Include science in political debate

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BY TAN SRI OMAR ABDUL RAHMAN

ON April 3, Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau launched “Science Outlook 2017”, a study undertaken by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM). This is a review and update of an earlier study, “Science Outlook 2015 – Action Towards a Vision”, which described the prevailing status of our science, technology and innovation (STI) infrastructure and processes.

The 2015 study clearly described our enduring and entrenched weaknesses in six strategic areas – STI Governance; Research, Development and Commerciali-sation (RD&C); STI Talent; Engineering Industries; STI Enculturation; and Strategic International Alliance.
The following are a few examples of the findings:

> STI Governance: need to acknowledge the critical function of governance… such as “evaluation of national and societal needs, including the industrial, socio-economic and political landscape within the context of STI”; “Adaptation of various STI policy measures”; and “Solving the issues identified through course correction and strategic solution” and

> RD&C: Malaysia has relatively low R&D investments (RM10.6bil or 1.13% gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) per GDP in 2012 compared to the average of 2.04% in G20 countries; and private sector participation in R&D is minimal, “limiting the opportunities to strengthen the R&D output for its commercial intent and application.”
Sixteen major recommendations were made for improvement across the STI landscape, among them:

> Empower a centralised inter-ministerial STI coordination and monitoring body to garner stakeholder participation and establish a Parliamentary Select Committee on STI;

> Empower a centralised body to promote seamless RD&C implementation, management and monitoring to evaluate beyond traditional return on investment;

> Bridge the gap between policy and reality through review of implementation; strategise effective policy measures to retain STI talent;

> Aggressive and continuous dissemination of STI agenda to industry players to enhance their understanding and involvement;

> Establish strategic long-term plans on STI enculturation; and

> Forge and increase STI-focused international alliances to establish Malaysia’s leadership and achieve excellence.

Science Outlook 2017 states in its conclusion that: “Malaysia’s aspiration to be an advanced nation requires all sectors to have the capacity for developing knowledge capital to fuel Malaysia’s drive to be an advanced economy.”

It is unfortunate that most of the recommendations outlined in the Science Outlook 2015 have not been taken up by the relevant stakeholders, thus affecting the momentum of Malaysia’s science, technology and innovation (STI) endeavours.

Science Outlook 2017 urged that the previous recommendations be implemented and new ideas be taken on board, arguing that Malaysia must have a robust STI ecosystem for “the country to navigate the deep waters of knowledge-based economy…”

The current status of our STI ecosystem is not one that engenders confidence for an “innovation-driven, private sector-led” economy that is Malaysia’s aspiration. Neither is it an encouraging situation for the scientific community in Malaysia, already disappointed by the lack of commitment to S&T and R&D in the Eleventh Malaysia Plan despite the emphasis therein on innovation.

Despite the plea for political parties to pledge commitment to STI development by Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim, “Science matters in manifestos” (The Star, March 31), none have shown such in their election manifestos. There is justification therefore to conclude that STI has no place in Malaysian politics – and that is a great pity.

In 2012 , myForesight, the magazine of the Malaysian Foresight Institute (MFI), published four future best-to-worst case scenarios for “Malaysia’s Different Paths Towards 2020”:

> Scenario 1 – A star is born, where Malaysia continues on the path of social and economic reforms through the successful implementation of Government and Economic Transformation Plans.

> Scenario 2 – Entrapment, where Malaysia’s effort to achieve good governance and create an innovative culture does not succeed because the economy fails to transform to higher value-added sectors.

> Scenario 3 – Don’t worry, be happy in which Malaysia is a lackadaisical society stuck in neutral, moving along on a “business as usual” mode with modest growth.

> Scenario 4 – Sealed in a time capsule, where Malaysia’s economic transformation plan is not supported by necessary reforms.

From the perspective of the STI axis, we are in the unhappy position of being in the “Don’t worry, be happy” and “Sealed in a time capsule” situation.

This is what the two scenarios say respectively: “Due to our laggard attitude in innovation, slow development of human capital and failure to create a knowledge-based society,

Malaysia remains a labour- dependent country, especially in the lower level of the industry”, and “Malaysia makes limited and disjointed success in technology… The private sector reaction to the innovation initiatives introduced by the Government has been lukewarm. R&D is very much government-driven…”

The above are basically what Science Outlook 2015 and Science Outlook 2017 emphasised several years after the scenario study by the MFI.

What has gone wrong? I believe we have no issue with capacity for advice, but the capacity for advice must be matched with capacity for and willingness to act on good advice.
We now have the National Science Council (NSC), the apex body dealing with STI issues for the country chaired by the Prime Minister.

To demonstrate our serious commitment to enhancing the STI ecosystem and strengthening our STI capacity to push Malaysia out of the middle-income trap and become an economy that is innovation-driven and private sector-led, the NSC must not be just an advisory body.

It must be an action council like the Economic Action Council.

Since a council is only as effective as its supporting secretariat is competent, the NSC secretariat must have the legitimacy, authority and capacity to support the council with incoming advice, policy and strategic issues, development of the national STI agenda and implementation oversight.

This is also basically the message of both the Science Outlook 2015 and 2017.
The scientific community looks forward to a quick return to normalcy after election fever subsides and the largess associated with electioneering stops.

The government of the day can reposition STI in the national priority, strengthen our STI ecosystem, rationalise support for GERD and RD&C and prevent stagnation in our national innovation agenda.

This is the only way to prevent our steady progress towards a possible fifth scenario: Malaysia for sale!

NOTE: The author is a senior fellow, Academy of Sciences, Kuala Lumpur

 

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