Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan
Didik TV teacher not solely to be blamed for goofing
I AM observing the current public criticism thrown at the Didik TV teacher who conducted a science lesson on the reproductive system. As a science communicator and advocate, I think we have all gone off tangent on this issue.
The flaw was not her proficiency in English. We do not need Queen’s English to teach Math and Science or any other subject or even to secure a job and excel in it. Having said this, any medium of instruction has to be devoid of misinterpretation and be easily comprehensible. My disappointment stems from the way the lesson was conducted, the involvement of the teacher, her enthusiasm and presentation style and even content and accuracy.
The darling of the medical world - mRNA is here
Vaccines are the talk of the town now and a new addition to public vocabulary is mRNA. We all know DNA took all the limelight and left its cousin, RNA, completely in the dark and little known to the public.
It is far less popular than DNA. The public might not know there are several types of RNA and mRNA is just one of it.
The structure and function of DNA were known to scientists since the 1950s but almost nothing was known about how proteins are made from DNA. The missing link which is mRNA and the history of its discovery itself is interesting.
It cannot be attributed to anyone and thus, there is no Nobel prize for the discovery of mRNA, the most popular type of RNA.
Will oil palm plantations in Malaysia stay forever?
WILL oil palm plantations be a thing of the past? Will the global demand for palm oil be met by oil and its derivatives grown in laboratory bioreactors?
This looks like what the future will take us to. There are already start-ups embracing synthetic biology where microbes will convert food waste and industrial by-products into synthetic palm oil.
As the global palm oil market reaches almost USD93 billion in 2021, this sounds like a sustainable alternative.
Role of social scientists in fighting the pandemic
In Malaysia social science and natural science stand poles apart. There is very little collaboration between scientists in these two fields. While scientists from both sides create body of knowledge and their work is based on empirical data, there seem to be lack of understanding and trust between them. This could have stemmed from our tradition of segregating science and arts at a very early stage of our education life.
The pandemic more than ever sees the importance of social science working hand-in-hand with natural science to get us out of this crisis or even prevent or manage future crisis better.
Communication strategy key to vaccine development, flattening the curve
SOME countries are allocating millions of dollars for the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines, while others are doing the same to develop vaccines. Obviously, we all know where Malaysia stands. To end the pandemic, we need just more than one vaccine. This is because we need billions of doses to protect the population and stop the virus. Probably no one company can meet the demand during a period of crisis as time is of the essence. Currently there are 181 vaccine candidates that are being developed and 34 of them are undergoing human trials. Many of these candidates might not even see the finishing line.
Vaccine development takes typically 10 years or more in an ordinary setting. During pandemics due to the urgency, there is heightened collaboration, funding allocation and also speedy procedures at the regulatory front. All these puts the mission to develop vaccines on the fast track.
I hope a lesson from Covid-19 to Malaysia is to step up our R&D and make long term goals with sustainable funding to get into pharmaceutical research, we need great stamina and risk takers.
I am reiterating what I mentioned previously at different platforms, vaccines are not a boon. Like food security, vaccines too have to be in abundance, accessible, affordable and safe. There is another important element that dictates the success of vaccines and that is public perception and acceptance. Even vaccines that were developed at a normal phase without the any rush are scrutinised by the public. The number of anti-vaxxers are growing and it is alarming to see this among educated sectors of our community.
Thinking along these lines, I am still to see a communication strategy to inform the public on Covid-19; its epidemiology, public health recommendations; and the science behind the pandemic. It is not an easy task as it has to be in the context of Malaysia, our culture and lifestyle behaviour. Social scientists and public health experts have not been directly engaged or they are mere bystanders in the course of this pandemic.
The enforcement, guidelines and SOPs cannot be standardised around the world or even within a country. Not everyone has the luxury of physical distancing or working or studying from home. The end result is flattening the curve of the infection. But a balance between health, public sanity and economy is important.
How do we alleviate fear? The global statistics looks grim but there is science and societal norm behind each statistic. This has to be communicated. Italy, USA, India, China and Malaysia do not share the same living standards, conditions, lifestyle, culture and the politician’s take. The public must be made to understand the factors that affect the transmission rate.
Public participation in flattening the curve is very important. My pet peeve is seeing masks pulled down to the neck. And many think physical distancing is not important among colleagues, friends and relatives. Awareness is clearly lacking among all stakeholders and the need for a communication strategy is lacking among the decision makers. The lone communicator here seems to be Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.
‘We were napping when Covid-19 crept on us’
THE disruptions caused by Covid-19 transcend sectors and affects people at the personal level as well. Supply chains that are critical to ensure food security and other essential items are broken; an over-burdened healthcare system bogged down by its own weight; closure of international borders and even borders within a country; loss of employment; shutting down of businesses; and schools coming to a grinding halt are major setbacks that we have never seen in our lifetime.
At the personal level, many families are separated by quarantine measures and many students are not able to return to their universities, leading to disruptions in their education, all these and more, not to mention the psychological trauma faced by one and all.
The general perception is that – a vaccine against the virus will be the magic bullet that will bring us back to our routine-styled “old normal”. However, I am skeptical that vaccines will solve the problem in entirety. The pandemic might be over but future viruses will still be hovering over our heads, in fact mutating variants are already lurking in the fringes. Just like food security, will these vaccines be affordable, available and safe? With vaccines there is another challenge – will it be accepted by everyone. We still have anti-vaxxers everywhere who may be indirectly responsible for resurgence of diseases such as diphtheria that were suppressed by vaccines.
Taking a step back from the current pandemic, coronavirus is not new to virologists or other scientists delving in molecular biology, genomics and immunology. We were hit by SARS and then MERS. The coronavirus is also part of our common flu. What happened during these pandemics and epidemics?
Many governments were aggressively working on SARS coronavirus and the scientific community accumulated tonnes of data during its peak in 2003. This included international organisations as well like WHO and others. However, scientific pursuits lack continuity and stamina. When the pandemic and epidemic was over, all funding ceased for this research. Tonnes of data were shelved. Scientists moved to other areas where funding was available. If only we continued the research and strengthened our understanding, we could have been better positioned to battle the current pandemic.
Today, we see vigorous research on SARS-CoV-2 again. How long will this last? In science, we need to stop firefighting and crisis management. We need strategies to prevent crisis or reduce its impact. Development of vaccine for Covid-19 would have taken a shorter time if preparedness was there.
I hope the lessons taught by Covid-19 will create an impact on funding mechanisms for R&D. The world paid a huge price, and no one, old or young, rich or poor was exempt from the wrath of the pandemic.
On the cards – lab-created meat to mitigate climate change
THESE are the hottest biotechnology start-ups globally right now: Aleph Farms, Finless Foods, Higher Steaks, IntegriCulture, Just, Meatable, Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Shiok Meats, SuperMeat. What is common among them? They are all growing meat in the lab. Do not confuse them with Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat who produce vegan meat.
Lab-based, cultured, cell-based, in vitro, cellular agriculture or clean meat, whatever terminologies used, they grow real meat in the labs and their goals are to mitigate climate change, food insecurity, public health and animal welfare. This is done by growing animal tissue in a controlled environment using cell culture technology. This is an alternative to industrial animal farming and fishing.
Annually, 60 billion animals are reared in industrial conditions. Livestock produces methane gas which is a greenhouse gas and large scale animal husbandry in confined space is also a target for critics on animal welfare. Animal agriculture produces 14.5% of global greenhouse gasses. Livestock and poultry are also a source of zoonotic diseases that have potential to cause an epidemic or pandemic. A lot of natural resources go into producing our meat. More than 15,000L of water is required to produce 1kg of beef. Fishing brings many environmental issues such as pollution from fishing vessels, plastic waste, overfishing and harm to other aquatic life.
If you refrain from meat for religious, environmental and non-cruelty reasons, will lab-made meat be appealing to you? I love mutton but the fat screams “cardiovascular diseases” and for that reason I only buy mutton once a year. It takes a lot of time for me to carefully remove every single bit of the whitish fat from the mutton. I think I am mentally prepared to consume cultured lean meat grown in the lab minus the fat. It saves time and it is healthy. The additional brownie point is this meat is slaughter-free. I do not like to kill animals, but I still love meat. Now my conscience will not haunt me. My children would love fish fillet as they hate fish bones coming on their way.
As exciting this sounds, there are still a lot of challenges to be navigated. Funding for basic research, regulations and religious concerns in some countries, product mimicry, consumer acceptance, and energy requirement are issues that require attention. Growing meat in bioreactors require large amount of raw biomass and microalgae are seen to be the potential candidate.
All these challenges in fact can be turned into employment opportunities for biotechnology, engineering and food technology graduates. I am surely excited and happy to communicate this potential industry.
Wanted – A policy to concretize science communication
Is there is a real, in-depth understanding of science communication in Malaysia? Having been in this field for 18 years, I lament on how science communication is seen as making science look fun, fascinating and to make it part of our culture. We have not gone beyond this. I have sat on task forces and the recommendations made are to organise science exhibitions, more activities at science centres, creating more science content, capacity building in science communication and so goes the list with low hanging fruits.
There are no policy measures to ensure that someone is held responsible to ensure these are delivered and reviewed and evaluations are done.
The fact is the target for science communication is not just the lay public. SARS hit the world as a mini pandemic in 2003. Scientists started aggressive research on it and funding was pouring from several countries and sources. When the virus tamed down, funding stopped, but the scientists knew it is just a time bomb waiting to explode. They had no choice but to stop their research and divert to other areas due to limitations in funding and change of priorities among government agencies. Today we are hit hard by the cousin of SARS. And we were taken off guard.
When Malaysia was debating the Biosafety Bill, the parliament’s Hansard was filled with questions on stem cells, indicating lack of understanding among policymakers on genetic modification and modern biotechnology.
Halal status was brought up when amendments were made to Food Safety Act to include labelling of GM foods. The initial proposal was zero threshold, which is impossible to enforce.
These are just some examples of how key stakeholders make blunders in decision making when they do not have fundamental knowledge in science. Funding agencies, policymakers and politicians and religious scholars are just a few of the stakeholders. Science communication has to target them.
The next question is – how will we communicate, develop the material and content, and conduct the outreach activities? These are mammoth tasks that require skills, training, time and funding.
I have not seen a top-down recommendation on this. It is easy to say “we should communicate science”. But scientists say they are not trained, it is not their obligations as their core job is to teach and conduct research, plus they are bogged down with administrative tasks, and are not trained to communicate to non-technical audience. At the end of the day, it is all done on an ad-hoc manner, without proper review and evaluation to see its efficacy.
What we need is well-planned national strategy where institutional support is provided with ministries involved allocating dedicated funding for capacity building, personnel and targeted initiatives. It should be part of the performance indicator of scientists and researchers, so they feel incentivised. It should have specific outcome and all key stakeholders should be part of the audience in customised outreach programmes.
I may be dreaming but I will keep singing this song till I retire.
Let ‘Covid decisions’ remain as life-long decisions
COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis and the world will never be the same even if the novel coronavirus ceases to continue as a persistent pandemic. Just like international travel is never the same after 9/11 – with all the additional and stringent security measures here to stay even after almost two decades.
Malaysia has done extremely well in curtailing the spread of this virus with minimal loss of lives. The Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin made many tough decisions from the day the pandemic was declared by WHO – till now at the recovery stage. While many countries did not have a good exit strategy, we managed to balance economy and health. Economic loss is inevitable, but this can be recovered. Saving lives is more important as no technologies can bring back lost lives.
We have now embraced the “new normal”. But how do we sustain many of these new normal attributes that were in fact long overdue before the pandemic dawned on us. In the past six months we made many “Covid decisions” and to me many of these can be or should be transformed into “life-long decisions”. Here is a snapshot:
- To surmount Covid-19, science, technology and innovation (STI) have become more important and popular than ever. We see the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) paying more attention to STI now and to R&D. We hope to see more funding and stamina for R&D.
- The interest in STI among the public and the media soared. Every day we read and hear about viruses, vaccines, drug developments, epidemiology, biostatistics and many more. If you have not heard about “R naught”, you are not reading enough about the pandemic. Will this stay forever as all other decisions and aspects of lives are also science-based?
- The healthcare system has been revamped to a certain extent, but more needs to be done where public sector hospitals are usually overcrowded. Beds on the aisles are common sight and waiting list for critical surgeries go beyond six months. It is time to look into all these.
- Digital economy and platforms have been developed and embraced for many new sectors, including farming.
- Education evolved dramatically with e-learning becoming the order of the day. We saw Ivy League universities offering free courses.
- Office meeting, whether they are among local or international colleagues took place in cyberspace. Conferences and workshops too. Imagine the amount of carbon saved. Not to mention the time.
- Flexi working hours and working from home. These are another carbon and time-saving strategies. Let us give up the notion that the last to leave the office is the most hardworking one.
- Public places are being cleaned now We should be expecting to see cleaner restaurants, toilets, airports, bus and train stations, schools, universities, markets, malls and the list goes on. Hope this is here to stay.
- Personal hygiene awareness. Keeping our hands clean all the time and coughing and sneezing etiquettes should stay as new normal.
- The “human side” of all and sundry increased during this crisis. We saw good neighbours and samaritans helping the less privileged and even stray animals. Donations from corporate companies poured in.
Many decisions are made to fit into the new normal. My hope is these will not just be “Covid decisions” but are long overdue and merit to be life-long decisions.
The Petri Dish in dire straits, please support us to keep it going!
Calling on government ministries and agencies, especially the Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (Mosti) and Ministry of Education, universities (science faculties), research institutions, and individual scientists to support the only science news portal in the country, so we could continue our mission to raise science literacy among all and sundry
NEWSPAPERS around the world have been going through a common dilemma – going online or shutting down. Does shutting down the print format drive readers to digital devices?
When I first founded The Petri Dish in Feb 2011, we only offered print copies. My first marketing strategy was the low hanging fruits or the easy targets. I approached my close contacts at universities and research institutes and got them to subscribe.
The Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) was the only ministry that subscribed, and that too because my former professor was the Deputy Secretary General. This helped not just in sustaining the newspaper but also expanding it. But as financial crisis hit Malaysia in 2017, almost all universities and research institutes stopped their subscription.
In my 10 year of running The Petri Dish, I have seen all kinds of hurdles in talking science to the public. One university told me they prefer digital version. Years later, in 2017, we introduced the digital version. The same university has not subscribed till today. But we occasionally get calls to include their news, stories and developments. Their stories get published though, as our aim of publishing a science newspaper is to put local science researches into the spotlight. The aim was noble – to support commercialisation through public-private collaboration, raise awareness among investors and the public, and also to inspire students to pursue STEM.
For all the reasons above we circulate complimentary copies at all Starbucks outlets, selected shopping malls and private hospitals and Malaysian airports.
We have members of the public rushing to get free copies at shopping malls, but ignoring our calls to subscribe. We have scientists who rave about the newspaper but take free copies from their institutes. We get university students who harass us with queries on career prospects and fields for post-graduate studies, but would not spend RM70 per year to read the latest developments in science in The Petri Dish website.
We have big dreams to create science literacy among Malaysians and to showcase Malaysian scientists. In spite of limited funding and manpower, we increased pagination and circulation from the time we started the newspaper. Ideally, we want it to be available at secondary schools and state libraries for all walks of life to be exposed to science. We sent letters seeking support from corporate leaders, royalties, and various foundation – all to no avail.
STEM promotion, commercialisation of research, homegrown technologies, technopreneurship, bio-based economy, innovation, IR4.0, sustainable development and many others – don’t all these require a media platform to reach the aspired goals?
Those in the newspaper business will understand the pain and tears that goes into sustaining it. We are worse with a small editorial team of four and we also divide our time between the newspaper and MABIC outreach work. With no dedicated marketing team, advertisement is scarce, and it is no brainer that subscribers do not sustain a newspaper. Ours is worse as everyone picks up the free copies available at public places and government agencies, though call to subscribe to the paper and the portal is placed on the front page.
As the founder editor-in-chief, I just cannot see the newspaper dying, so I ended up putting my own money into it. It has come to a time where we are at a crossroad whether to kill it or sell it off to media houses outside the country. This would mean losing the first science newspaper in the country.
I am now forced to make some serious decisions. As a start in our cost-cutting exercise, The Petri Dish will go completely online. For existing print subscribers, we will convert your subscription to online and extend it to five (5) more months to compensate the additional amount paid.
The Petri Dish will survive if at least 20 per cent of the scientific community in Malaysia subscribes to it. This is where individuals come together in solidarity to save the first and only science media in Malaysia. My humble call to scientists in Malaysia who have read it at your institutes and agencies, please help us to create science literate society and to bring science to the public domain.
To all who have been supporting The Petri Dish in all these years – we have come this far because of you.
Science does not conjure instant solutions!
SINCE the first Covid-19 case in Wuhan on Nov17, last year, the global situation paints a grim picture in all areas – health, food security, economy, education, leisure and mental health and many more.
The pandemic is far from over. It will however, come to an end just like Spanish flu and many other pandemics of modern times. But will life return to normalcy? Will we start getting our acts together for the next crisis that is inevitable?
Addressing food security and climate change is a double whammy, especially during a global health crisis that calls for a lockdown. Tonnes of farm produce are dumped due to the broken supply chain. Here is where digital platforms kick in.
But again, technology is coming to the rescue. Lifestyle and economy will never get back to what they were in the past when all operations resume. It will get a lot messier but slowly new norms will set in. New jobs and platforms are there in the waiting for the inquisitive and entrepreneurial minds.
The secret is to get ready and not stop when the crisis is over. Proactiveness and preparedness is what will take us a lthrough a less painful if a next next crisis which might be another health crisis, natural disaster, economy, technology and even war hits us.
Creating a robust drug development R&D ecosystem is long overdue for Malaysia. It is an expensive endeavour but we should start. Vaccines cannot be developed within a year. The stake is too high as history has shown us that mistakes costs lives.
During a global health pandemic, scientists are forced to work with limited, unverified and findings that are not peer-reviewed. In spite of these limitations, commercialisation of drugs should not be done in haste.
During the 1976 swine flu endemic in the US, the then President Gerald Ford demanded a vaccine which was developed in a short eight months and 45 million Americans received the shot. What happened next was a tragedy. More than 500 people out of that 45 million had come down with an extremely rare condition, a paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Thirty-two of them died.
A rapid search for a vaccine is not the answer. What we need is continuity in our R&D plan that makes us prepared for new diseases and pathogens. A rush by politicians and society should be followed by thorough due diligence. Science is not about overpromising and under delivering. That is politics.
Research is about science-based risk assessment and management.
I hope painful lessons are learnt from this crisis. Appetite for low hanging fruits, speedy commercialisation, neglect of basic research and a culture of firefighting should all be the things of the past. Lessons must be learnt. Work culture must change.
This is not just for health and medical research but for all fields. Science does not happen overnight – because science does not conjure instant solutions!
New cabinet must hit the ground running!
POLITICAL TURMOIL, upheavals, tussle for position and power – whatever we call it, the reality is the newly minted prime minister and his cabinet must hit the ground running. The global economic crisis, Covid-19, trade wars between mega economies, and the progressive gravitation of our neighbours who were once lagging behind us will wreak havoc on us.
The Bank of America Global Research predicts global GDP growth is likely to be just 2.8 per cent in 2020. The global financial crisis is bashing us all in its wake. As though this is not enough, we have endless challenges at home – the lack of unity among Malaysians; our far-gone education system that is on the point of no return; unemployment among graduates (60 per cent remain unemployed one year after graduation, according to a study in 2018 by the Ministry of Education Graduate Tracer Study); rising cost of living; the unfinished task of judicial reforms; enhancing public sector transparency and accountability; as well as women’s rights and empowerment, among others.
The prime minister describes his cabinet as a functional one and one that will serve the people without burdening them. It is now time to create more economic opportunities for all and make Malaysia competitive in all areas.
The splitting of MESTECC is a welcome move. Science, technology and innovation were put on the back burner for long, with too much if not all emphasis given to the issue of plastic usage. With environment and energy and natural resources as separate ministries, managing all the components in the previous science ministry will become a less gargantuan task and more focus can be given to each component. I would urge the newly minted science minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, to bring back Bioeconomy Corporation to MOSTI. It was a blunder made by the previous administration. I am sure the scientific fraternity is waiting for an aggressive push on STI, R&D, STEM and commercialisation which are all long overdue. But here is the downside. Environment, energy and natural resources could have been merged under one ministry so they are not dealt with in a silo environment. They are all intertwined. I must say the cabinet is a little bloated, at the time when the national economy is not doing very well.
The move to separate education and higher education is also a good one but barriers, territories and silos between the two ministries must be jettisoned. The problem of unemployability of our graduates does not happen in the university. It starts in the schools. It is too late for universities to instill soft skills and confidence among our students when they lived and studied in a subservient environment in all their formative age.
Agriculture is another area that is not tapped to its fullest. We need strong initiatives to transform our agriculture and align it to the three pillars of sustainability – society, economy and environment, in other words, these translate into people, planet and profit. Bring back the glory of R&D and focus on the challenges our farmers are facing, food security, value-added products, sustainable agriculture and transforming MARDI as a leading agriculture research institute. These might all be tall orders, but they are the priorities overlooked for years. Agriculture is not about making vegetable chips but about precision technologies, mechanisation and IoT and new breeding technologies.
All eyes will also be on the ministry of plantations, industries and commodities to see how we gain the trust and credibility of the international market on our golden crop and oil. The previous campaign was mainly rhetoric without digging deep into scientific facts and reaching out to the intended target audience using proper communication strategies.
With many ministers coming in for a second round at the cabinet desk we can only hope they all learn from history. Discard the “I know” mentality and learn from subject matter experts, be inclusive, have genuine consultations with stakeholders and not just place a tick in the box. The prime minister has broken many conventions (not having a DPM, omitting presidents of major political parties, including a Mufti, and the finance minister who is not a politician, among others) all for the better. Hope more “negative traditions” that are holding the country’s progress will be broken too.
With the current uphill tasks to win the trust of international communities and investors, we just need to forge ahead. There is no time for arguments. The Petri Dish wishes Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his ministers and deputies all the best. There is so much to learn from the past and hope the errors of the past will be obliterated forever.
Must it take disasters for science to hit the headlines?
IT TAKES a crisis, in this case the coronavirus epidemic for the public to talk science. This is sad. I strongly advocate science literacy for just about anyone from the man in the street to housewives and corporate executives in good times and in bad. But democratising science, bridging science and society and popularising science still sits on the backburner in Malaysia. There is no funding nor training either.
I often feel like a lone warrior in bringing science to Joe and Jane Public. My team and I sacrifice so much to keep The Petri Dish going. This is above and beyond all our other outreach programmes for various stakeholders.
As a science communicator, it is sad for me to see that fake news is spreading faster than the coronavirus. I call this “misinformation pandemic”. It is not happening only now with the current Wuhan bug.
Misinformation about ground-breaking breakthroughs that bring benefits to all humanity have always been perceived as “the scourge” by opposing views. Many areas of science like nutrition, nuclear technology, rare earth, GM foods, critical illnesses and even plastics – attract conspiracy theories, speculation, conformation bias and misinformation. I hope the current coronavirus epidemic will teach us to appreciate science, especially science literacy.
I hope the present interest in science among the public will not fade away when the novel virus dissipates from our life. This is the time for scientists to inject a few new vocabularies into public lingo. DNA has become part of our lingo but how about RNA? How many among us know that coronavirus is an RNA virus? How is it different from a DNA virus? What does it mean?
Communicators or spokespersons, especially government authorities must understand the difference between science communication and risk communication. Risk communication is a branch of science communication. Science communication is already a challenging field as we need to customise our messages for different stakeholders and target audiences.
Risk communication is yet more challenging because we are communicating during a crisis where concerns are very high and people are typically worried and stressed. This is the time when emotions run high and rational thinking is low.
The key for successful communication is relentless tactical execution of communication strategies that involves anticipation, preparedness and practice. All these require science communication training and well planned strategies.
There is something else that we need to learn from this crisis, and this is related to drug discovery and its enablers. This is the year for major UN meetings on the Convention on Biological Diversity. Ironically, all the meetings were to be hosted by the Chinese government, in Kunming in Oct. The Parties, non-Parties and NGOs will convene to discuss the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, and the Nagoya-KL Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress. At these meetings, critics of biotechnology will try their best to pull the brakes on the progress of
modern biotechnology. They will try to halt the use of genetic resources for research on genetic modification, gene editing and synthetic biology. These activists and lawyers speak about how to stop scientists and companies from using Digital Sequence Information (DSI) in an attempt to conserve genetic resources and prevent biopiracy.
The intention is certainly noble, but the approach is unscientific, unpragmatic and unrealistic. DSI refers to any biological sequences of data downloaded from public databases. This could be DNA, RNA, amino acids, peptides, structural and functional genomics elements and regions, and any of their derivatives. This simply leaves nothing exempted from regulations.
These regulatory procedures not only slow down research but negate access to genetic resources and information, the same way farmers are deprived of access to GM crops and seeds due to the strict biosafety regulations or even lack of sciencebased regulations.
Right now scientists around the world are working round the clock using all the tools available to develop a vaccine, antiviral or any form of drug to stop the spread of the coronavirus or create immunity. Machine learning, AI, geneediting, genetic modification, synthetic biology, chemical modification, chemical synthesis and synthetic chemistry are just some of these tools.
Do the activists really understand the impact of their activism on all these? Finally, how do our biosafety regulations, enforcement and monitoring exercises support local R&D to contribute towards the body of knowledge on drug discovery? Are these implemented in a scientific manner or does it stifle R&D? Science is intertwined with many areas and perceiving it through a myopic lens will not allow it to thrive.
As the saying goes, all boats will be lifted when the good tide rises … so let’s cruise ahead with “science” fixed to our sails. For more content on the coronavirus, see pages 5, 14, and 16
‘My wish list for Education’
THE NEW YEAR, 2020, took off with so many unexpected twists. What is of interest to me (as I no longer actively follow other political developments) is the resignation of Dr Maszlee Malik as the education minister and the stepping up of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as the acting minister.
Education is the backbone and the strongest pillar for creating socially, economically, scientifically and politically competent citizens who are future-proofed. Future-proofing our children is probably the most “critical initiative”, as we race into an era of disruptive challenges in all aspects of our lives.
Here is my open letter to Tun M as a parent and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) enthusiast and ardent proponent.
Dear Tun M,
We are all aware of your passion for science, technology and innovation. You inspired the biotechnology dream for Malaysia during the first term of your premiership. You wanted an innovative Malaysia through STEM education. Here I am putting forth my aspiration for our education system.
1. Revamp Moral Studies from a mere rote-learning and memorising of the subject where students are not allowed to present their own arguments – to a subject that allows freedom of thought. Develop a curriculum that includes both Tamil/Indian and Chinese philosophies. These subjects are for non-Muslim students, so let them learn moral through the lens of their own cultures just like how Muslims learn morals through their religion.
2. Reduce the content of biology, chemistry and physics for SPM to match the time allocated for these subjects. More subjects have been introduced over the years, yet the content of science subjects have increased, forcing teachers to rush through the curriculum, and students to tuition centres. In the 80s and 90s, moral, civic and history were not in the curriculum for science students. How can we include three more subjects and at the same time widen the curriculum of science subjects?
3. Please introduce origami in schools. This will future-proof our children as it instils logical thinking, deductive, reductive and inductive reasoning. This is one approach to create innovators.
4. Revamp history to include world history. The current bilateral relationships between countries, trade, tourism, sports, legal and education systems and many other aspects are highly influenced by history.
5 The standard of English language is in the decline for decades. Arrest this problem by raising its standard and the quality of teachers. Introduce the same curriculum for both national and vernacular schools.
6. One testament of the quality of our education system is the dependency of students on tuitions. We need an education system where students do not have to attend tuition classes.
7. Classrooms with a maximum of 25 students, please.
8. Can we be a little more ambitious and target for a class to have a teacher and an assistant teacher? After all, education should be our biggest investment, so we should make drastic changes that are long overdue.
9. Once the classrooms are smaller, change the pedagogy to one that is interactive, so we produce opinionated students with critical thinking and who are innovative and confident.
10. Reduce the teachers’ unnecessary and redundant administrative work.
11. Schools to have shared psychologists and nutritionists.
12. No classes should be left without teachers for whatever reasons – maternity and medical leaves, seminars, meetings etc. Contingency plans must be in place for all these reasons.
13. Finally, a secular education system would certainly take us, Malaysians, a long way.
The nation knows that only you could take the bull by its horn and make the much needed and aspired change that is long overdue in our country. The Petri Dish will be glad to support all your STEM initiatives in every way. Thank you for your leadership and wishing you all the best, Mr Prime Minister.
Hoping my wish list on Education will be fulfilled in the year of the Metal Rat, wishing all Chinese readers of The Petri Dish … Xin Nian Kuai Le!
The Philippines, Nigeria and Kenya make bold decisions on biotech crops
LANDMARK decisions were made in December and these have a huge impact globally. I am not referring to Mr Trump’s impeachment. It is about the decisions made by the Kenyan cabinet and the government of the Philippines and Nigeria on GM crops in their backyard.
Despite the vilification and fear-mongering surrounding GM crops, these governments decided to be guided by scientific facts and the need of their people The Nigerian government approved the commercial cultivation of biotech cowpea resistant to pod borer on Dec 12. The Philippines, which is the first country in Southeast Asia to approve the cultivation of GM crops (corn) used its well- established risk assessment regulations and procedures to approve Golden Rice for direct use as food, feed and processing.
This took place on Dec 18. The Kenyan government, on the other hand, approved the commercial planting of Bt cotton on Dec 19.
These are brave decisions and a huge victory to science. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on Golden Rice, not for research but to ensure it does not reach the farm, market and people.
Greenpeace was at the centre of all these protests and destruction of field trials, with the support of their like-minded organisations. Protests were also going on in Africa to block Bt corn (insect-resistant corn).
Yet, the governments and regulators in these countries took a bold move to assess all these crops with international standard of risk assessment approach. The Philippines is known for its expertise in this field.
I was there recently for the Asian Short Course on Agribiotechnology, Biosafety Regulations and Communication (ASCA), an annual capacity-building programme organised by Mabic and ISAAA, and I witnessed the level of competence and knowledge there.
I had also recently organised a roundtable meeting for Malaysian scientists to discuss the challenges they face in conducting research on GM crops. The juxtaposition of the different approaches, level of professionalism and expertise between Philippines and Malaysia explains why we are lagging behind in biotechnology.
We have regulators who freak out when they see GM bacteria in the laboratory chillers, ask questions out of curiosity and not a science-based enquiry, conduct risk assessment and give suggestions that do not fit into any international standard. Their recommendations are based on their own whims and fancies.
This explains why our scientists are giving up research on GM, why STEM students, especially those in biotechnology end up in banks, McDonalds, insurance and other job sectors that do not require talents trained in the laboratory, and also why students shy away from STEM.
So much talk about STEM education, but nothing on funding to spur R&D, creating the industry to increase job opportunities, increasing salaries for STEM careers, creating idols in STEM to inspire children, and making sure the right person helms sciencebased agencies.
When will we see that all these are intertwined? Simply promoting STEM education without setting the right ecosystem for science to thrive will not help.
Hope the start of the new decade will be more science-based. Meanwhile, wishing our Christian readers a joyful Christmas and all readers of The Petri Dish a very Happy New Year, 2020.
World Food Prize highlights giant strides in war against global hunger
LAST MONTH was memorable for me as I attended the World Food Prize awards ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, for the first time. Read my article in Page10. I have always been mesmerised by Dr Norman Borlaug for his selfless and untiring work in plant breeding that saves almost a billion lives in the developing world. It was not a medical doctor or a pharmaceutical company that saved the most lives in human history. It was a plant breeder and plant pathologist.
Today, plant breeders are an endangered species and both universities and students do not see this field attractive. In fact, most fields in agricultural science are not the favourite among students these days. Students prefer more sophisticated titles that will presumably lead them into Industrial Revolution (IR)4.0.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence can make a computer think, reason out and analyse quadrillions of data. But technology cannot replace plant breeders. These experts are still vital in developing seeds that are resilient in the light of all the global challenges we are facing in agriculture. Robots and all the IT applications will only play second fiddle to plant breeders, providing great support but not replacing them.
Plant breeding today is supported by many molecular technologies far from what Borlaug possibly imagined. In the 1940s and till he retired in 1979 Borlaug was conducting research on wheat, triticale, barley, maize, and high altitude sorghum. His level of passion and dedication must have made him persevere in this field. He spent almost all his youth in the farms in developing countries like Mexico, Pakistan and India.
Borlaug is a hero of humanity. He is someone I really wanted to meet in my lifetime, but I missed that opportunity. But I am always proud that I am working in an organisation where he once served as a patron and had played a role in championing the same cause ISAAA serves.
While attending the World Food Prize presentation was very inspiring, it also made me feel so small. All the contributions and work that I do in my field looked like a drop in the ocean compared to the legends who were present there and the laureates. However, my first day at World Food Prize started with a shocking and pleasant surprise when a speaker recognised me in the audience and addressed me as a prominent science communicator. That made my day and gave me a good start but the feeling of being invisible did not really vanish.
Another element that really touched my heart was the Global Youth Institute, where high school and university students around the world come in as volunteers and took part in various projects that are lined up as part of this event, not just in Des Moines but around the country. This was Borlaug’s dream – of recruiting young people as hunger fighters and inspire them to take up roles in agriculture.
I was thinking we should adopt that model to inspire our youth in STEM. Get national and international conferences related to STEM to engage youth as volunteers. I have decided to put aside a budget to attend the World Food Prize every year!
Read more about the World Food Prize awards ceremony on pages 10 and 11.
Climate crisis - Enough rhetoric, let’s roll
“LISTEN TO SCIENCE” is what Greta Thunberg is asking world leaders to do in mitigating climate change. I am reiterating what I said before – if we allow science to guide us instead of emotions, ideology and rhetoric, chances of us going wrong can be minimised.
Science evolves and new findings sometimes dispel older concepts and knowledge. That is the nature of science where we build on the body of knowledge. Whereas, ideology and activism are often blindly rooted on emotions without empirical data.
While climate change activists are strong supporters of science, it is also mindboggling that the same people dismiss science when it comes to tools in modern biotechnology such as genetic modification, gene editing, gene drive and synthetic biology. And here is where their hypocrisy is evident.
These tools have demonstrated year after year the reduction in carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions through reduced used of pesticides and fuel; and the potential to increase food production without the need to increase deforestation. Why is science embraced in one area and demonised in another? Are these people really sincere?
Blue ocean strategy, circular economy, sustainable development, biomass strategy, bioeconomy, zero tolerance to single-use plastics, blueprints … we are never short of avant-garde and bombastic terminologies. The question is, what has come out from all these? Japan implemented circular economy without even using the term for more than a decade now. But our love for blueprints and roadmaps is boundless. Malaysia does not lack policies, roadmaps and blueprints. The problem is its implementation and the practicality of these “white elephants”.
Flying is being shamed now as it is a carbon-intensive activity. I am guilty of this too. One of the top contributors to carbon footprint is business class travellers. A calculation based on spaces for different
classes on British Airways flight appears that flying first class creates a footprint around 5.5 times larger than that of an economy passenger, whereas a business seat is 3.5 times more than the economy option.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK has asked its top officials to downgrade their flights to economy class as part of department efforts to cut emissions by 10% in 2010. Can we expect the same from our leaders and bureaucrats? Why do we need business class for an hour’s flight? Only in the developing world this is allowed for government officials.
Slogans alone on social media by leaders and activists will not help reverse climate change. They need to walk their talk and display an exemplary way of life, otherwise their sincerity can be questioned. It is selective empathy.
The escalating catastrophe resulting from climate change can never be fought with rhetoric and selective empathy. We need science. Only science can support development without wrecking the planet.
My take on climate change – to address this huge elephant in the room, what we need is sincerity, say goodbye to selective empathy, and forget all the policies with great sounding names and terminologies. Let us get down to work.
This month we have focussed on climate change with a number of articles.
The SCOPE is a monthly pull out that we introduced to satiate public curiosity on science by putting science under the scope and dissecting the “wow” factor of everything that is “sciency” around us. It is an ideal section for students, science teachers and just about anyone, including housewives. In this issue, for the first time we have a scientist dissecting “protein” into sound bites that will be easy for the public to understand. We welcome scientists, undergraduate and postgraduate students to contribute to our SCOPE pullout to introduce their topic of research. Enjoy reading!
Changing face of the job landscape
ONLY 10 years ago, the world looked very different. I am talking about the career landscape. There was a report stating 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that are non-existent today.
But I always question this as I am working in a field – science communications – that was non-existent when I went to school in the late 70s. It is a field that is about two decades old.
When the steam engines were replaced by electricity, jobs were displaced by others. New jobs emerged and the cycle repeats at every industrial revolution. This is nothing new. We all adapted, learnt new skills and took up new jobs.
Today, everyone is talking about digitalisation, automation, internet of things and so on. Sometimes, I feel we react as though each revolution is the last and will stay forever. We often forget that change is the only constant.
The skill sets required for new careers keeps changing and new industries transform how and where we work. But how can we be agile for wherever the technology takes us?
Who would have thought about this two decades ago – that the biggest retailer will operate without an inventory (Alibaba); the world’s largest taxi company will own no fleet (Uber); the largest accommodation provider will not own any real estate (AirBnB); the most popular media does not have to provide any content (Facebook); the largest growing television network will not have to lay any cables (Netflix)?
How can we start thinking out of the box to be leaders of various industries? And most importantly, develop the next generation of Malaysians to be versatile? I feel the answer is a robust education system and our priority in S&T.
With every technology, we are playing a game of “catchup” and not trying to be ahead of the pack. And we immediately drop what we are doing when a new technology springs up. Basic research was dropped to satiate our appetite for commercialisation; biotechnology was replaced with bioeconomy; and we lost a great opportunity of transforming our agriculture university into the best agriculture university in the region, instead we opted to change its name.
We are great consumers. A study by Pew Research Centre (2015) showed that Malaysia is above the global median (43%) of smartphone ownership. We stand at 65%, and Canada (67%), USA (72%), Germany (60%), France (49%), UK (68%) and Australia (77%). Are we really way above France? Makes me question this study. But that does not change the fact that we are great users of technology. Are we innovative? I am not sure.
In short, if we wish to embrace the current technology revolution, the two pillars that need to be strengthened are education and S&T policies and how they are implemented. Unless and until this is done, we will be playing the catch up game.
Push bioscience from back burner to mainstream
GLOBALLY,certain crucial aspects of science are on the priority list of many a nation’s S&T agenda.
World governments in the West and several major nations in Asia such as India, and China, Japan and South Korea as well as Singapore are largely preoccupied with matters such as climate change adaptation; conservation of biodiversity; future foods and agriculture; circular economy; carbon sequestration and energy transition, just to mention a few.
In these countries, we are already seeing the major shift from treatment to wellness in the medical industry; chemicals to fine biochemicals; fossil fuel to biofuel; utilisation to sustainable development; and conventional agriculture to precision agriculture with biosciences taking the centre stage in all these developments.
Globally, bioscience innovations are advancing at an astonishing speed with biotechnology achieving a global market value of USD414.5 billion in 2017.
Bioscience has grown to become the poster boy among all sciences as it provides “innovative solution” to today’s global challenges. While we hear rhetoric and buzzwords of all the above in Malaysia, there seems to be no realisation that S&T, especially biosciences have a huge role to play in achieving these agendas and more coordinated effort and long-term plans need to be put in place to harness its benefits.
Can we do a finger tip survey? How many people are employed directly in the biosciences disciplines in Malaysia, both public and private sectors?
How about the indirect employment effect from our biosciences sector? Will this be something to be proud of, given the years of offering bioscience related education in dozens of public and private higher learning institutions, not to mention time, money and effort spent on R&D? What is Malaysia’s share in the USD 414.5 billion bioscience market value?
Many universities are currently mulling over merging several bio-related and science faculties with the reduced number of students wanting to pursue these courses. I would not want to mislead any student by saying there is a future in the bioscience sector in the local job scene. Instead, there is huge potential for it overseas and to grab those opportunities, our students must be competitive.
This leads to the next question – is our education system robust enough to develop talent for the international market? If we look at the scorecard of the current administration, does it give us any indication that the country is moving towards an innovative, high-income first world nation?
Let the jury out there cast its vote. These days I am being baffled every day by statements made by our politicians. There is a campaign urging the public to consume a spoon of palm oil every day. Is this backed by science and supported by doctors, nutritionists and dieticians? I use palm oil to cook my meals and this is what most Malaysians do. Why should we then consume the oil in spoonfuls? Palm oil is a healthy oil, and I have no doubt about it. But consuming any oil excessively is not good for health – given the obesity problems Malaysians are facing.
While Malaysians already have very bad eating habits and are not very health conscious, this campaign will eventually pass the buck to the ministry of health in years to come. I really hope sound scientific advice is given to our ministers and that ministers seek advice from relevant experts before rolling out any campaign.
On the other hand, the campaign should be diverted to R&D on palm oil to develop fine chemicals for various industrial uses, employing modern biotechnology to produce high-yielding planting material to reduce deforestation and ways to convert biomass to valuable products; arresting the problem where our palm oil is adulterated with cheaper oil that tarnishes the image and quality of palm oil overseas; presenting scientific facts to the public about palm oil both in Malaysia and overseas, and engaging with foreign activists and policymakers by providing scientific facts. Again, biosciences could provide solution to many of the issues plaguing our oil palm industry.
I am appalled by the lack of science literacy among the public but there seem to be a “knowledge illusion” among many of our politicians and it is deceiving them. The current administration must see to it that the learning curve is sharper and make sure government representatives dispense sound, factual and scientific advice to the public.
Meanwhile, as of today, a total of 70 countries are actively growing biotech crops on 191.7 million hectares of land. This is according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA) which released its annual status report on Aug 22.
Our neighbour, Indonesia has planted a drought-tolerant sugarcane developed through a public-private participation. Kudos to them as it requires molecular skills, risk assessment and management expertise,
regulatory vigour and expertise in science communication to get biotech cropping from the petri dish to the fields.
From test tube to politics,from politics to zero benefits
IT is normal for scientists and STEM students to get excited when their research yields the desired results in their laboratories. But I always caution my students that the path from test tube to the consumer is much more complicated with deciding factors going beyond science.
Scientific merits and breakthroughs in the laboratories are not the yardstick for commercialisation. Economic feasibility, safety of the products, market demand, trade implications, ethics and religions, as well as politics are some of the influencing factors that determine whether a certain product or technology reaches the market.
While all these are important factors, politics puts a blight on the progress of science and technology for all the “wrong reasons” and has caused loss of opportunity in terms of revenue, socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
Biotech crops suffer the same fate. These new types of crops are being denied their rightful place in agriculture in many countries. Gene editing and synthetic biology are also now the victims of politics. It is a sad truth – science takes a backseat while politics sits on the pedestal.
Bt brinjal and biotech mustard seeds are not available to Indian farmers, and this is thanks to politics. Last month farmers in India demand access to GM seeds through a non-violent demonstration. There are many court cases on biotech crops where science is being tried before a non-scientific jury around the world.
Critics of modern biotechnology are now head over heels to pull the plug on synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drive technology and have been trying to include socioeconomic consideration into regulatory procedures of biotech crops.
Many countries in Europe might not need biotech crops for a number of reasons – less pest pressure, inclination towards organic produce or lower demand due to smaller population. But EU’s stance of not approving biotech crops citing “scientific” reasons hoodwinks developing countries on the safety of biotech crops.
As a science communicator, building the political will to support science is my biggest challenge. It is always sad to see beneficial technologies falling prey to politics and tried in court where science is poorly understood. Not just modern agricultural biotechnology, other sciences also suffer similar fate.
In Malaysia, Lynas which was demonised by the current government during their term as opposition now see it as a large investment that they do not want to lose. The latest decision to renew their licence has put a stop to all the uncertainties hanging over the future of Lynas’ USD800 million plant in Malaysia.
If only we made evidence and science-based decisions, all these rows between the politicians, NGOs and the company could have been spared, and also the embarrassment of the U-turn decisions among the politicians – not to mention the alarm created among the public. I agree waste disposal is a problem and that has to be negotiated with the company but do rare earth themselves pose a hazard?
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) endorsed the Lynas operation as low risk and complying to existing laws. Was not Nuclear Agency Malaysia consulted before Lynas was given their license?
Ideally, science-based facts should be the No 1 criteria when considering the adoptability of a technology and all other issues should then be the secondary factors. Even if a technology is found to be not suitable or in demand or a priority for a country, it is best to be trans- parent about the reason. Don’t put the blame on science. It will be embarrassing to revert. The safest thing to do is take an evidence-based approach. It will never let us down.
Into the next milestone, and ready to roll
THIS month started with so much of anticipation and excitement for me
with my appointment as the Global Coordinator for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA) – the first international organisation which acknowledged the need to engage “technology transfer” between North and South in the area of modern agribiotechnology.
ISAAA, with its bastion at Cornell University, USA, is also the first to coin the words “biotech crops” to replace the term “genetically modified crops” – a term that seems to vilify the crops that helped farmers generate
USD186.1 billion farm gains (1996-2016); uplifted lives of 17 million small farmers; and helped spare 183 million hectares from land ploughing and cultivation (because food production increased due to adoption of biotech crops).
ISAAA also produces data that is most cited in the field of agribiotechnology in its template called “Global Status of Commercialised Biotech Crops”. The former patron of ISAAA is the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Dr Norman Barloug. For these and many more reasons, I am very honoured and proud to be chosen to lead this prestigious organisation that has presence and network around the globe.
To be the Global Coordinator of ISAAA at this present time – in the light of changing landscape of donors and the need to address regulatory oversights for precision breeding technologies and increase public awareness in these emerging technologies, when even genetic modification is not fully understood by the public after more than two decades of adoption makes my current appointment a very challenging one.
ISAAA has 15 active Biotechnology Information Centres (BICs) around the globe and smaller nodes and associates in a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The sustainability of these centres and nodes are critical to create an impact: in the adoption and approval of biotech crops, to ensure farmers have access to agri-innovation, in the harmonisation of regulations to
avoid trade disruption, to increase political will to support the technology, and to enhance public understanding.
We are working hard at ISAAA to modernise our data and present it in ways that would be easier for stakeholders to decipher and understand meaningfully the evolving trends.
These are not an easy feats, taking into account the different cultural, political environments, activism, availability of information, and needs around the globe.
There is certainly one morsel too many on my plate, but the show must go on, and I am ready to roll by taking one day at a time. Meanwhile, I am pleased to announce that I will still remain the Executive Director of
Mabic and will be based in Kuala Lumpur – although my new appointment will increase my globe-trotting sojourns. I do hope to see biotechnology develop into a robust sector in my lifetime in Malaysia.
Looking at this issue of The Petri Dish in hand, we are happy to see the return of the MTDC Chronicle which will be published quarterly.
Our gratitude goes to the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) as our partner in science.
Another good news is that The Petri Dish is now available at our international and domestic airports. This is thanks to Nooodles Café
for becoming our latest distribution channel. You can now catch up on the latest on science, especially bio-sciences, at KLIA (and soon will be expanded to other airports in Malaysia), while at the same time slurping oodles of delicious noodles from their wide selection.
Thank you Noodles Café, and we hope more corporate players will join us in “little ways like this” to help us take science to every Joe and Jane Public.
We are also happy to introduce a new column with this issue – ScienceChat from DownUnder – where we will feature Australian science communicators, their initiatives, strategies and approach in communicating science.
This month, Catriona Nguyen Robertson talks about communicating science in the right way. See page 3. Australia has always been my inspiration when it comes to science communication.
Multiple factors determining policy decisions on science
THIS is what I always tell my students:“Decisions on science are not solely
made based on scientific facts but politics, emotions, ethics, religious norms and trade issues.”
To understand this better, read the article on how nuclear energy reduces the CO2 footprint which we publish on page 3 of this issue. France reduced its CO2 emission from 500 grams per kWh to 70 grams after going nuclear
in 1973. But this has not convinced many other countries to follow suit including Malaysia.
Other sectors in science, such as genetically modified foods (GM) and new breeding technologies suffer the same fate. While France made science-based decision on power generation, the country banned GM crops. And here is one reason among the many.
The green activists made a deal with President Nicolas Sakorzy to trade off GM technology for nuclear energy. The deal was either nuclear energy or GM crops. It was a blackmail tactic of the greenies and the French government bowed to the pressure.
I do hope in science, sound decisions will prevail over ideology, emotions and bad press. In Malaysia, we have policies that are not possible to implement like the Amended Food Safety Act that calls for labelling of GM foods.
It has been on hold since 2010 because it is almost impossible to enforce it. I remember when I was involved in the consultation process on labelling of GM foods – the proposal from Ministry of Health was – zero threshold. However, I countered that it will not be possible to implement and enforce. I presented a paper on this. Today, even with three per cent threshold, we are not labelling GM foods yet.
Then we have the Biosafety Act and its regulations. Due to its stringent and tedious procedures, scientists have given up working on GM technologies, although import of GM grains is allowed in the country.
And now we have the roadmap towards zero single-use plastic by 2030.
While everyone agrees on the hazards brought by single-use plastics, a zero ban is not practical. It should be zero waste and not zero usage.
Is it possible for our researchers to find a solution in the name of bioplastics in another 11 years? Biodegradable plastics that offer the
same functionality, that degrades 100 per cent in a landfill and that is cost effective – these are just some of the properties that need to be ironed out.
Malaysia has never provided research grant for the same project seamlessly for more than five years. Our research priorities shift so very
often and grants are given in bits and pieces and this does not allow the research to see the light of day in terms of achieving commercialisation.
Here, I am talking about high-end technology, and not aromatherapy and health supplements.
Will our research environment provide the impetus to scientists to develop bioplastic that is economically viable that meets all the industrial applications?
I feel many of our policies are based on ideology and rhetoric instead of facts. Our education policies are good examples as well.
It is indeed scary to think about the future of science and technology in this country. A recent article in The Star newspaper (23 March 2019) reported that there are lesser jobs for graduates; decline in demand for high-skilled jobs; and most entry jobs for graduates are sales and marketing.
This is not surprising as we have become a technology user and not an innovator. Can we still hope that this will change?
It is acceptable for skilled Malaysians to work overseas but when the time comes for Malaysians to be forced to become menial labourers outside our shores, perhaps, that will come as a rude shock to us.
I hope we will wake up to this reality sooner than later. It is time for science, rational thinking and far-sightedness to prevail.
No place for media-shy scientists
WHEN I took over the reins of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) at the turn of the new millennium – my major concern was, how will I get my fodder of scientific information across to the mass population out there, especially with Mabic being “the go-to” info bastion.
I was daunted by questions like: will the mass media support Mabic’s good cause of disseminating accurate scientific information to the general public; will local editors be interested in publishing science-related stories and whether or not the public, in the first place, have any interest to read science stories, all these, and loads of other nail-biting forebodings.
When I thumbed through the pages of local dailies, I noted that newsrooms had a general news desk, a crime desk, a court desk, a features desk, an entertainment/lifestyle desk, business desk and sports desk but no “dedicated desk” nor “specialist journalists” to cover science stories.
However, I noted that local Sunday editions had a page or two for science and tech stories, but all of the stories were from foreign dispatches relating to new advances in science and technology as well as discoveries in the frontiers of medicine and space exploration.
As I thumbed through some international big-ticket news media such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, I was gladdened to come across a dedicated science desk in these newspapers with scientists- turned science journalists heading the desk with a brood of science-based rookies as reporters.
What’s more, there was also a religion desk with a theologian as the major-domo! At about this time too, I got some negative feedback from the scientific community in the country, telling me that local mainstream editors do not have an appetite for science stories and that they trash press releases related to science matters. Reporters covering a science-based event are known to leave after the VIP’s keynote address and press conference, refusing to stay back to network with scientists or look at the exhibits displayed at the event to gather an additional science-angled story.
So, what is published in the newspaper the following morning is news of a political nature with regards to what the VIP spoke on or derived from questions reporters asked pertaining to a remote follow-up issue on a policy matter, perhaps, that had little to do with the science event that he had attended.
In my continued dealings with mainstream journalists, an opportunity came by, where I ranted all the misgivings I had with local newspapers and their lack of interest in publishing science stories with a senior journalist.
He did not quite agree with all that I said but instead asked me, where are your stories, pointedly saying editors do not shun science stories. He said: “Scientists do not talk to the media nor to the public. They talk among themselves and quietly publish their earth-shattering findings in their own journals. So, it is hidden in their sacred almanacs, out of reach from every journalist,” he said.
“I do not blame scientists if they are not able to smell news when it shows up in their petri dish. They are not trained to smell news. But times have changed. It is the public who fund their research, so institutions of science must be accountable and put their findings out into the sunshine,” he added.
He said, he has come across many science journals in the library where he had spotted potential local research and findings which would have otherwise made it to the front page of newspapers, but unfortunately remain fossilised in dusty library shelves.
This journalist who has a bent for science and has covered several Mabic events, further said, that there needs to be a friendly media eco-system such as a press office in science institutions and centres where scientists and the media could “interface” instead of “facing-off” with each other.
According to him, science stories are not forthcoming from the local institutions. He says: “When a journalist calls a scientist for comments whenever a science story breaks in the global front, he is usually confronted by red tape. The voice at the other end says, I cannot
speak to you now, I must get green light from my department head.
“And the journalist responds, okay can I call you in an hour? The answer would be, no, not now, I have to write in to my boss. And, then comes the final discouraging blow, can you also write in with your questions, so I could pass it to my department head?
“Eventually in the newsroom, the journalist faces his editor, who asks did you get the story? The journalist replies, no, scientist needs green light from department head first before commenting. The editor shakes his head and without a care says, drop the story, and walks off to the roundtable for the evening editors’ meeting where stories for the day are decided.
“This is how a potential front-page science story gets trashed, not by the editor but by a dysfunctional science-media attitude. The journalist also touched on other matters such as the scientists’ lack of competence in dealing with media, not knowing and understanding
how media functions as well as the gobbledegook language in which they communicate, which is a definite “put-off” to journalists.
Now that I am a science journalist, poised at the other end of the science-media matrix, I can fully appreciate all that this journalist told me a little more than a decade ago. Mabic put together The Petri Dish to serve as its own platform with its signature tagline – “Where Science Hits the Headlines”.
It was Mabic’s agenda to make science as ordinary as it can be through The Petri Dish. Through this vehicle, we wanted the everyday mortal man in the street, who is a key funder of scientific researches to be well informed of the benefits of science and to know for himself how his money is used.
We envisioned The Petri Dish, a not-for-profit venture, to be a platform for our own local scientists to showcase their researches as news content. But we get very little cooperation from them in terms of article contribution or subscription to The Petri Dish. In fact, to date not one local institution of higher learning is subscribing to The Petri Dish.
Science is fallible. It should be questioned and debated by everyone. But this can’t happen if scientists do not see the importance of communicating their science to the media and to the public, or even make an effort to learn how to communicate science with a non-scientific audience and even pooh-pooh the important role of a science newspaper.
Science institutions and scientists must drop their supremacist attitude. It is high time they come down from their high horses discard their “closet attitude” and mingle with the media as well as with Joe and Jane Public
Crank up the wheels of our S&T sector
THERE seems to be too much on Pakatan Harapan’s plate – as there are many matters that are not readily getting the coalition’s attention. One of the prime minister’s favourite subjects – Science & Technology – too, seems to be lying lifeless in the back burner. It has been ten months since the Pakatan Harapan pact took over the administration of the country, but very little has been spoken by the powers that be on steps to reform the science and technology sector (S&T).
In Australia there is a regular Science Meet Parliament session, running into its 20th year. Last year the Canadian Parliament launched its pilot Science Meet Parliament session modelled after the Australian initiative.
Can we have a “Science Meet Parliament” slot also in our august House?
I would also like to point out that the recent “relocation” of the Malaysian Bioeconomy Corporation (BioeconomyCorp) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrobased Industry (MOA) is a glaring mistake. It is mind-boggling how this decision was made in the first place.
The National Biotechnology Policy is under the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC) but now the implementation agency is under MOA.
The biggest GDP generator is Biocon and it comes under the medical biotechnology thrust.
The number of agriculture based BioNexus companies might be in the majority but what is the percentage of their GDP? How many of them are real biotechnology companies? Most research institutes related to biotechnology are under MESTECC and research collaboration between BioNexus companies and research institutes is one of the key criteria under the Policy.
It is indeed sad that the agency that was poised to bring Malaysia into the global biotech map is now reduced to selling vegetables and planting trees in schools. Millions of ringgit was ploughed into this agency. Where is the return of investment? I sincerely hope the prime minister will set some of his precious time to look into this.
If MESTECC is too big to give equal attention to S&T, it is time to place S&T under another ministry – possibly higher education and S&T together, so that research and S&T can be monitored seamlessly. With over 20 universities offering bio-based degrees and post graduate programmes, the government will only do justice to these aspiring graduates if it embarks on an S&T reform mission.
Action Council for S&T?
The Economic Action Council was recently announced. Will there also be a Council on S&T? Will knowledge-based economy, high income nation, IR 4.0, and bioeconomy just remain the politician’s rhetoric or a tangible vehicle to help propel the national economy? I am afraid, without a constellation of cutting-edge signature schemes by our policy makers
and stakeholders, our S&T sector is quite unlikely to witness its Midas-touch era.
There are talks about brain drain all the time, but unless our S&T ecosystem is reformed, this long-drawn snafu might never find a neat solution, in fact more scientists might set their foot to foreign shores.
Last month The Petri Dish started a new column, called CEO Talk. We will feature thought-leaders from the industry to speak about anything that matters to S&T ranging from policies, regulations, R&D, collaboration, education, funding, talent development to commercialisation of research, or anything deemed pertinent for science based industry. Last month, Leonard Ariff Abdul Sattar, Group Managing Director of Duopharma shared his thoughts.
The CEO Talk column will continue next month with thoughts from another captain in the industry. The Petri Dish continues to expand its reader base. It has now hit the Pavilion, Intermark and Da Men malls, truly embracing our goal of getting science to the public.
Pushing our ‘science’ into the global mainstream
HAPPY NEW YEAR to our readers, advertisers and benefactors. It is another year and The Petri Dish has seen nine successful years in print.
As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention”, The Petri Dish was put together to take science out into the sunshine, so that it will resonate with the public, to every person in society – from school children to housewives and boardroom executives.
In other words, we want to shoot down the notion that science belongs only to scientists functioning in a rarefied club. We just want to bring science home.
Today, I get many emails and messages on my FB not only from Malaysians but also from people who matter from foreign countries and they rave about The Petri Dish’s content, layout and presentation.
The newspaper’s editorial team is always on striving-mode to churn out new ideas in order to reach out to a wider audience. It is not an easy feat to keep a print media relevant in the age of digital technology.
We want to better serve our readers and make The Petri Dish a “go-to source” for latest science information; and policies, regulations, science-economy, technopreneurship and talent development related to science and technology.
We communicate accurate, balanced, science-based information on innovation and entrepreneurship to decision makers, scientists, educators, politicians, students,
teachers and the general public.
The Petri Dish is the first science newspaper, not just in Malaysia but in the region and we have taken extra measures by placing it at public places – Starbucks, shopping malls and private hospitals as an “outreach publication” to the masses, all for the sake of infusing
science literacy to the Malaysian layman.
It is however, still disappointing that key stakeholders are not educating themselves on the latest development in science & technology and bioeconomy.
This includes students, who are unaware of their career options or potential fields to pursue their postgraduate studies, policymakers and politicians who are clueless about the direction the nation’s biotechnology, bioeconomy or science sectors should take, as well as the general public who fall prey to pseudoscience and bad press.
Technology revolution is currently taking the world by storm and we will be missing out if we are slow, ignorant and laid back.
Time is a luxury that we don’t have right now. We are losing our competitiveness
and new technologies are becoming out of our reach. I for one, always feel guilty promoting STEM and biotechnology to students as the current administration is not making serious efforts for STEM industry to thrive in the country.
We are still technology users and not innovators. We look for easy ways to commercialise science, without building a strong body of knowledge. For all these reasons, science literacy and keeping ourselves updated on the latest S&T development is crucial.
We must get our science right, otherwise we are toast!
Malaysia has a huge potential that is yet to be unlocked. We are still hopeful that the new administration and ministries relevant to science will make far sighted and informed decisions that will help S&T progress in Malaysia.
Support us to make Malaysia science-literate and competitive in the age of digitalisation and technology revolution. Let us celebrate science and local scientists and their research.
We invite you to be part of PD by contributing articles, subscribing and making it your media to advertise your science products, services and events. The feedback we get proves that there is an appetite for science among general public, but we can only sustain and expand with your support.
Remember, each time you pick a free copy of The Petri Dish, you are enjoying the effort of four people from our editorial team without paying for it.
We sincerely thank our readers, advertisers and benefactors for their support and wish everyone a successful year ahead.
From Sharm el-Sheikh 2018, where are we headed, are we on track?
THE UNITED NATIONS (UN) Biodiversity Conference concluded on Nov 29 at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and the next one will be hosted in Beijing in 2020. The Convention on Biological Diversity which came into force in December 1993 is now gearing up towards the post-2020 framework.
The question remains – how effective has the Convention and its various protocols achieved the original goals?
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) is meant for safe handling, transport and usage of LMOs resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity and human health.
The Protocol is often being misused to delay the approvals of LMOs without scientific justification in many countries. It is noteworthy to mention that there has not been a single verifiable health and environment hazard of LMOs since the Protocol came into force 18 years ago. In fact, the reverse is true. Modern biotechnology has increased farmer income and productivity, reduced carbon footprints and increased biodiversity.
But until today, deliberations at the conference by many Parties lack sound scientific evidence. Malaysia championed the Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress.
In return we have an international protocol named after Kuala Lumpur. But that had also branded Malaysia as anti-biotech and many saw the contradictory messages from two ministries.
The then Ministry of Science Technology and Innovation was calling for biotech investors while a Malaysian official delegate was promoting extreme precautionary principle. During the negotiation, the Malaysian delegate often compared LMOs to nuclear material and championed for civil liability but his attempts failed, a sign of sound science prevailing among a few pragmatic Parties. The supplementary protocol opted for the more workable administrative approach.
Today, Malaysia aggressively wants gene editing to be under the same category as LMOs whereas the more science-based Parties want a case-by-case evaluation for gene-editing. The latter makes sense because gene-editing is a group of tools, resulting in different types of products – not all of them LMOs.
Malaysia also wants to strictly limit the use of Digital Sequence Information (DSI), under the pretext of being a megabiodiverse country.
Brazil which falls in the same category and is about the same size in terms of economy has
very balanced approach towards modern biotechnology, biodiversity, and indigenous people and their knowledge.
Malaysia does a great job in approving GM products for food, feed and processing (FFP) but
our research is suffering as it requires very tedious, repetitive and time-consuming procedures. Many of our scientists have given up their research on GMOs.
We have not even mastered GM research, field trials, risk assessments and management, while the world is moving towards gene editing and synthetic biology.
Something has to be done, so our efforts in producing biotechnology and related graduates is not in vain.
I am waiting for a time for our ministries to work in coherence. Biodiversity is our asset and no scientist in his/her right mind would want to destroy it. No activist in his/her deathbed would want to wait 15 years for a cure to be found and approved.
Every country wants food security, their farmers to be alleviated from poverty, protect biodiversity and rights of indigenous people, and to be spared from climate change. So, why not the ministries in charge of science, natural resources, agriculture, primary industries, health and education work hand-in-hand on these issues and not see them as contradicting their mission.
I have been attending the UN Biodiversity Conference since 2008 and one question remains
unanswered – do Malaysian delegates seek the advice from our scientists before making interventions? Are consultation meetings held with our scientists and relevant scientific agencies in the country to reach consensus?
To be fair, I feel our scientists too, show little or no interest on legal matters and are not interested to educate themselves on these issues – leaving it to be hijacked by non-scientists.
May modern biotechnology find its rightful place in Malaysia!
Can we see some realistic tangible?
IT has been six months since the new Pakatan Harapan pact took over the administration of the government of Malaysia. While rhetoric on reform is being spewed by the new breed of lawmakers on economics, politics, administration and social lifestyle – we have not heard of substantial reform agenda for the education and science, technology and innovation sectors (STI) coming from the neoteric bench of politicians.
Education and STI are two key drive engines that will propel the country towards becoming a high-income and knowledge-based economy.
The sweetener in Budget 2019 is that the Ministry of Education got the highest allocation, 19% of the total budget. It is the aspiration of all Malaysians that the allocation will translate into tangible deliverables at the end of 2019. There are so much of reform measures that are needed in our education system.
Previously, laptops and smartphones were provided to teachers which all ended up as obsolete accessories and added workload to teachers. We do not want more “hardware” initiatives but a focus on “software” – improved curriculum, developing competitive students, enhancing the quality and attitude of teachers, higher standard of the English language and secular education.
In Budget 2019, RM400 million is allocated in grants for R&D for higher learning institutions. R&D expenditures as a share of the GDP of the country was the highest in 2015 at 1.3%. This is still very low compared to developed countries. Malaysia’s GDP is projected to grow at 4.9% and our GDP in 2017 was RM1,320.9 billion. A rough estimation shows that the R&D allocation in 2019 is below 1.3%.
A full complement of Illumina’s HiSeq X Ten (next generation sequencer) used for DNA and whole genome sequencing can cost anything between RM210,000 to RM3.15 million. This will give a rough idea of the expenses involved in doing high impact research that is on par with the current advancements in S&T and how far the RM400 million can be stretched. There is also no indication of dedicated budget for private higher learning institutions.
The Industry Revolution 4.0 also got special attention with RM5 billion set aside to help industry to embrace this new wave. The Finance Minister also announced the allocation under Strategy 8: Education for the Betterment of the Future, that includes a matching grant of RM30 million for the Malaysia Partnership Programme and Alliances in Research (MyPAIR). This is aimed at enhancing cooperation between public universities with local industries and international agencies in strategic areas.
Prior to the Budget announcement, the centralised Research Management Agency (RMA) announced by the Prime Minister in October is news that the scientific community has been waiting for. R&D being so multidisciplinary with cross-cutting nature and involving many ministries, a centralised RMA will reduce any conflict of interest and competing priorities. R&D basically has a place in almost all ministries – science, agriculture, health, education, natural resources, women, sports,rural development, defence, primary industries, and transport to name the major ones.
There is also a news that is mindbogging. The news about the placement of Bioeconomy
Corporation under the Ministry of Agriculture. I am unsure how the ideation of this came about but wouldn’t this dilute the priority areas like industrial and medical biotechnology? Medical biotechnology has the biggest share in terms of market value globally and Malaysia must strengthen this area. Industrial biotechnology is the next wave in bioeconomy with applications in almost all areas and a big overlap with both agriculture and medical biotechnology. I can only hope that Malaysia will not be left behind in these areas. Another point of contention is that every time a new minister takes office, the agenda and priority shifts, leaving no time to see the fruits of the previous policies.
Five years is too short for a policy, especially STI to bear fruits. We have hardly heard any STI reform from the current administration. Single-use plastic seems to be the priority, an easy pick to create rhetoric among the citizens but the scientific community wants high-impact research opportunities. Malaysia has excellent STI policies but extremely poor implementation and execution.
The new administration should revisit the existing policies, learn from the mistakes of the past and put STI in the right perspective – funding mechanism, priority areas, collaboration, putting the right people to helm institutes, reform bleeding and ailing institutes, identifying challenges in agriculture, industry, healthcare and other areas where local scientists could play a role in developing home-grown technologies. We have not heard anything in these areas for the last six months.
We train and develop thousands of young talents every year and jobs must be created for them. Most bio-based graduates are not employed in the same field due to limited indus-try players. This can also be said for other science graduates in the areas of chemistry, physics and mathematics. Where are the jobs in these areas? Why then do we promote STEM education and vocalise on the lack of interest in these fields?
Is the government really doing justice to all the graduates who we train in STEM? Unless and until STI is given the importance and executed effectively, we should not pull wool over our students’ eyes, promising them careers in STEM. As an academic and regular speaker at universities, I do not want to mislead my students.
I am still waiting to hear about STI initiatives and I trust my colleagues in the scientific community are also equally eager and hopeful.
...Because nuclear technology is a better option
TUN DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD is known for his visionary ideas and a strong ambition to transform Malaysia into a global science and technology (S&T) hub. S&T policies were first developed during his previous administration as prime minister of Malaysia and they continue to take centre stage in policymaking and nation building today.
With due respect to the honourable prime minister’s thoughts and
concerns – his recent announcement on nuclear technology puts the
brakes on the nation’s technological aspirations and efforts to reduce the country’s carbon index.
Currently, more than 31 countries are efficiently operating 436 nuclear power reactors that yield 13-14 per cent of global electricity demand.
Tun Mahathir’s fear of a radioactive fallout is misplaced in this age of
advanced knowledge in this sector. The traumatic experience of Fukushima should not be a benchmark for risk assessment.
Malaysia has the experts in this area and their knowledge should
be put to good use – instead of merely reducing them to undertake
research below their full capacity.
Malaysia has started an impact study on nuclear power and this should not be halted or shelved -even if the decision is to delay the adoption of nuclear power in the country.
The study should be completed for future reference.
Currently, over 90 per cent of our electricity supply is generated from fossil fuel which is contributing immensely to CO2 emissions.
The previous administration targeted a healthy mix of energy sources by 2030, with 17.8 per cent coming from nuclear technology.
I hope this policy will be revisited. Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore
have drawn their blueprint for nuclear plans and are working towards it. Besides food security,energy security is the of utmost priority
to any country. In fact, energy security is a prerequisite to food
security. Nuclear power plants have many advantages over the conventional energy sources as it issues less CO2 emissions and more costeffective than coal- and gas-power.
Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between risk perception
of the public and the scientific community.
For scientists, risk is just not the hazard but the possibility of the
hazard occurring. But for the public, risk is perceived to be a hazard plus the outrage.
An airplane crash is a risk but how many planes crash in a day?
People fear airplane crashes more than road accidents although more deaths are attributed to the latter because of the outrage – the magnitude of news coverage and the public attention an air crash draws. Scientific facts often take a backseat when outrage and emotion overwhelm. The aviation industry is far more strictly regulated than the land transportations.
The same outrage and debate also negate the potential benefits
to be gained from many other emerging technologies like genetic
modification, gene editing and gene drive.
On a broader spectrum, it would be in good order to consult the scientific community and provide a platform for them to present their facts and findings. Lack of political will in many countries are derailing technological advancements, socioeconomic and environmental benefits to nations and citizenry.
Tun Mahathir’s reluctance on this technology comes as a surprise
given his excellent and up-to-date knowledge on S&T. I have heard
murmurs among the scientific community on their disappointment and it is time for our scientists to speak up autonomously and their voices should be heard in the corridors of power.
Will S&T, R&D see a new horizon under M’sia Baru?
MALAYSIA’S scientific community is waiting with hope and trepidation – indeed, with mixed feelings after years of a “dull lull” under the previous administration – where science and technology (S&T) as well as research and development (R&D) stood at a listless inertia.
In a flash back to the past – it would be good to remind ourselves that the country has invested huge amounts of time, effort and even funding on S&T, (although the funding mechanism could have been better). We had (and still have) a number of policies on STI and they cut across many ministries. The National Biotechnology Policy was launched in 2005. Bio conferences around the globe were regular conference circuits for us, scientists and researchers. Huge pavilions and a bloated delegation with VVIPs were a common sight at these meets.
Looking back today, I would think that an audit is due to gauge the return of investment of every cent allocated to biotechnology since 2005.
Our biotechnology policy came in three phases. The final phase was to go global by 2020. Are we anywhere near this? What led to our failures? What is the status of the biotech industry in Malaysia? How many among the 200 odd BioNexus companies are active and contribute to our GDP? Most of the graduates in this field have their career dreams dashed with very limited jobs related to their training.
All these have to be studied in great detail so that the ramifications can be addressed, and the failures serve as meaningful lessons for the future and also for the initiatives currently undertaken.
It is time for Malaysians, especially the scientific community to be gifted with promising news on meaningful STI initiatives and the revamping of current agencies which are still gridlocked with baggage from the past.
Missing the boat
Another area of great concern is the direction of Malaysia in the era of genetic technologies. We have already missed the genetic engineering (GE) boat aeons ago – and the second boat which had already launched its sail – where new breeding technologies such as gene editing, gene drives and synthetic biology which are all cruising through laboratories across the world.
Right now, I perceive that we in Malaysia may also not be “on time” to board this boat as well.
Most scientists in the country have given up on GE research due to the painstaking procedures necessary to conduct research in this area. And this is just at the laboratory stage, and we are not even talking about taking the research to the farm. Unnecessary paperwork and information required, demoralises scientists working in this area. This feedback came very strongly during an agribiotechnology stakeholder workshop in 2015 organised by the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) and the Agribiotechnology Institute (ABI).
The Biosafety Act 2007 came into force in December 2009. It is almost a decade now and is timely to have a review and assessment process to evaluate its effectiveness. The role of the Biosafety Act is not just to look at the risks of modern biotechnology, but also to ensure beneficial research is not stifled. Why train graduates in this field if R&D is not in progress?
Why the rhetoric on declining interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education if our ecosystem is not conducive for graduates to have hands-on careers in biotechnology?
We, will then be implementing contradictory policies instead. I hope with the placement of the Biosafety Department under the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), the STI and Biotechnology policies could be synchronised with the Biosafety Act.
Progress should not be curtailed while mitigation of risks is undertaken.
It is also time to take stock of the number of PhD graduates in the fields of STEM who are not able to put their skills to full use before we campaign for more graduates to undertake Master degrees and PhD with the promise that the nation needs their talent. It is time to set the right ecosystem for S&T to thrive and redeem past mistakes.
It is getting a little lethargic being in STEM looking at the regress instead of progress, especially so, when all around us, the world is moving at the speed of lightening. And we are also far from the thunder that rolls after. Regrettably, we have only witnessed the occasional drizzle when certain announcements made from time to time raised a bit of hope. It seems like a long haul yet, as we wait the showers of blessings that should have come yesterday.
This month marks a milestone for The Petri Dish. The Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) has a special pull-out featuring current developments in the technopreneur space in Malaysia. MTDC is also playing a role as a corporate citizen in the field of STI by disseminating science-based information to the public. The 4-page pull-out, called MTDC Chronicles will now make The Petri Dish a 24-page newspaper. And we are delighted to dedicate a page for content in Bahasa Malaysia, a dream that we had harboured for long. Readers will get this pull-out from September to December 2018 at no additional cost. We hope more corporate citizens will join us to make Malaysia a science-literate nation.
A sterling crop in New Malaysia’s cabinet
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.
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:
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
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 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
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.
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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!