Towards a scientifically-driven Malaysian society

by Mamduh Zabidi

Photos by NASA, Horacio Lyon & Nicola Sapiens De Mitri / Flickr
Photos by NASA, Horacio Lyon & Nicola Sapiens De Mitri / Flickr

For a fairly young nation, we have already had several impressive scientific successes: we have sent many scientific expeditions to the wintry Antarctica, tracked down and fought the deadly Nipah virus[1], and even sent an angkasawan to the outer space. Plus, we have even managed to clone the thorny beauty, our beloved D24[2].

These achievements notwithstanding, there are still much to do to become a significant contributor of scientific knowledge at the world stage. As a developing country, our notable scientific discoveries are understandably still limited. To improve the socio-economic well-being of the people, construction of basic infrastructure and nation building have taken precedence over investing in the advancement of science and technology. Now, as we are trying to make the leap from a middle-income to a high-income and developed nation, the development of our scientific capability has become more important than ever; it needs to be at the same trajectory with, and even sustain, our economic growth. At the same time, science should also transform the way our society thinks.

In this continuation section, I offer my own personal opinions on avenues to improve our incipient Science field.

1) Reduce bureaucracy and paperwork

It goes without saying that red tapes distract scientists from their real job, which is to make discoveries and educate the next generation, scientists and non-scientists alike. Formalities and forms should be reduced to the bare essentials, be it in government agencies, universities or even in  industrial sectors. We also need to find a system that works efficiently and stick to it; constantly changing it will only drain energy, cost and patience.

Other than to become mills for scientific discoveries, universities (especially public ones) are built to educate. Academic rules are needed to have some semblance of structure. But excessive regulation only hampers real education: little educational value can be gained from  insistence on strict formatting requirements of a thesis or report, for example. Writing a hefty thesis, which is unlikely to be read again in the future, is not always the most worthwhile of effort. Most real science happens in the lab or in the field; unnecessary meetings and rhetorics should be limited.

2) Dispose of parochial politics

If not managed properly, competition within the nation could become ruinously unhealthy, even destructive. Multiple teams working on the same projects should be avoided. Rather than regarding each other as sworn enemies who should be triumphed over, members from different labs should be treated as colleagues. Expertise should be shared, so should equipment and the responsibility of their maintenance.

Among Malaysian corporate entities, it is not unusual for a company to have single-ethnic make up – a reflection of how our society is still finding its way to truly accept each other in entirety. But science is a team enterprise that demands creative approaches, which in turn requires a diversity of people with different ways of thinking. Our unique racial fabric is a rare resource that can be readily tapped into. We need to embrace our diversity to give our scientific endeavors the deepest and broadest talent reservoir to draw from. Quality talent can be found everywhere, and different people bloom differently.

We need to work together, and recruit the best people. A house which is divided against itself cannot stand; neither can a house of cards.

“Science is a team enterprise that demands creative approaches, which in turn requires a diversity of people with different ways of thinking”

3) Increase publicity of science

Our local news channels provide too little airtime for new scientific development, locally and globally. Monumental events related to science such as the announcement of the Nobel Prize, the launching of international space missions and important laboratory breakthrough are typically only mentioned in passing, if at all. Case in point: the completing of the palm oil genome sequence by our own scientific team on our home soil – published in Nature recently[3,4] – was not covered by most Malaysian newspapers. This reflects the grim reality of the indifference of our media, and hence, our society towards scientific development.

Such news need to be creatively packaged into media pieces which are easily consumable by the general public. Typical of a developing society, religious and social polemic would understandably ensue. But this is a maturing process that is worthwhile for our society to undergo. Such a phase would unshackle the society from being immured in misunderstanding and incomprehension, and then hopefully release itself and march in the right direction.

4) Prioritise scientific funding

For a middle-income country, money is a scarce resource in almost every sector. Our scientific endeavors are funded mainly by taxpayer’s money; commercial scientific funding is yet to be commonplace. The worthiness of a scientific project has to be judged before investing our ringgits in it, e.g., repeating a previously published or similar project is a serious no-no. Prudent (obviously), yet smart spending will guarantee the highest return for our investment. I see a possible two-pronged approach, parts of which we have already undertaken.

On one hand, we tackle scientific questions that are directly exploitable, commercially viable, and whose importance is easily explainable to the public as they have obvious significance to our local context. This approach has been pursued by our old bastions of research, such as Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) that work on our golden crop palm oil, and Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) on a variety of other important agricultural resources.

Another example is the University of Malaysia Terengganu, a clear indication of the government’s commitment to develop our capabilities in marine sciences, given our huge water resources and long coastlines. Government grants such as the Flagship Programme of Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) prioritise related research themes such as biodiversity and the development of commodity crops.

On the other hand, a different pot of money should be earmarked to finance high-risk-high-reward endeavors in basic sciences. Take for example the sequencing of organisms endemic to our geography, which happens to be my field of interest. The resulting genome assemblies could enable the discovery of potentially unique genetic elements with high commercial value. Another example is the isolation of compounds from our flora and microorganisms that could have therapeutic potential. For obvious reasons, data that comes from these projects need to be safeguarded for our national interest. Several labs, including Malaysia Genome Institute, have already been instituted to work on this kind of blue-sky ventures.

Central to these two themes are the focus on the relatively unexplored and colonisable scientific territories through leveraging advantages unique to our country, for example our rich biodiversity, where there is little competition from developed countries. This may mean that we would not tackle the more ‘sophisticated’ scientific problems or produce papers of high impact factors. However, it will help build and sustain our scientific capacity.

Illustration by Kong Yink Heay
Illustration by Kong Yink Heay

5) Learn from our neighbours

This could be a thorny subject. It surprises me how little we have learnt from our next-door neighbours – Singapore for example – despite their close proximity, how we readily let our talent go southwards, and their international stature in many scientific fields. A direct way of harnessing their expertise in various areas is to set up meaningful collaboration across the Strait. Depending on the field, their research institutions could also be attractive places for our scientists to receive training. By doing this, we could avoid sending them to Europe or the US, and money saved could be used for something else. This might sound naïve, but I genuinely believe that if we move away from our suspicions, political or otherwise, we could rope in their superior scientific prowess to expedite our cause.

Still, other things are harder to address. We are net users of scientific reagents and equipments. Our scientists’ funds are at the mercy of distribution companies and unfavourable exchange rate. Established Malaysian scientists abroad, who could contribute to the local scientific community with their experience, probably would not return home without the right incentive. And these are just two of the many issues facing us.

Luckily, most of these issues could benefit from a change of mindset of our society. Indeed they are tough to address, but we are not outright hopeless either. Our causes should be fortified with political will, capital and power. We need strong leaders with science background to project and champion our scientific interests. Finally, we can always use a real hero or two, who will easily boost publicity among the public.

We already have some silver linings. In most of our universities, science and engineering subjects are already taught in English – in the face of increasingly stiff global competition, even universities in France, Austria and Germany offer postgraduate science degree programs in English. Our younger generation, inspired by the First National Angkasawan Programme, are not afraid to dream big: it is not uncommon for kids nowadays to dream to become scientists or astronauts.

The Science and Mathematics curricula at our schools are now rigorous and importantly, more hands-on. The younger generations (which in my view already display bold creativity) are poised to enter and contribute in various scientific disciplines quite soon. Good structure needs to be in place to secure our precious talent pipeline, enabling them to contribute to our scientific advancement and further our nation’s progress.

I might sound a little like a fatalist, but realistically speaking, our level of science might still not be on par with developed countries come the year 2020. But if we continue to be optimistic, work towards being rid of destructive practices, make the right decisions and keep on working hard, there is still time to make significant progress.

Perhaps by that time we won’t fare too bad after all.

Disclaimer: The views presented here belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of his current or previous associated institutions.

This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10. Check out other articles in Issue 10 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 10 (PDF version)

References

[1] Chua et al. (1999). The Lancet 354: 1257–1259

[2] Shaari et al (1985). Teknologi Buah-Buahan (Malaysia) 1(1): 1-4

[3] Singh et al (2013). Nature 500: 340–344

[4] Singh et al (2013). Nature 500: 335–339

About the Author

MAMDUH ZABIDI lived in the United States for his Bachelor’s degree, during which he studied neurons in the slimy Aplysia slug. He worked for several years at CARIF, during which time he also finished his Masters at University of Malaya.

Mamduh dreams of the day when most Malaysian kids have read at least one of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction before they finish high school (for the record, even he actually hasn’t read any). He looks forward to see the day when Malaysian religious scholars communicate new fatwa’s in terms of statistical significance. He would love to see Malaysian kids to be preoccupied with coding their own Apps on their parents’ iPads, when they are not outdoors exploring the Nature like he once did.

He believes Malaysia needs to, and will, fulfill her great potentials. Find out more about Mamduh by visiting his Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/mamduh



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