In 1998, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad threw the gauntlet to the Malaysian scientific community to strive for scientific excellence and produce a Nobel Laureate by 2020. With six years to go, are we on track to meet the challenge?
AIMING to be a Nobel winner calls for a lot of patience and perseverance.
It is another form of entrepreneurship where not unlike the business entrepreneur, you must be willing to take risks and you must be ready to fail, Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) chief executive officer Dr Ahmad Ibrahim explained.
He added that while we have some scientific talents, many have left to work overseas where the research environment is more conducive, especially in basic and fundamental research.
We tend to give more emphasis to applied research here because of the urgency to create wealth from science rather than to really contribute towards the advancement of scientific knowledge, he said.
“This will change as the country moves towards a developed country status. By then we should be able to fund more long-term basic science than the short-term science just to create wealth.”
Welcoming former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s challenge for the nation to produce a Nobel winner by 2020, Dr Ahmad pointed out that realistically, we have less than seven years to make it.
Setting the mark
“So far we have not seen any promising Nobel research but at least by setting the challenge, scientists have been alerted to their mission,” he said.
“This is a good start. If we look at past winners of the Nobel prize, all took many years of scientific research before they eventually made the kind of breakthrough deserving of such a prestigious award.
“With the exposure to Nobel meetings that the academy has been sponsoring, scientists will hopefully continue to harbour the ambition and dream to strive for the award,” he added.
The ASM also organises the annual National Science Challenge (NSC) - a much anticipated event among students.
The NSC is meant to cultivate a culture of competition among science students.
The competition was based on a quiz format. But last year, a week-long hands-on competition in a research laboratory setting at a local university was introduced at the semi final stage.
The reward which was won by three fifth formers from Kolej Yayasan Saad Melaka, was a trip to witness the Nobel Prize giving ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden as well visits to the Nobel Museum and some science centres in the country.
“The idea of the reward is to make the NSC as prestigious as possible and to fire up the interest in science among students. We want to inspire them to pursue science as a profession and aspire to one day be a Nobel Laureate,” said Dr Ahmad.
Apart from the NSC, the academy has sent young scientists to the Lindau programme in Germany which also brings together many Nobel Laureates.
It has also brought a number of Nobel winners to Malaysia to give presentations and talks to young scientists here.
The Nobel recognition is often bestowed upon scientists who contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge.
Malaysia must continue to expose our young scientists to the research culture of Nobel winners while simultaneously creating a motivating eco-system for the conduct of basic and fundamental research, he stressed, as Nobel prizes are given for breakthroughs made in the frontier science.
Prof Dr Yang Farina Abdul Aziz, who is a Fellow of the ASM and Malaysian Institute of Chemistry, said Malaysians already have the right mindset and capability to produce Nobel Laureate-worthy research but still lack the necessary eco-system to pull it off.
“Facilities, equipment and a large team of post doctorate students to assist are crucial to support Nobel-type studies.
“We need to work towards creating a strong research eco-system if we want to realise the dream of producing a Nobel Laureate,” said Prof Yang Farina, who is a senior professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
She advised Malaysian students abroad to stay on and try to work with Nobel-associated researchers and if possible, the recipients themselves.
“Instead of demanding that they come home immediately after completing their studies, we should encourage these students to take advantage of countries that already have a solid research eco-system in place.
“They can go on to become post doctoral students of Nobel recipients or be absorbed into the lecturing staff of top universities like the University of Cambridge where some 50% of all Nobel Laureates have spent time at,” she said.
Prof Yang Farina was head of the delegation which comprised the winners of the NSC to the Nobel Prize giving ceremony last December.
Malaysian Ambassador to Sweden Datuk Badruddin Abdul Rahman said the country has a lot to learn from its Scandinavian counterpart, especially in science.
“Close co-operation between the government, private sector and educational institutions and accessible science parks that produce entrepreneurs and provide networking opportunities can spark ideas.
“With financial support from the government and universities that support research, these ideas can be transformed into reality,” he said.