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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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


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!


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