26.7 C
Kuala Lumpur
Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Changing face of the job landscape

September 2019

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

August 2019

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

June 2019

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

May 2019

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

April 2019

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

March 2019

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

February 2019

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?

Wrong move
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.

New column
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

January 2019

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?

December 2018

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?

November 2018

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

Oct 2018

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?

September 2018

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).

Biosafety Act

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

July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond policy

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

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

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

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

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
produce seeds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science communication needs a local narrative

June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A renaissance for our science agenda

May 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hoping for a new renaissance in the science sector

April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a reason for communicating science

March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead for a better year ahead

January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help us create a science-literate nation

December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.

Too hot to handle

November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to groom market-ready graduates

October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran’s sunny side for science

September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our research culture needs a booster dose

August 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaleidoscopic Kazakhstan

July 2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking up is hard to do!

June 2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake news sells, but the truth prevails

May 2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fossilised in the journal, calcified in the lab

April 2017 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us make science a topic of discussion!

Another milestone in our mission to popularise science

March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

available at Starbucks, several shopping malls and private hospitals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In cyber orbit

Feb 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just grabbing the low hangingfruits is not good enough

Jan 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!