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Friday, August 17, 2018

Editor-in-chief
Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan

A sterling crop in New Malaysia’s cabinet

July 2018

While history-making cabinet members create anecdotal realities, nation re-engineering must be tops in the agenda.

CONGRATULATIONS, to the newly appointed Cabinet members of  New Malaysia. The line-up is made up of highly qualified lawmakers from various fields of expertise.

And there are those with illustrious political careers and all of them have a clean track record that says it all. The newly-minted cabinet members have set some new records in the history of the Malaysian government.

Beginning with the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest premier to take office and the first to make a comeback to the prime minister’s office. The nonagenarian is also the first to take office with the title “Tun”.

A major point of interest here, for the first time, a non-BN cabinet has taken office after 61 years of national independence.

With the appointment of Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah as the Deputy Prime Minister, Malaysia has also proven to the world that we are truly a progressive country that practices gender equality.

Both the top two cabinet positions are held by medical doctors – so we can safely assume “the health of the country is in good hands”. I can say this confidently, as Mahathir’s acumen for economy, business and trade is impeccable.

Syed Saddiq jettisoned the previous record held by his predecessor Khairy Jamaluddin as the youngest minister at age 37. The Johor-born Syed Saddiq is now helming the Ministry of Youth and Sports at the age of 26.

The youngest female cabinet member is Yeo Bee Yin, 35. Yeo who also hails from Johor is Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment.

And for the first time a ministry (besides women, family and community development) is helmed by two female lawmakers. Her deputy is Isnaraissah Munirah. We also have the youngest MP, P. Prabakaran, an independent lawmaker from the Batu constituency.

History was written again with Gobind Singh Deo as the first Sikh minister in the Malaysian cabinet. He holds court as the minister for Communication and Multimedia.

I believe if we dig deeper into the background of each lawmaker it will lead us to more folksy anecdotes and facts of history.

But the time has come, to go beyond anecdotal specifics and to rise beyond the euphoria to create more history through our achievements in education; science and technology; healthcare; housing; economy; governance and transparency; youth development, leadership and achievements; environment management; unity; women empowerment; sports; infrastructure and transport; and many other areas pertinent to get Malaysia into the list of first world nations.

Future-proofing nation
All the above are key to engineering a successful nation but what is equally important is to look at “future-proofing” the country through Science Technology and Innovation (STI).

STI, in particular plays a critical role in developing a knowledge and an innovation-based high-income nation. No country has achieved this feat without having first putting in place meaningful initiatives as the foundational building blocks.

The Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) which publishes The Petri Dish, the only science monthly available in the country has been immersed with the nation’s science sector for the last two decades.

Here are some grey areas that may need the pointed attention of both the minister and her deputy:

Beyond policy

Malaysia has realised the need for a strong STI initiative even as early as 1970s. In fact, we had world-renowned research institutes then. The Rubber Research Institute and the Institute for Medical Research had their flags flying high. Today, we have 56 national policies that are related to STI and under the purview of various ministries.

We are not short of STI policies but two areas for improvement are – implementation and inter-ministerial collaboration. Everything looks perfect on paper but they are yet to be translated into tangible impact.

The question is: are the “T” and “I” in “STI” given more emphasis than the “S”? I am apprehensive that this phenomenon will lead us to be technology-users and not developers.

We will not be proud owners of “homegrown technology” without strong basic research. And we are already seeing the negative impact of this. For an example, to develop our bioindustry, we are always calling for FDI and are keen in luring foreign companies to
invest.

While this is important, our landscape must have a balance of local high-end players too. This will only happen if the strong basic science exists, and that which can be translated into applied science and later into technology.

My simple example to non-technical stakeholders and decision makers is – we can only develop a herbicide or pesticide if we know the metabolic pathway of the weed or pest. That requires strong basic science.

Now, that brings me to my next argument. Biotechnology is loosely defined in Malaysia. Any activities that utilise living organisms are clustered into the biotechnology industry.

Biotechnology & basic science

How much of biotechnological innovations and interventions are there in aromatherapy, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals, farming herbs, fertilisers and food supplements? Since the launch of the National Biotechnology Policy in 2005, we only have one success story – Biocon.

They too are having a serious talent retention problem as graduates tend to move to Singapore upon acquiring experience and skills. The location of Biocon favours the Lion City more than us.

Another glaring mistake by our decision makers is the attempt to adopt successful technology park models from overseas in a wholesale manner without looking back how the park gained its prominence and what was done in their early years.

Here again, the foundation is ignored. Infrastructure takes a precedence over scientific vigour and technology development.

Just like how a building without strong foundation is bound to collapse, a nation without strong foundation in basic science cannot sustain as a technocrat nation. To have the technocratic streak, we need to get back to basic science.

I hope the new ministers will not want to endorse products and technology which only saw six months of research. My easy answer to this is, we can develop products within six months, but they are as good as herbal products sold at the pasar malam.

Funding
Funding is another major obstacle. Biotechnology, unlike the tech companies requires huge investment and has a long gestation period.

I have mentioned in my previous editorial that Quaker Oats took 18 years to get approval from USFDA to claim that the cereal can reduce cholesterol. And my question was, how many of our nutraceutical companies have the stamina and money to do this?

This is what will help our products to penetrate the international market. The priority given to harness our natural resources has been stretched a bit too far. It is time to reassess our priority. Look at our
agriculture sector. Are we in a position to help our farmers to increase yield, fight pests and diseases and climate change?

Our rice, banana, papaya and pineapple are plagued with diseases. How much research is being done to improve crop varieties and
produce seeds?

I am also glad that a number of “alphabet soup” agencies have been dissolved and am wishing for more scrutiny and coordination on
the remaining ones.

A lot of stocktaking and benchmarking need to be done but must be carried out in all fairness and not by painting a rosy picture of
our current STI status.

Weak links
The recently launched Academy of Sciences’ Science Outlook 2017 has hit the nail on the head by pointing out the weak links in our STI landscape and ecosystem.

Talent development and job opportunities is another area of concern.
As a promoter of STEM and biotechnology, I am often in a dilemma to promote STEM education as careers are limited in this field, especially in the bio-based industries.

We have heard enough rhetoric about the hundreds of thousands of jobs opportunities that will be up for take for our biotechnology graduates in 2020. We have also heard that the
nation needs more engineers and PhD graduates in science by 2050.

But the reality is our biotechnology, biobased graduates and postgraduates are not able to find jobs relevant to their training and
qualifications.

The reality is the industry is not growing in tandem with the number of graduates we produce. Aren’t we giving them false hope? How many research positions are available at public research institutes and universities for postgraduates? What is the annual growth for such positions? Are there research positions for PhD graduates in the private sector?

Biotech crops
On a related matter, this issue of The Petri Dish highlights the global status of Genetically Modified (GM) or biotech crops. Biotech crops have entered mainstream agriculture since 1996, more than two decades ago and Malaysia, a dependent of important grains for our livestock and poultry industry has been consuming GM corn and soybean since the same year. Biotech crops have reduced use of pesticides and prevented the use of potent herbicides.

The merging of environment and science into a single ministry is also a good sign. I hope biotechnology or agribiotechnology will not be seen as a threat to biodiversity, instead be perceived as a tool to conserve our natural environment.

The inclusion of “Climate Change” as a component in the ministry’s portfolio should further see agribiotechnology in good light based on scientific evidence.

Biotech crops are not silver bullets but offer solution in mitigating climate change. There are documented evidence of reduction in CO2 with the adoption of biotech crops. Modern biotechnology offers tools to develop crops that are tolerant to drought, salinity and other
extreme weather conditions.

Science communication needs a local narrative

June 2018

I AM pleased to announce that the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) and The Petri Dish have launched a home-grown science communication module to train local researchers and Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) practitioners.

For long we have been reliant on foreign experts in this area and it is time to change this. Science communication is a combination of art and science.

Approaches in science communication are driven by empirical findings about public perception, concerns, fear, knowledge and trust among others – but the delivery has to be laced with art and
creativity.

Due to the hybridisation narrative to ensure local sensitivities, culture, priorities, public perception, relevance and social norms are taken into account when developing and framing messages that are
intended for a broad-spectrum audience.

Basically, it is about reaching out both to the hearts and minds of the audience. It requires a delicate balance of logic, empathy, credibility as well as hard facts and figures.

Armed with years of experience in this field, we at Mabic and The Petri Dish felt the need for such a “narrative” which could help translate the intricate complexities of science and its jargon using art’s light and deft expressions.

In May, our team set off to Singapore to train a group of education researchers. Then we collaborated with University Malaya’s UMXccelerate (UMX) and trained a group of researchers and PhD students.

The outcome was so encouraging. See their writing skills on Page 9. None of them have written a popular science article before and I am so proud that their first attempt merits space in The Petri Dish.

Risk communication is a branch of science communication and we conducted a workshop for scientists and regulators handling GMOs and biosafety regulations.

This was organised by the Department of Biosafety under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

Our hope at The Petri Dish is to have a pool of scientists who are able to engage with Malaysian society to bring science home – to make it a part and parcel of the citizenry’s DNA.

Only when we achieve this, can the culture of innovation flourish and give rise to the creation of techno- and bioentrepreneurs in the country. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say, science communication
is one of the key elements to take Stem off the ground; see more students in this area; better science policies and regulations and their implementation; and finally, the creation of jobs in these fields.

Am I singing the same old tune from the broken record? I sound like it. But I will continue to sing this song till science and society are
intertwined in Malaysia, and till science becomes an inherent part of the Malaysian culture.

My dream is for all universities and research institutes to have trained science communicators to support scientists in their public engagement.

This position has to be entrenched into the system. That will be the day, when we can say we are serious about science enculturation.

The Petri Dish wishes its Muslim readers Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri!

A renaissance for our science agenda

May 2018

A NEW age for Malaysia has dawned not only for good governance but also in the realm of science, technology and innovation (STI) under the visionary leadership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. There is jubilation in every corner of the country as if the country has been liberated from “stagnation if not digression”.

Malaysia is now witnessing the return of its former prime minister who had lent a strong agenda for science when he helmed the nation from 1981 till 2003.

After he retired, the national agenda for science went to the back burner for many reasons, including economic reasons and mega scandals affecting the nation. I first stepped into Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now Universiti Putra Malaysia) in 1989 to pursue my Bachelors degree and never really left the academic world since then.

It has been three decades now and never before did I witness such a major catastrophe in terms of research funding.

The last decade also saw the mushrooming of agencies in the name of STI, their output vaguely creating impact to the society – but siphoning huge operational funding.

The new government certainly has a huge cleaning up job to do and there has to be herculean revamping and streamlining of STI activities and priorities.

The ministry of science has to emerge once again as a strong and key ministry. I have always believed that two strong pillars and investment of any nation are education and STI.

Only these two, can future-proof the country and its citizenry to stay relevant in the age of “disruption technologies” and the rapid pace of scientific revolution.

In all fields of science, Malaysia has lots to catch up. And there is hardly time to catch up as the world is not staying stagnant in this area.

As we take one step ahead, the others are taking a leap.

Malaysia also has too many invisible walls that hinder collaborations between different institutes and in some cases among the same institutes.

The culture of working in silo ecosystems and duplicating the same research must come to a stop. Research priorities should be set to address national challenges and collaborative research should be the norm.

While these walls need to be brought down, a new wall must be erected – that is a wall between science and politics.

Science should not be politicised. The scientific community should be given autonomy to speak out about emerging technologies, ethics, policies and regulations and their positions on current issues.

Ivory towers have always served as a place for intellectual discourses since its establishment centuries ago.

We also had enough of political appointments. It is time proper screening and vetting, based on merit is put in place to fill up the top positions to make government agencies a driving force to steer STI.

I am also glad that the walls between the many States and Federal government have finally come down.

I personally saw negative online remarks that I was working too closely with the Selangor government and supporting their biotech initiatives.

Two years ago, I gave an interview to SelangorKini on biotechnology and last year I was featured in one of Selangor’s video clip to promote Selangor International Expo and was also a speaker at the Expo.

I also sit on the Selangor Bio Council. This has irked some people at the previous federal government but I remained steadfast in my commitments to serve the country.

In my capacity I help many other countries develop their biotech policies and regulations, so it is utmost silly if I am restrained from helping my own nation.

All this must come to an end. I hope the new government will not have such unwritten rules anymore.

I look forward to working closely with any state held by the opposition as well as the new federal government.

My humble request to all new MPs, Ministers and Deputy Ministers – I hope all our YBs will take some time to grasp strong knowledge on STI so it can be debated intellectually in the Parliament.

No one doubts Tun Dr Mahathir’s depth of knowledge in wide-ranging topics of science and technology.

The new members of the august house have to match his speed and impressive knowledge in these complex and rapidly evolving areas.

Looking forward for our leaders to bring back the glory of STI in Malaysia.

 

Hoping for a new renaissance in the science sector

April 2018

THE  NATION  is  currently  on  the  cusp of  its  fourteenth  general  election  (GE14).  When will  Parliament  be  dissolved,  when  is  nomination  day  and  when  is  the  polling  day  –  are  questions on  every  Malaysian’s  lips.

I  can’t  foretell  if  this  issue  of  The  Petri  Dish   will  roll  out  of  the  press  before  or  after  GE14.

But  whoever  holds  court,  as  the  next  government,  be  it  the  incumbent  administration  or  the  unknown  and  untested  gaggle  from  the  alternative  coalition,  I  pray  and  hope  that  the  aspirations  and  dreams  of  the  scientific  community  in  the  country  will  see  a  new  renaissance.

The  importance  of  science,  technology  and  innovation  in  any  community  cannot  be  downplayed.  It  is  a  well-known  fact  that  no  nation  can  develop  without  advancing  in the  areas  of  science,  technology  and  innovation.

During  the  glory  days  of  our  booming  rubber  industry,  we  were  tops  in  the  science  of  rubber  research.  In  the  wheels  of  our  time  we  morphed  into  other  plantation  and  commodity  industries.

But  rubber  will  always  be  in  demand  for  a  number  of  industries.  Due  to  this  demand,  rubber  research  today  is  heading  towards  synthetic  biology,  green  technologies  and  genetic  modification  technology.  We  once  had  rubber  trees  that  could  produce  human  growth  hormone  in  our  research  stations!

But it is all gone now.  Are  we  agile  enough  to  adopt  the  latest  technologies  to  remain  as  a  leader  in  this  industry?

We  are  a  major  oil  producing  country  and  our  national  oil  company  makes  billions  of  ringgit.  We  proudly  talk  about  STI,  IR  4.0  and  TN50,  but  where  is  our  futuristic  R&D  plans  to  sustain  our  economy  beyond  the  age  of  fossil  fuel?

How  much  of  the  profit  is  ploughed  back  into  R&D  to  diversify  our  economy  and  for  a  sustainable  future  in  terms  of  economy  and  environment?  How  far  are  we  in  biofuel  and  other  alternatives  to  energy?

Malaysia  allocates  an  average  1.3%  of  its  GDP  to  R&D  expenditure  (Japan  3.28;  Korea 4.23; USA 2.79; Israel 4.27).  Whenever national annual budget is announced,

STI seems to be in fine prints.  Our crops have major pests and disease problems.

We lost our papaya, banana and pineapple industry.  But  we  have  never  heard  of  these  areas  set  as  priority  research  areas  with  a  long-term  funding  and  a  dedicated research team  formed  at  the  national  level.

Another  major  problem  is  our  haste  to get  products  into  the  market.  Our political  masters  seem  to  want  commercialisation  to  happen  during  their  term  for  the  funding  that  they  approved.  It  is  time  we  rewire  our  thoughts  on  commercialisation,  especially  if  we  want  our  companies  to  go  global.  We cannot  develop  a  world-class  product  after  five  years  of  research  or  get  a  graduate  a startup  company  to  an  SME  in  five  years.  We have a passion for low hanging fruits.  But how low do we want to go?

In  1997,  the  FDA  made  the  first  food-specific  health  claim  for  oatmeal,  allowing  Quaker  Oats  to  display  this  claim  on  product  packaging:  “Soluble  fibre  from  oatmeal  as  part  of  a  low  saturated  fat,  low  cholesterol  diet,  may  reduce  the  risk  of  heart  disease.”

Scientists  at  FDA,  aided  by  colleagues  at  National  Institutes  of  Health  and  the  Centres  for  Disease  Control  and  Prevention,  reviewed  37  studies  before  making  their  decision.  Quaker  Oats  funded  about  one-third  of  the  studies,  which  were  performed by  university  and  company  scientists  over  a  period  of  15  years.  Do  we  have  the  stamina  to  conduct  the  same  research  for  15  years  till  it  yields  such  outcomes?  Would  we  persistently  invest  in  the  same  research  for  15  years  till  we  get  something  out  to  the  market  that  can  penetrated  global  market  or  solve  a  major  local  problem?

Our  appetite  for  basic  research  is  lost  in  our  race  to  get  into  the  market  using  the  shortest  route.  This is  a major  problem  because  we  are  breaking  the  strongest  link  in  the  value  chain  in  R&D&C.  Basic research is the link between these three phases.  Break it and we will not have a complete cycle.

And  another  set  of  challenges  is  to  get  more  students  into  STEM  education,  job  creation  and  making  these  jobs  lucrative.

Where  are  the  jobs  for  aspiring  researchers  who  have  completed  their  PhD?  How robust and vibrant is our industry related to STEM? Even graduates with  basic  degree  are  not  able  to  secure  jobs  in  the  same  field  as  their training.  How can this be addressed?  Our industry need to grow at a faster pace to cater to graduates’ job demand.  STEM jobs need to be made more lucrative to attract our students.

We  have  46  policies  across  various ministries  that  mention  STI,  but  we  are still lagging  behind  developed  nations  in this  area.  It is time serious interventions are  made  to  put  STI  in  the  right  track.  Our scientists need some level of autonomy to speak about policies and regulations.

Science has to be above politics for it to thrive and play a major role in uplifting our country to become a major innovator.

Malaysia is truly blessed with both biological diversity, human  diversity  and  talent to  be  a  world-class innovation hub. We have excellent policies in place.  What we  need  is  the  political  will  to  implement  these  policies  exactly  the  way  they  were  meant to  be.  We  don’t  want  our  top  talent in  STI  to  be  science  refugees  in  developed nations.

There’s a reason for communicating science

March 2018

SCIENCE COMMUNICATION and the need for scientists to engage with the public on their research activities and breakthroughs, is unfortunately, little understood by the local science fraternity.

In the western world and Australia, science communication is a “big thing” with renowned universities offering post graduate studies on the subject.

As this field is picking up traction and the public is the beneficiary of research activities as well as funders and collaborators in industrialised nations – we, in Malaysia are somewhat caught in the old school of thought that science is only communicated via high impact science journals.

Recently, when I introduced Mabic’s training workshop on communicating research to a local researcher, her immediate response was: “I don’t intend to be a journalist, so I don’t need such trainings.”

I was taken aback by the naivety of our research fraternity. Are they connected to what the government is trying to achieve – “future proofing” our next generation to gain agility to brace up for rapid technology advancements, shift from job seekers to job creators attitude, seek funding for R&D and commercialisation activities beyond the traditional donors and grant providers, bring our research into the market, insert the innovation and creativity DNA into our youth… I can go on about the shift in our R&D&C and STI agenda.

But how do we achieve this if the public is not under our radar and we stay isolated from them?

Mabic has been involved in public understanding of science for the past 18 years and The Petri Dish celebrated its seventh anniversary last month.

We now want to create more science communicators among local researchers.

We don’t expect you to give up your research career and be full-time science communicators but embed this role into your daily responsibilities.

Trust us, you are not doing others a favour, but for your own research, career advancement and commercialisation dreams.

Researchers are doing amazing work in their labs and it is sad if these are not communicated to the masses. And we also need icons among our researchers who will be role models and an inspiration to our younger ones to follow suit.

We need our own Malaysian Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.

Mabic and The Petri Dish are all set to provide the skills needed to humanise and put your research in the public domain.

And I quote Albert Einstein here, “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

Tis’ the season to be fruity, but where’s our tutti-frutti germplasm?

February 2018

AT the time of writing this, the sounds of Chinese New Year (CNY) or the Spring Festival (and even so, the Lunar New Year) is ringing out loud and clear.

Shopping malls around the country are bustling with people in a shopping frenzy as Chinese New Year jingles heighten the tempo of jollity. Of all the Asian festivals, the CNY is one celebration where fruits and flowers have a dominant place as each fruit or flower symbolises a positive trait especially in fortune and wealth.

Colourful paper pineapples, sometimes yellow and sometimes red are hung in the front of homes. Real pineapples also adorn the altars during the festival.

The pineapple (onglai in Chinese) simply means “fortune comes”. Mandarin oranges are everywhere and a must-have at every CNY open house and Chinese homes.

They represent gold in Chinese tradition and being round in shape they resemble money. Some of fruits are also preferred for the “positive sounds” they bring when spoken. For an example The Chinese word for apple is “ping” which means harmony.

Truly ‘tis the season to be tutti-fruitti with an abundance of fruits – pomelos, grapes, peaches, pumpkins, plums, and all, sought after because they symbolise wealth, prosperity, family unity, abundance, good luck and happiness.

While fruit wholesalers and retailers import fruits of high quality during this festival to meet the seasonal demand – my thoughts hover on the large expanse of local fruits.

I am a great fan of local fruits. My favourite being jackfruit, which I can eat for an entire meal.

The king of fruits is truly “duriacious” but that does not overshadow the other great fruits we have – mangosteens, dragon fruits, mangoes, papayas, pineapples, cikus, langsats, dukus, cempedaks, pulasans, rambutans and many others.

We are blessed with sweet, juicy and succulent fruits and a great climate to support their cultivation. We are blessed with a very huge fruit biodiversity.

But here are the questions – why are local fruits much more expensive than imported ones? Have we perfected the variety of fruits that we have? How extensive and active are the breeding activities for most of these fruits? Do we have a vibrant seed industry for our fruits?

I cannot boldly say that our answers to the above have a positive slant. We are indeed far away from fully leveraging the fantastic biodiversity of fruits that we are blessed with.

Thailand, for example is a shinning example of how they have developed and improved their fruit varieties and we now import from them.

Breeding is not a short-term stint. It requires decades but this can be shortened with today’s technologies like marker-assisted selection and many other genetic tools.

But breeding techniques still require a clear roadmap with the right priorities outlined and funding mechanisms put in place.

In the USA and European nations there is an active participation of scientists and farmers in fruit breeding engagements.

Nurseries provide so much of choices to growers and home owners on the type of fruit trees they need, based on their land area, the height and canopy size of the trees, the rooting system that can be supported in their land and not to mention their taste buds.

In Malaysia, although there are some fruit varieties that have been developed, they are yet to be released to the market.

Another downside – we do not have a germplasm conservation library. In many cases, the germplasm conservation is lost when the scientist collating it, retires.

It seems like a long journey for us, before we see a tangible well-scripted germplasm library of our local fruits is slated and sustained for posterity.

I am waiting for the time where we take pride in our fruit diversity and they become our national icons, not just durians.

And now wishing all our Chinese readers a very happy and prosperous Year of the Dog – Xin Nian Kuai Le.

Looking ahead for a better year ahead

January 2018

WE have gone through one month in the year of 2018. On behalf of The Petri Dish and the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic), I would like to thank everyone for making our 2017 a great year despite many challenges we faced due to economic slowdown.

Particularly, The Petri Dish team is very grateful to shopping mall management offices for supporting us in our aim to bring science and biotechnology to the public domain.The Petri Dish is picked up like hot cakes when we place them at shopping malls, trashing the myth that the public is disinterested in science.

We also would like to thank the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) for making us the official media for the Malaysian Commercialisation Year 2017. We published a 4-page special edition for them. January 2018 so far has been very promising. We are featuring Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau, Minister of MOSTI’s thoughts and efforts in driving STI as a national agenda in the  first quarter of 2018.

Mabic and The Petri Dish will also be starting our own training course on communicating science and science journalism to create a cadre of scientists and STEM professionals who can be skilled science advocates and effectively reach out to the public. This will be funded by Monash University Malaysia as part of their obligation to engage the public in science. Mabic is also working on gamification of science where children’s scientific curiosity can be pepped up in a non-traditional classroom setting.

We hope to unveil other efforts currently under development to promote public understanding of science and biotechnology as the pieces are put together.

We are feeling optimistic that we can play a key role in creating value for Malaysia to brave and brace up to the next technology wave. There is so much of potential in our country, but unlocking it requires huge dedication, passion and perseverance.

The Petri Dish can be a perfect medium to bring all stakeholders together and infuse the spirit of STI among all. We need your support to help us sustain The Petri Dish so together we can make tremendous progress in advancing STI and STEM education in Malaysia. Please subscribe to the newspaper and have it sent to your doorstep.

Wishing everyone a great year ahead of a prosperous Chinese New Year 2018.

Help us create a science-literate nation

December 2017

THE Petri Dish was founded in February 2011 by the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) to democratise science and take it out of the ivory towers.

Mabic believes that Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) are the building blocks of a country and as a developing nation, Malaysia
has a strong need to make her people science-literate.

Emerging technologies and Industrial Technologies 4.0 are poised to change the world landscape and are reaching our shores swiftly.
Our country and people need to be adequately informed to be able to surf the waves of technological changes.

Our decision-making ability, risk perception, career choices, ability to distinguish science and pseudo-science, and guiding and counselling
our children to make them ready for the changing ecology at workforce, requires some fundamental knowledge on science and
technology.

The promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and career is one of the main focus for every
country and international governmental organisations.
The Petri Dish is published for these noble causes. It has been seven years now and The Petri Dish continues to be the only science-based
newspaper in the country.

We started with 12 pages and a circulation of 2000 per month and today it has grown to be a 20-page newspaper with a circulation of
6000 copies. We receive raving feedback from readers from all walks of life.

But we can do more. We plan to increase pages, so that there will be more content, as well as to increase circulation, so that science literacy will gain a further and extensive reach.

But to achieve new goals, we need more than just your ‘bouquet of kudos’. We need capital, your support as subscribers to the paper, corporate sponsorship, special fund allocations from companies that can translate as a private sector CSR initiative and purchase of advertisement space in the newspaper.

Mabic/The Petri Dish is a small not-forprofit organisation with limited resources but has a huge mission to make STI a part of our our national culture and infuse science-literacy into the DNA of our developing nation.

For every free copy we provide, Mabic/The Petri Dish is tightening its belt by making our people work more for less. Please remember
the next time you pick up a free copy, you are actually enjoying the valiant toil of just four back room boys and girls who are committed
to building a science-literate Malaysian society.

While news organisations usually have an army of reporters, news editors, feature writers, copy editors and leader writers, it is just the four of us at Mabic/The Petri Dish – who gather the news, attend press conferences, keep tab with PR agencies, double as photographers, source for international news, lay out and design the
pages, edit stories, off-stone the pages for printing and finally deliver the printed copies to our subscribers as well as pack and dispatch
mail-delivery orders!

Yes, we at Mabic/The Petri Dish, are an earnest multitasking powerhouse! But we could certainly do more with your help.

We invite stakeholders, philanthropists and individuals to join force with us, to play a part in this … our noble cause, to make Malaysia a
bedrock for science, innovation and technology in this part of the Asian region.

We appeal to individuals as well, especially parents with school-going children who could gain a larger understanding of science and
mathematics in the English language by subscribing to The Petri Dish at only RM70 per year.

Your support will go a long way in helping us to sustain the newspaper and take scienceliteracy another notch higher in the national index as well.

As the year is coming to an end, and as December celebrates the Yuletide season, I pray my Christmas wishlist penned in this
epistle, becomes a dream come true in 2018.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.

Too hot to handle

November 2017

IREAD and heard parents’ and students’ complaints over the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) questions in UPSR, PT3 and SPM, especially for math and science subjects.

While it is good to probe the students’ thinking ability and enhancing their problem-solving skills, creativity and innovative thinking and moving away from rote-learning, these HOTS questions have left many people steaming hot.

Many questions were just way too difficult and require additional time for students to grasp and answer. I saw some questions. They were simply out of the syllabus or tweaked in a way that is too difficult for students to comprehend.

This brings me to my question: Are we really serious about promoting STEM education? If so, why are we breaking the spirit of enthusiastic students and giving them an impression that math and science are very difficult? I have also heard that the syllabus is set by one department and the questions are set by another entity.

So how will the learning objectives be met then? It looks like we need to clean up lots of mess to get students excited and inspired about STEM.

We are not getting our acts together. Our actions and aspirations are not in sync and the various entities involved in STEM education are
not in sync as well. It is a long and tough road to achieve the target ratio of 60:40 science to arts students.

This year only 1.11 per cent of the 440,782 students who sat for UPSR obtained straight As. While it is good to uplift the standard of our exams, good students will certainly be discouraged from pursuing
science and math later. The Examination Syndicate Director was quoted as saying that they want to recognise the academic achievements of these excellent pupils and differentiate them from the normal pupils. So, is she saying those who did not get an “A” are merely normal pupils?

And that only 1.11 per cent of our students are academically excellent? Is this the stigma we want to create among students?

HOTS is not about setting the most difficult questions but developing the critical thinking in the classrooms. I came to know that in schools
in UK, a teacher is not allowed to continuously speak for more than a certain duration of time without any intervention from the students.

It has to be a participatory classroom. Our classrooms are almost monologue in nature. With all the overhauls in our system, we are still far away from being ideal.

Let us take STEM education seriously and rethink our strategies. It is not about having a nice looking policy paper but something that will yield the expected result.

Time to groom market-ready graduates

October 2017

HIGHER Education Minister, Datuk Seri ldris Jusoh recently told Dewan Negara that graduates from six university disciplines made up the most number of unemployed graduates. The six disciplines are business administration, applied science, human resource management, accounting, arts and social science disciplines.

Being unemployed is defined as being without a permanent job up to six months after graduation.

According to the minister, a total of 54,103 (22.7 per cent) university graduates out of 236,137 are unemployed six months
after graduating. This number is based on the Graduands Detection Survey System (SKPG) and the number includes both public and private universities.

Isn’t this disturbing as the government is encouraging more students to pursue STEM? I for one have always wondered who is generating new jobs for aspiring STEM graduates at all levels – Bachelors, Masters and PhD holders.

While there are many factors determining the employment rate of our graduates, one strong factor is certainly the imbalanced
rate of producing STEM graduates and the growth of STEM industry in Malaysia.

Our industry is not growing in tandem with the increasing number of graduates we produce. And our industry does not have strong research activities that require talent with post-graduate qualification. Research positions at the public centre are also
limited.

Many years ago, I used feel uneasy to advice students publicly to look for job opportunities outside Malaysia. That was the time when brain drain was seen to be a problem to the nation. It is still, but I am glad that some are looking at it in a new angle. Malaysian experts in good positions in renowned institutes overseas like Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge or the likes are asset to us. They can help our institute to forge research collaboration with theirs, share resources, and provide internship and postdoc placements. Now, I openly tell students to look for opportunities beyond our shores.

But, we should not turn into a nation that exports talent. We need to strengthen our research activities so our graduates who have strong calling for research careers are able to pursue it in our own country and contribute to our innovation and commercialisation.

Many Masters and PhD graduates regularly write to me asking about job opportunities and all of them lament on the lack of jobs for those with postgraduate qualifications. These graduates are also to be blamed as they blindly continue their studies without any idea about market demand and emerging technologies.

Many continue with post-graduate studies as an escapism strategy as they do not have the confidence to enter the job market and are not aware of the career prospects in their field. It is easier to be offered a place to pursue Masters or PhD then to go through hundreds of interviews and get a job. They are not prepared for the struggle at the marketplace. And they don’t have the slightest idea of where their post-graduate qualification can take them to.

Pursuing Masters and PhD has become a trend. The question before making the decision should be “How will a Masters or PhD add value to my career and how can I add value to my research/strings to degrees.” Graduates should make their degrees work for them. I don’t see this happening.

They are clueless on the next move. I agree we don’t have a crystal ball with us to see the future, but some understanding about the market, emerging technologies, global trend, current economic situation and forecast, and personal inclination is extremely important to brace the future.

Let us not give blind hopes to our graduates and work together in developing market-ready talent. Another study by JobsMalaysia that says employers value working experience more than strings of degrees calls for a rethink in the way we advise our graduates.

Iran’s sunny side for science

September 2017

MY recent trip to Iran was again an eye-opener to the scientific advancements taking place in other developing countries.

Research is flourishing in this Islamic republic. Never in any other scientific conference did I see that many posters.

Most of the equipment used in the country’s labs are produced locally due to the USA trade embargo. The trade embargo has created a culture of self-sustenance and vigour in research initiatives.

We see this in Cuba as well. Cuba produces most of her own drugs and Iran too has pharmaceutical companies of global standard.

We could take a cue from Iran’s ingenious initiatives. The rich biodiversity in our country is hardly studied, screened and we don’t have a national germplasm collection or gene banks.

Today, we see industrial biotechnology gaining so much of momentum where its applications is spread across all fields – aviation, automobile, energy, consumer products, food and beverage and even construction.

It looks like biomass can be converted to any material using recombinant bacteria, or microbes developed through synthetic biology and gene-editing.

Nylon, silk-like material, biofuel, edible water bottle, batteries and anything we can think of will soon come from biotechnology applications. Materials produced from petroleum will certainly be replaced by those produced from biomass.

So here are the questions from my simple mind: Do we have a microbial collection? Are they indexed? How about our mushroom collections? Mushrooms are a huge source of thousands of useful enzymes and compounds with medicinal properties.

Next question: We are an oil producing country. Oil will soon deplete and are slowly being replaced by products from biomass. Hybrid and electric cars might be too expensive now. But undeniably these cars

will be the ordinary cars on our roads in few decades. Is our national oil & gas company diversifying its businesses and research to stay relevant? Are we investing in research that will continue to generate our GDP and jobs?

I am reiterating what I always say – we need to strengthen our research priorities, research culture and research merit. We need to develop talents and use them appropriately.

Science, technology and innovation should be one of the key priorities in TN50. We can only stand tall globally if we are strong in this area.

Our research culture needs a booster dose

August 2017

LAST MONTH I spent one week in Uganda to attend a conference on biosafety and agribiotechnology communication.

I have read a lot about Ugandan scientists’ efforts in developing superior varieties of cassava (tapioca) but it was truly amazing to be there and feel the utopia.

The National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) has developed cassava varieties that are resistant to major pests and diseases that have affected several regions in the country.

Scientists from NARO have revealed that these newly developed cassava varieties are high yielding and can produce over 20 to 30 tonnes of cassava in a single harvest.

According to them, it takes up to ten years to develop one variety. Uganda is also the top banana producer in Africa but now struggles with Banana Bacterial Wilt that is threatening its position. The country now has Genetically Modified cassava and banana – thanks to their scientists’ untiring work.

Nigeria is working on their own cowpea and in Kenya, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has developed superior varieties of corn that can withstand challenges posed by climate change and also short season corn.

Ghana just announced that it will devote 1% of its GDP to R&D in an effort to scale up its Science, Technology and Innovation efforts.

Back home, in spite of all the research infrastructure and a sound biosafety legal instrument in place, our universities and research institutes could emulate the initiatives of these African nations.

We are not spared of crop pests and diseases. Our rice farmers are fighting with golden apple snail, weedy rice, and rice blight. We have Sigatoka and Panama diseases in banana, dieback disease in papaya and heart rot in pineapple.

There is a great need for us to address the plight of our farmers. The question remains – how much of what happens in our research institutes and universities end up in the farms or industry? Is our research addressing local problems?

Does our research end up as an engine for bioeconomy? Instead of developing our own crop from scratch, there are thoughts of simply bringing GM seeds from another country and adopting it here. We are always looking for shortcuts. It simply doesn’t work that way.

We need the trait to be inserted in our commercial variety and be prepared to work on it for at least ten years before it can reach the farmers. But in Malaysia, we lack the perseverance. Our funders are impatient and they want to see a product within three years or less if possible.

I remember a workshop in 2015 to accelerate agribiotechnology where scientists said they do not have the stamina to go through the regulatory process. But all other countries that have put GM crops in the farm have faced similar hurdles as well.

While the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation calls for more science students to fill up the STEM “careers” projected in 2020, I am still wondering where are “these careers” being created.

We have so many unemployed PhD graduates who are aspiring for research positions.

There is only one option to this – to give our research culture and priorities an overhaul.

Kaleidoscopic Kazakhstan

July 2017 

Expo 2017 not only showcased a colourful display but delivered a peek into the future of energy security

I JUST returned from Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, and I feel like I did some time  travel into the future.

The expo featured “future energies” and all the pavilions were so futuristic with state-of-the-art science and technology displays.

Not just the expo but the venue also resonated with the ideals of the futuristic. The173-hectare expo site was an architectural marvel in itself and makes one feel like being in the next century.

We often talk about food security and here the highlight was “energy security”. As fossil fuel is depleting and the price of it fluctuates, causing major financial and energy glitches, countries are racing towards harnessing energy from futuristic alternative sources.

Development of renewable energy from solar, wind, water, geothermal, nuclear fusion, biomass and kinetic energy were featured in the most creative and artistic splendour, but with the essence of science intact.

Kazakhstan proved to be a land of opportunities. Malaysian companies emerged as superstars with their innovation, technology, and products.

The companies that participated were swarmed by collaborators from both public and private sector and many MoUs were inked.

Thanks to the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation, Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water, BioEconomyCorp, Malaysian Green Technology Corporation,Malaysian Innovation Foundation and SIRIM who delivered the business matching.

Tenaga Nasional Berhad, the title sponsor certainly deserves the loudest applause. The Malaysian Pavilion was voted as the 10th most popular pavilion in one of the surveys.

A big achievement indeed, as there were over 100 pavilions. There was yet something else that impressed me. A number of countries not only featured their renewable and future energy plans but highlighted their most powerful energy.

No price for the right guess! The most powerful and cherished energy is “people energy”.

Sometimes we see this being neglected and not appreciated. Talent should never be discriminated but harnessed and treasured for any nation to be competitive globally.

I also noted that the innovations of many Malaysian companies are appreciated more internationally than by our very own local players, be it by the public or private sector.

We need to trust local innovators and adopt their technologies to solve local problems. This is one way to develop our economy and many will be surprised to hear that our local companies have innovations that are more cost-effective and offer higher efficiency which is below the radar within our country and under appreciated.

Breaking up is hard to do!

June 2017 

THE breaking news for the scientific community this month is US President, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. This certainly does not augur well, with many Parties to this agreement who have committed to reduce emissions and avoid climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C.

But the question remains – is it a simple task to walk out of an international agreement? How long will it take for all procedures to be completed before the US could officially withdraw?

It is estimated that the earliest any country can leave is the end of November 2020. So, the US will still be part of all the negotiations during Trump’s term but its direction and influence might take a different turn. See PG15 to feel the sentiments and concerns among key global personalities on this issue.

Climate change and food security are the two most pressing global challenges. The Petri Dish will continue to give prominence to these topics and discussions – see PGs 9 and 16.

While the scientific community is embracing innovations and possible technologies to combat these challenges, the naysayers are hard at work to diffuse their efforts.

On PG11, do not miss my op-ed (rebuttal) to a recent article written by prominent Malaysian economist, Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram, and co-author Tan Zhai Gen on their thoughts about GM crops published on-line in Inter Press Service.

With due respect to Jomo’s and Tan’s prolific presentation, I beg to differ with some of their stated facts and have issued my polemics on the matter, point-for-point.

On another note, I must say that it is always disheartening to read myths spread about useful technologies, be it GM crops or vaccinations, without any empathy for those in dire need of them and the realisation of the bigger impact these technologies can bring to mankind and the environment.

The issue on GM crops will for a long time remain a cause celebre, but we believe the truth and good sense will come to prevail when the time is right.

In the next issue of The Petri Dish we will cover EXPO 2017 taking place in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan.

The Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water, and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation will be taking the centre stage at the Malaysian Pavilion. Over 100 countries will be participating to demonstrate their future energy plan with an aim to reduce CO2 emissions and promoting alternative energy.

In the meanwhile, The Petri Dish editorial team wishes all Muslim readers a “Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir Batin”.

Fake news sells, but the truth prevails

May 2017 

FAKE news has been escalating in recent times with so much of hoaxes flooding the internet and social media.   Fish rain in the streets of Thailand, celebrities and business tycoons endorsing certain products and WannaCry ransom ware is being distributed through online banking services and the WhatsApp medium are all popular scams.

For  science communicators like me, fake news is our biggest enemy. It poses a big challenge for us when critics create and spread misinformation about science or a certain technology. Scaremongering is the ammunition used by irresponsible critics.

Vaccines cause autism, GM crops are carcinogenic Frankenstein food, farmer-suicides and trade monopoly in the agricultural industry, among others.

These fake news are certainly difficult to rebut as it delves into people’s emotion and value is manipulated.

But the global status of biotech/GM crops recently reported by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) could be the best answer to the falsehood conjured by critics of GM crops.

See this issues front page news. The 18 million farmers who continuously grow GM crops year after year are certainly doing so due to the benefits these crops offer. The increase in global land area used to grow GM crops is another testament.

Farmers in Africa and even parts of Europe want their countries to approve GM crops. The import of 34 million of tonnes of GM grains into Europe to feed livestock is another blow to the false information that GM critics propagate.

During a recent seminar on biosafety here in Malaysia, a prominent F&B company explained how they source for non-GMO ingredients just for marketing and not for safety concerns.

My concern would rather be the impurities present in our grain consignments such as parts of animals, their faeces and urine that could cause serious diseases such as leptospirosis and human fatalities. The traces of minute genes present is the least of my worries.

Who cares about a single gene pair that got mixed into our food, when the backyards of our restaurants and toilets are infested with rats and other pests and are filthy?

If critics of modern biotechnology really care for the safety of consumers, it would be more meaningful for them to   advocate for cleaner restaurants, responsible promotion and use of alternative medicines, and hygienic picnic spots without disease-borne pests in the country.

Fossilised in the journal, calcified in the lab

April 2017 

IT is sad that many good science stories end up fossilised in science journals and calcified in laboratories.

I have been constantly calling out to our scientists to take their research outcomes – those that may have the potential to benefit society largely – or those that could eventually morph into becoming a major breakthrough, to the public domain.

But unfortunately, scientists seem to have a nose for carbolic acid, but not for news.

Our front page article in this issue on the discovery of novel bacteria in the Antarctica by researchers from UPM is another case of scientists failing to communicate science to Joe Public through the mainstream media.

Mainstream newspaper editors would love stories like this but the scientists have archived them in the confines of their laboratories and science journals.

The Petri Dish team managed to fish out this story during a science journalism training workshop organised by the Academy of Sciences, British Council and Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology recently. If not for this workshop, the story would have remained in UPM and among the scientific community only.

How would politicians, investors and the industry who have huge stakes in commercialising research come to know about the commercial values of these researches?

Recently I was invited to be the head of jury for the 3MT (3 minute thesis) competition at UKM. See page 11. That was their final round. I was amazed to listen to such exciting research activities. But none of it is communicated to the public.

This contradicts with our initiatives to inspire students in STEM education and career curve, and to encourage bioentrepreneurship.
Both will only happen if the public is aware of what takes place in the labs and its outcome.

It is high time the performance of scientists, especially those who use public grant is assessed not only based on the number of journals they produce but engagement with the society as well. I know some universities have included articles on popular magazines/media as a performance indicator. This should be emulated in a wider scale.

With The Petri Dish going digital, www.thepetridish.my, we hope to bring science and biotechnology to a wider audience outside the borders of Malaysia. This is important for creating a market for our research. So, write to us if you have interesting stories to tell. It could be the next blockbuster that will help save the planet, feed, fuel and heal the world.

I am also pleased to introduce a new columnist, a prominent personality in the field of biotechnology and food security – Prof Paul Teng from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Adjunct Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore. Prof Teng is also the Chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) and Board Member of MABIC. He will write on a non-regular basis on issues that are closely intertwined to agricultural biotechnology, sustainable development and food security. Read his column on page 13.

Let us make science a topic of discussion!

Another milestone in our mission to popularise science

March 2017

BEGINNING last month, The Petri Dish is now a full-fledged digital newspaper.

It was a long journey for us and a challenging one too. It is not easy to sustain a newspaper on a subject that lacks popular interest, and hence a limited readership.

Another major challenge, which we constantly faced is getting scientists to share their research with the public. Funding is also a constraint. What more, when you have an extremely lean editorial team.

Side-stepping these challenges is of course a daunting task. However, with a positive attitude we are pulling the load and with every initiative we make, we are hopeful that our mission to make science popular will gain traction.

Today The Petri Dish is not only read by the science community but also by many average Janes and Joes. We made The Petri Dish

available at Starbucks, several shopping malls and private hospitals.

The other day, at my regular neighbourhood pharmacy, a middle-aged man approached me and asked if I am the editor-in-chief for the biotechnology newspaper. I asked him if he is talking

about The Petri Dish. He said “yes” and was very grateful for the efforts we take to bring science to the public.

I was curious to know if he is part of the biotechnology community but he said he is a businessman. He said the newspaper is his source of knowing what is happening in the science world.

This is not the first time. A pharmacist wrote to me to tell me how much he enjoys reading it at Starbucks. And a language teacher told me he thought he was never interested in science till he started reading The Petri Dish which his son brings back from school.

These testimonies of regular people, has helped to quash the notion that the public pay little attention to the goings-on in the science world.

So, we have quashed the notion that the general public is not interested in science. It is all about how repackage it for them.

In the front page of this issue, we carry a story on the science journalism training programme conducted by Academy of Sciences and British Council for scientists.

I was there to give a short talk on why scientists need to get out of their labs and engage with the public. The feedback I got from the resource persons from the UK was that scientists are actually eager to communicate their research and talk science.

But I am taking this with a pinch of salt. After being in this field for 13 years, I realise that scientists do step out of their labs to engage with the public but this enthusiasm is short-lived.

In spite of being a not-for-profit organisation and in the face of adversity, we are taking all efforts to keep The Petri Dish going. It is being read outside the borders of Malaysia. I urge Malaysian scientists to actively make their research known to the public.

In cyber orbit

Feb 2017

TIME may be challenging but there is nothing stopping us at The Petri Dish. We are the first science newspaper in Malaysia and the only one too.

And even with limited financial support and human capital, the editorial team of The Petri Dish will plod on to sustain this newspaper.

We strongly believe that the nation needs a media to bridge the scientific community and society; to create a science literate society, to enable policymakers and politicians make informed and science-based policies and regulatory decisions; to give science, technology and innovation a strong branding; and to inspire our younger generation to pursue STEM education and careers.

So, with mirthful enthusiasiasm, I am proud to announce that the nation’s science newspaper is hitting cyberspace.

Yes, we now have the online portal: www.thepetridish.my. Many readers have been asking for the online version and we feel this is the best time to launch it.

But for those who still wish to flip each page and read the newspaper in the traditional manner with coffee cup in hand, we still offer you the print copy.

We are not cutting down cost, in fact we are spending more. We are widening our reach. The circulation of The Petri Dish is still 6,000 per month and we will place more copies at public places and ambitiously hope that it will become a mainstream newspaper one day and that the ordinary Joe and Jane in Malaysia will be attracted to science.

The Petri Dish is available at the Starbucks outlets in Selangor and KL, around 12 private hospitals in the Klang Valley, and at Gardens, Midvalley, Sunway Pyramid and Paradigm Malls.

Being an online newspaper will make Malaysian biotechnology and bioeconomy news travel across our borders.

It will certainly give our advertisers more value for their money.

Beginning this issue, our Research Digest page will morph into Campus Corridor where we will feature stories from around local campuses, not limiting only to “sciency” news.

This is to keep tabs on the going-ons in our institutes of higher learning and let the public feel the pulse of campus events.

Join us in this exciting journey. Let The Petri Dish be your source of research and biotechnology news and bring that sense of science into your life.

Just grabbing the low hangingfruits is not good enough

Jan 2017

PUBLIC universities nationwide are facing a severe financial drought that could be the worst universities have faced in their history. I am looking at this with mixed feelings. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Malaysian public universities received more funds than their more advanced counterparts in Singapore, China and Hong Kong. But their contribution to industry development and commercialisation of homegrown technology is limited. There is also a weak link between our universities and society.

So, this might be a good time to evaluate how funds are mobilised, our research priorities, the role of our universities, and for us, to set clear tangible outputs and outcome. Having said this, the end-result must be relevant to our country, society and be able to contribute to our industry and create jobs for our people.

The trend we see now at universities is alarming. Universities are overly anxious with ranking. And this is leading to placing importance to churning out papers and spending a big amount in getting papers published.

Another big expenditure is filing for patents. Are the papers cited? And are there takers for

the patents? With this misplaced priorities, the traditional roles of universities are diluted.

I personally know researchers who are more interested in editing manuscripts produced by their students than helping them with their thesis. A number of them hardly spend quality

time with their post-graduate students to discuss their research and to mentor and inspire them.

Academicians are not interested in writing books, articles for newspapers or engage with

society and local communities because these do not translate into Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that will help them in climbing up the corporate ladder.

To overcome the financial dilemma, there are calls for universities to be creative in the way

they do business to generate more revenue. One suggestion is to engage the industry more. But this is a chicken and egg situation.

The industry will only grow if there are researches from the workbench that could

be commercialised. How much of technology transfer is taking place currently and how much

of it is high-end? Most of our bio-based companies do not strictly fall into the definition of

“biotechnology”.

We are mainly involved in the low-hanging fruits that are within our arm’s reach. Malaysia

does not have a vibrant industry landscape that undertakes research, especially in the emerging sciences, where the universities could collaborate.This approach might be easier to be adopted by non-science faculties like Economy and Business as there is a big pool of industry that require their services.

Another fear is that the passion to teach will now shift to networking and collaborating with

the industry and potential donors. We saw this happening when publications in high impact journals were set as a key indicator to assess university performance.

The current financial dearth and the way research activities are carried out at the universities do not augur well with the country’s aspiration to encourage more students to pursue STEM education and career. A laboratory that is threadbare and lacking in funds to do research is never seductive enough for young researchers to pursue their post-graduate studies or career. Most of these universities do not have enough funding even for bachelor degree students to do their final year project.

I am afraid that the consequences of the current state of affairs will be seen in many more

years to come and it will take a long time to reverse the aftermath. We are already on shaky

grounds when it comes to basic and translational research.

There is a clear contradiction in the messages we give out – we want 60% of students

to take up science but we do not have a clear career path for them. We do not have industry that carries out vigorous science and research activities that are potential employers for our

STEM graduates. I am still perplexed as to how our agencies come out with the figures that

we need more students in STEM. Where is the growth in this area among the industry or government sectors?

Our PhD graduates are already finding it difficult to get a research or science-related jobs. Maybe the solution to overcome the limited funding is to cut all unnecessary research, revisit our addiction to university ranking system, reduce duplication in research, set national priorities in key areas and eliminate the temptation to reach for the low hanging fruits.

I hope the Year of the Rooster will help to dispel the current gloom and bring opulence

to our roost. Xin Nian Kuai Le!

THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

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SCIENCE STAR

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