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The making of Northeast Asia's start-up nations

National innovation strategies are of crucial importance; they determine the types of innovation that are prioritised and funded. But who is deciding which innovations we should push, and how?

Imagine two countries, each trying to advance innovation capacity in order to promote 21st century economic competitiveness. In the first country, the Minister of Industry and Information Technology and his vice-ministers all studied physics and engineering at local universities. The second country, in contrast, has its Innovation and Technology Bureau leadership comprised of MBAs from top American business schools. Beyond differences in the two countries’ economic structures and policymaking processes, should we expect these countries to design similar national innovation policies? May we not expect one country to focus more on technical capacity building and one to design policies that promote international linkages and commercialization? Over time, should these patterns persist, or be permeated by globalisation pressures?

The project, 'The Making of Northeast Asia’s Start-up Nations: A Comparative Analysis of the Individuals and Organizations Responsible for Innovation Policy in Taiwan, China, Japan and Korea, 1998-2018', led by Dr Robyn Klingler-Vidra, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy, offers novel insights into how education informs a 'group think' that impacts the design of innovation policies.


'Group think' leads to economic policies overlooking systemic risks, as exemplified by economists’ inability to mitigate the Great Recession. Scholarship has begun interrogating how shared norms shape policymaking, yet this emergent literature has not adequately explained the sources of nationally-distinct 'group think'. This project will make a novel contribution by examining how the educational backgrounds of East Asia’s innovation policymakers drives a self-replicating group phenomenon that informs shared norms that underpin support for particular emerging technologies.

This project’s intended audience is global in nature, particularly innovation policymakers. It builds upon Robyn’s work on the role of contextual rationality in policymaking; contextual rationality is her analytical framework that explores policymakers’ learning process as simultaneously fully informed and based upon norms. This project is in many ways an extension of her research on contextual rationality in venture capital policymaking which was published as a monograph entitled The Venture Capital State: The Silicon Valley Model in East Asia, by Cornell University Press in 2018.

The Making of Northeast Asia’s Start-up Nations project aims to explore the educational background of innovation policy leaders as an essential source of national policymaking norms.


The project first maps the 'how much, what and where' of university education for the leaders of the key innovation policymaking organisations in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan between 1998 and 2019. It then reveals how educational backgrounds are valued in innovation agencies’ human resource practices and the extent to which leaders of these organisations fit with the broader civil service. It then interrogates how educational backgrounds of the innovation policy leaders shape norms over time. In so doing, the project offers a novel, critical assessment of how educational patterns affect innovation policymaking.

The overarching hypothesis is that variance in East Asia’s innovation policies has been fuelled by the self-replication of lead policymakers, as nationally, these individuals tend to come from similar educational backgrounds. This prompts the study’s core research questions:

  1. To what extent are there national patterns in the education – in terms of how much, what and where in university studies – of East Asia’s leading innovation policymakers? How have these patterns changed over the last twenty years?
  2. How do innovation ministries’ human resource practices assess and value (similar) educational backgrounds? To what extent are the leaders of innovation organisations from the civil service, versus appointed in leadership roles? What are the intervening socio-economic bases for appointments to leadership roles?
  3. How have the educational backgrounds of policymakers shaped nationally-distinct innovation policies over time?


The answers to the questions above will help develop an analytical framework for understanding how educational backgrounds inform policymaking by extending epistemic community (Chwieroth, 2007), elite network (Saxenian, 2006; Seabrooke and Tsingou, 2014, Bloch et al, 2018) and institutionalist (Klingler-Vidra, 2018) approaches. With this knowledge, governments can assess whether the composite education of its policy leaders is desirable, and if not, consider what can be done to create a more balanced innovation agency workforce.

Project status: Ongoing

Principal Investigator


Funding Body: Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange (CCKF)

Amount: €56,000

Period: August 2019 - July 2022