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Overseas Vietnamese warn about brain drain due to indifference to science

Many overseas Vietnamese scientists have been returning to the country in recent years to work in education and research, and they are troubled by the indifference shown towards both pure science and their return.

Educational institutions needed to be more enthusiastic about pure science or the country would suffer a severe brain drain that could last for a long time, Saigon Tiep Thi reported them as saying during a visit for a conference last month.

Renowned scientists Trinh Xuan Thuan, Dam Thanh Son, and Pham Quang Hung were among those who attended the seventh "Rencontres du Vietnam" (Meeting Vietnam) and expressed concern.

Vietnamese-American astrophysicist Thuan, a winner of the 2009 Kalinga Award from UNESCO, visited many universities around the country and made presentations to students on astronomy, arousing interest among the youngsters, who learn almost nothing about astronomy in school.

The University of Virginia professor said he was worried by the "practical view" Vietnam has toward science, with universities and society making people chase after applied sciences like engineering and forget pure sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

The concern was shared by Hung, who has been using his personal contacts for the last eight years to bring a physics program from the University of Virginia to Hue University.

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His biggest question was how to create an environment for young talent at home to follow pure, or fundamental, science, he said.

Vietnam could follow its neighbor China, which is making plans to bring its scientists back from the US and other countries and invest in laboratories and comfortable living and working places for them, he said.

"If we're late to adopt those strategies, there'll be a more severe brain drain," he warned.

Professor Son of Washington University also urged the Vietnamese government to offer young talent the space to develop and build future plans for them, warning they would continue to leave otherwise.

Dr Alan Phan, a successful businessman in the US and China, said: "The academic environment in Vietnam is not really open. The younger generations in Vietnam are stuck in many things like family and social conditions. It is like a box that is hard to open up for wisdom."

The Vietnam government and academia need to have an open mind to receive ideas from those who want to contribute to the country.

Prof Le Tran Kim Ngoc, one of the conference organizers and who has worked with foreign counterparts to support SOS villages for disabled Vietnamese children, said Vietnam treats science poorly.

"Our country has many rich men and skyscrapers, but there is no one supporting or calling for support to science," she said.

Many things in Vietnam are subverted by corruption, and this "envelope" habit has caused difficulties for science too, she said.

Many science projects are not approved because of failure to bribe officials in charge, she said.

"That makes no sense to me."

As evidence of the bad treatment, she noted the lack of support she got for taking care of the scientists coming to the meeting: "We're working like ants, taking care of their needs."

One university rector even said he did not trust her and the visiting scientists, claiming that they were in Vietnam merely for a vacation, she said.

The reluctance to support science among provincial authorities and universities "has really discouraged us," she said.