Posted on Oct 09, 2021
Historically, the cities of the Silk Road have been intellectual powerhouses. Bukhara, Mary, Almaty and Samarkand have long and distinguished histories of scientific research and discovery. In modern times, the region is attempting to put itself back on the map.
Nowadays, Central Asia is relatively unknown as a scientific hub. Despite strong attention to educational access in the Soviet Union, the region has few world-leading academic institutions. Furthermore, since independence Central Asian governments have had “chronic underinvestment” in Research and Development (R&D) according to the UN, and up to at least 2013, average investment was around half that of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is well known that research spending boosts development, and slowly the countries of the Silk Road are waking up to their natural advantages. Geographically, the region can benefit from both well-developed research institutions in the West, and fast-paced technological change in the East. The countries have young, literate populations and higher education is culturally valued. The export of knowledge and products have the ability to be a significant growth area for the region.
Regional governments are beginning to recognize the importance of domestic innovation to national growth. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all included investment in innovation in their national strategies. Furthermore, in June 2021 four of the region’s Education Ministries signed a commitment to create a Higher Unified Education Zone, allowing greater collaboration in research and development projects. Post-covid, the Asian Development Bank predicts that R&D growth will be vital in propelling Central Asian economies out of the doldrums.
Some private companies have also recognized the value of domestic R&D capacity to long-term strategies. A key example is Artel, Central Asia’s largest household appliance and electronics manufacturer, and one of Uzbekistan’s most sizable companies. Since 2016, Artel has invested heavily in its R&D facilities, and it now boasts one of the most impressive manufacturing research facilities in the region, dedicated to refreshing its products and optimizing its production processes.
The company hopes to take advantage of incoming reforms in Uzbekistan designed to incentivize R&D expenditure. Soon, the company will add another 100 experts, including international specialists in fields such as automation, robotics and digitization. In a partnership with the Tashkent State Technical University, the company is also investing in the next generation by training up 250 graduates to the highest technical standards.
It is this kind of investment in both intellectual property and homegrown talent that will help propel the Central Asian countries forward. Governments should increase their R&D funding proportionally to maximize their natural advantages in these fields, and it is heartening to see private companies supporting their Governments in the challenge that lies ahead. In the future, the cities of the Silk Road should start to reassert their position as leading centres of intellectual and scientific discovery.
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