (of course there are several exceptions in Taiwan but hardly enough). I have mentioned before that if your faculties only published in the 4th rated journals before, how do you expect the students they trained to be published in the top journals. Also, a lot of submissions are rejected without reviews due to the topics of research have been published before. IT IS NOT HARD TO DO SOME REFERENCES CHECKING BEFORE STARTING OF YOUR PROJECTS.

Arty's rating:

1st ranked: Cell, Nature (immunology maybe), Science, and PNAS (track II) I am excluding NEJM and JAMA because they are more of a profession specific journal.

2nd ranked: JACS, JBC, JMB, Cancer Research etc.

3rd ranked: Biochemistry, J of OChem...a lot of them

As for nano-technologies and material sciences, you only have to hire a person from George Whiteside's lab to guarantee some good publications in good journals. Wait, I think there is one in Taiwan and his initial is CHW who I still don't know if he is truly in Taiwan or is still at Scripps.

Also, I do have to ask a question, where did all the money go when you still paying sub-standard salaries for your new faculties at top universities (NTU for example, is it still paying 40k US dollars for their new assistant professor; you do know some China institutes is paying above 70k?). Oh, and stop hiring senior faculties who have to leave their US jobs due to lack of tenures.

Okay, my rant is over.

Unknown said...

America will continue to dominate academic research - why? Because research is largely determined by two things: quality of the worker bees (graduate students) and the reputation of the queen bee (advisor). All the top graduate students still come to the United States, and the majority by far of the big names in research are in the US (courtesy of the massive brain drain following WWII that is still paying us dividends even today).

At my graduate program in computer science, we have a large contingent of Chinese and Taiwan students who read something like the top student from Beijing, top 5 students in Tsinghua, top student in National Tsinghua, top 5 from Taiwan National, etc. As long as we keep on taking all the top and most ambitious students from every other country, their own grad programs will suffer accordingly.

Also, almost all the top journals and conferences in nearly every subject from science to engineering to economics to education are in English, and there is just a natural advantage of coming here. All China and Taiwan can do is hope to keep their own top students, but America is sucking top students from all over the world, giving us access to incredible talent.

Yeah there are exceptions (Japan has a solid robotics journal) but by and far I don't see China/Taiwan ever overtaking or threatening the US hegemony over most areas of research, at least not for another hundred years.

Anonymous said...

for some reason i mistakenly thought you were referring to 'per capita GDP' cuz that's what i was talking about regarding your comment about taiwan's gdp being a fraction of the u.s.'s.

Anonymous said...

At Mark--ironically, Hsinchu Taiwan is probably the only large cluster of technology companies that has been able to challenge Silicon Valley and successfully. The reason you don't really feel it is because Silicon Valley moved on to other things (like web startups) while Hsinchu became home to basically the entire world's semiconductor manufacturing stack outside of CPUs. How long has Singapore and China been talking about taking over the semiconductor industry from Taiwan? 10-20 years? No one outside of Taiwan has been able to be profitable for that.

In terms of how the overall environment compares with Silicon Valley's (not actual competitors), besides semi fabs, there's also a bunch of IC design firm startups, people doing RFID, WiMax related startups, PC accessory startups...
anything that's a box with a circuit board and chips inside, there's someone in Taiwan that wants to design and manufacture it.

Remember, Taiwan is the kingdom of small and medium size businesses, and it is very conducive to startups.

As proof, a statistic that has been totally ignored in Taiwan's mainstream media is the TAIEX's overall market cap from 2000 to today has gone from 8 trillion NT (260 billion USD) to 20 trillion NT (630 billion USD).

For comparison, from 1997 to 2000, when Siew, Ma's running mate was running this country, the market cap went from 9 trillion NT to 8 trillion NT.

I'll let that sink in for a minute. Yes, that's right, it grew 150% or it is 250% of where it was 8 years ago. But the TAIEX index hasn't gone up much you say? Exactly. A whole lotta value has been generated by new startups that have IPO'd in the past 8 years.

It's unbelievable how the media portrays Taiwan's economy and financial environment as deteriorating when there has been good, steady GDP growth and huge amounts of value have been created as reflected in the stock market.

If you're a laborer, just like all over the world, your wages have been stagnant these 8 years because of China and the rest of the developing world.

If you're thinking of doing some kind of electronics startup in Taiwan, you have one of the best environments in the world to do it in.

For reference, you can get the same statistics I cited on the TAIEX website: annual TAIEX date and current weekly data.

Mark said...

Stock market valuation are a terrible way of measuring economic growth or health. I think that's why the media isn't talking about it much.

"Hsinchu became home to basically the entire world's semiconductor manufacturing stack outside of CPUs.

You're joking, right? What about the biggest solar power manufacturer in the world, Suntech Power? What about the Korean semiconductor businesses? Even Taiwanese companies, such as Silicon Motion, have moved manufacturing to mainland China. And they don't do CPUs. In fact, I'd go so far as to say most memory manufacturing is done outside of Taiwan these days.