Meet the Scientist: Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman

Interviewed by Gabriel Chong, Transcript by Dr. Valerie Soo

Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, at the World Economic Forum on Europe and Central Asia held in Vienna, Austria, on the 9th of June 2011. Photo by World Economic Forum/Flickr.

Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, at the World Economic Forum on Europe and Central Asia held in Vienna, Austria, on the 9th of June 2011. Photo by World Economic Forum/Flickr.

Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman is Malaysia’s first astrophysicist. She was the founding director of Angkasa, the Malaysian National Space Agency, and has played an instrumental role in sending our first Malaysian astronaut to space. She has established university courses in astronomy, laboratories for undergraduate and postgraduate training, the Malaysia Space Science Studies Division, the first National Planetarium of Malaysia, the National Microsatellite Programme, and the National Space Centre and the Langkawi National Observatory. She is currently serving as Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and Deputy Director-General of the UN office in Vienna. She is a fellow of several professional bodies, and author of numerous academic papers. In a recent interview with Scientific Malaysian, she provided us with a privileged insight into her work and passion for the space sciences.

Q1. What was your motivation for going into science, and astrophysics in particular?

When I was young, I wasn’t thinking of going into science. I was thinking of going into English literature and the arts, but my teachers thought that I was doing too well in science to do those things and they put me in a pure Science stream. I was the first few students in a pure Science stream in my school. But you know, I don’t regret that my teachers did that because when I discovered science, I fell in love with it, especially Physics. So my motivation was because I fell in love with Physics, especially I was so fascinated by E = mc2, the idea that small numbers multiplied by a huge number can become meaningful. When I found physics, I of course found astrophysics, and the beauty of the universe brought me back to my interest in the arts. So, I sort of went around to what I really like in the end, but it was a different path from what I had anticipated.

Q2. What is your typical day at the UNOOSA like?

During the time the committee meets, a typical day would find me sitting on the podium, and then going out for cups of coffee with different people – lawyers, diplomats, etc. either to discuss projects or how they see themselves moving forward or if they have some political concerns. When I go back to the office at lunch time, my colleagues will walk in as I usually have to sign some legal agreements, or I have to look at the issues involving funding. In some afternoons, I would prepare a talk to be given to a particular audience. For instance, I had to give a talk at the Vienna planetarium yesterday evening (12th April 2013), as it was the International Day of Human Space Flight, i.e., the day Yuri Gagarin went to space.

Q3. There have been private initiatives to commercialise space flight. What do you think are the prospects of the commercialisation of space travel in the future, and how do you think it would change us as a civilisation?

There are two kinds of space travel: (1) suborbital flights that are being offered by Virgin Galactic, in which people are sent into space (i.e., ~100 km higher than the sea level) to float for a few seconds, and come back into the Earth. There are also flights that orbit the Earth, which allow some companies to test inflatable hotels in space; (2) the real space travel, i.e., going beyond the Earth’s gravity, such as going to the Moon, Mars and so on.

Regardless, all space travels are going to have some kind of influence on our lives. The one that is going to change our civilisation is the one that allows us to go to other planets – this will have a profound impact on who we are as humans, if we meet aliens or biological life elsewhere. What do we want to do when we get out of the Earth? What do we bring with us? Do we bring our religion? Do we bring our culture? I believe all these will be hotly debated. I think that when we send a group of astronauts to Mars, all of these questions become terribly important, and will change how we see ourselves and our civilisation.

Q4. The Outer Space Treaty was created in 1967. Could you briefly explain the importance of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and why it has not been updated for decades?

The Outer Space Treaty is the magna carta of space law. In this treaty, we all agree that the space (including all celestial bodies) is the common province of all mankind – no individual will be able to claim any part of the space. For instance, if you have enough money to go to the Moon and set up a colony, you still cannot claim that part of the Moon as yours.

The main reason this Treaty has not been updated is that it became the basis for four other treaties: (1) the Rescue Agreement, which simply states that stranded astronauts on any part of the Earth are to be rescued, and are allowed to return to their home country without problems; (2) the Liability Convention, where one is liable for the problems caused by one’s object in space; (3) the Registration Convention, where anyone who launches an object into the space must register the object with the United Office; (4) the Moon Treaty, which states that any part of the Moon cannot be owned by anyone. Simply put, the Outer Space Treaty provides the overarching picture for the international space law regime, and the other four treaties take care of the details.

Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, at a gathering to mark the 15th anniversary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Photo by The Official CTBTO Photostream/Flickr.

Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, at a gathering to mark the 15th anniversary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Photo by The Official CTBTO Photostream/Flickr.

Q5. A lot of Malaysians felt that sending an astronaut to space was a waste of money. What do you think of that? 

People think that we spent a hundred million Ringgit on getting a person to the International Space Station, but in fact we trained two people and launched one Angkasawan using the offset program of the Sukhoi jet fighter planes purchased by the Ministry of Defence. We also used that offset program for other things and it included the training and launch of an astronaut. In a sense, no money was exchanged for the training and launch. When we first conceived the idea (of sending astronauts into space), one of the first criteria was that we should minimise the spending for this project.

We did, however, spend the money on science – we sent bacteria and protein crystals into space – we funded them in order to ramp up those scientific findings so that they become significant when they are done in space. Overall, about RM10 million was spent but I must emphasise that this budget also funds scientific research, over a span of five years.

“If you look at countries which are scientifically well-regarded, they are spending at least 1% of their GDP in science, but we are nowhere near that number…”

Q6. Speaking as an internationally-renowned Malaysian scientist, what do you think we can do to improve Malaysian science and technology? 

I was recently told that none of our Malaysian universities made it to the top 400 in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings. A lot of that ranking has to do with our research. I still think that we are still not investing enough in science. If you look at countries which are scientifically highly ranked, they are spending at least 1% of their GDP in science, but we are nowhere near that number; it was around 0.2% when I left for Vienna. Here we are harping on the fact that we are not doing enough good science, yet we won’t invest in it. We have to invest in the future. If you look at the US, although they have budget cuts, they still invest a certain amount in science and technology, because they know that things will pick up later in the future.

In contrast, if you stop investing, you hollow out your capacity and capability. For instance, the scientists that you have would leave and join say, the banking industry. Not only should we invest in the research, we should also consistently do this and not have spurts of investment in science. There has to be a certain consistency in investment efforts, which scientists can expect.

Another important issue is that we have to build good institutions. We definitely do not have problems producing PhDs. Producing Masters and PhD students is not the end of the effort at improving our science; it is only the beginning. To achieve the ratio of working scientists per populaton, that is more difficult. In order to keep scientists as scientists, they must be working in scientific institutions. For example, if we produce a graduate in computational physics and that person ends up working in a bank, we cannot maintain the statistics. So if we need to keep this computational physicist, we have to establish and nurture scientific institutions within academia and industry that will employ him/her. Therefore, we should establish, nurture and invest in institutions that can keep these scientists employed within their fields of expertise.

“Producing Masters and PhD students is not the end of the effort at improving our science; it is only the beginning.”

Q7. Have you ever felt that you encountered barriers or discrimination in your field of profession, on the basis of your gender?

First of all, I am not aware of any competition in my profession. As the management gurus usually says, “It is not about being the best in life; it is about being unique”. If you are the best, surely there will be someone who follows behind and catches up with you. If you are unique, however, you have no competition. Perhaps I am the wrong person to ask this question to, because in the space field I wasn’t in competition with anyone, let alone men.

Having said that, I have seen women being set back because of their gender. I am particularly conscious of this fact, especially when it comes to recruiting people in the United Nations, or delegating tasks to people. I make sure I challenge the women as much as the men, or maybe even more so.

“If you are the best, surely there will be someone who follows behind and catches up with you. If you are unique, however, you have no competition.”

Q8. What advice would you give to the young and budding Malaysian scientists? 

A lot of Malaysian scientists have a fair amount of support, but sometimes they are not publishing in the right journals. They are ranked on the basis of where they publish, and if they don’t publish in the right journals, they don’t get cited, and therefore your ranking goes down. I think that it is not enough to just look at what you can do in Malaysia; you have to be thinking internationally. If you don’t do things internationally, you won’t get into the world-class league. Therefore, my advice is to go international.

Video Link:

The full interview video can be viewed at http://youtu.be/YYebsdmtRRQ

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