The Academy of Sciences Malaysia seeks to unite the science community.
THE 20th floor of the giant arch-shaped Matrade Tower in Kuala Lumpur is a colourful place. Curved white bookshelves and glass partitions decorated with quirky quotes scribbled in felt-tip pen give visitors a sense of creative possibility. Magazine racks loaded with up-to-date copies of Wired and Foreign Policy foster a sense of connection to technology, politics and the world economy.
This is a hive of brilliant minds that have been trained to think scientifically. And of late, it has been diversifying – social science and economics graduates are joining its workforce of physicists, chemists and biologists. It’s a baby step on behalf of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), an indication that it is taking heed of an emerging paradigm shift, where the social and hard sciences are being encouraged to break out of their silos and work together.
Moving offices was Tan Sri Dr Ahmad Tajuddin Ali’s idea. The nuclear technologist who just got elected into a second three-year term as president of ASM says it was about time for an upgrade from the bungalow they used to occupy across from the Public Works Department building in Padang Merbuk, Kuala Lumpur.
What they were lacking there was space. In the new headquarters, glass office doors and brightly coloured rooms with bean bags create a more dynamic work environment.
So, what is the academy exactly?
In a nutshell, it is a body of researchers and analysts, says Dr Tajuddin.
They act as a nerve centre for the science community – coordinating workshops and networking opportunities, organising forums and, sometimes, visits by notable personalities – a case in point being the recent talks by Nobel laureate in chemistry Professor Lee Yuan Tseh of Taiwan, who dropped by in December.
More recently, the ASM has started to position itself as an advisor too.
A small army of analysts, or “horizon scanners”, keep track of global trends in science and technology, and analyse what Malaysia needs to do to stay on track.
Dr Tajuddin says it is helpful to look at ASM as one huge resource: “We are the thinkers, and not necessarily the actual doers. The government agencies are the doers.”
Dr Tajuddin says one of its objectives is to help others make more informed decisions.
ASM provides the intelligence, making sense of science and technology in the context of trade and economics, and monitors the progress – or lack of it – on the domestic front.
It then comes up with comprehensive, fact-based reports and advisory studies, which are presented to the relevant authorities.
The idea is to be proactive, and this “horizon scanning” initiative is a first for Malaysia.
One of ASM’s big-ticket items is a series of Mega Science studies which took a holistic look at specific sectors. Its Mega Science Framework study for sustained national development for 2010-2050 (or the Mega Science Agenda Malaysia 2050) was created to be a structured, practical and sustainable model that transforms the business of science, technology and innovation.
The studies, some of which are still ongoing,
assess how Malaysia is positioned in terms of its science and technology. Each sector is analysed in the context of upcoming trends within the next few decades, both worldwide and domestically, and then a set of expert recommendations is formulated. The projects have been in the pipeline for a while, mooted by ASM’s previous president Tan Sri Yusof
Basiron, Dr Tajuddin inherited the project, and has been driving it ever since.
“We have completed Part One – water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity,” he says.
“Phase two will look at housing, transport, environment, infrastructure as well as electrical and electronics, and should be ready after May,” he says.
These are small but important steps to help Malaysia get on the right track.
Doing whatever is possible to create a strong community of scientists is going to be very important in the coming years. As separate research institutions, universities, ministries, and policy specialists continue with their individual mandates, churning out reports, research papers and funding allocations – business as usual – ASM has made it its job to take a step back and see if the machine is actually working. Is it being oiled in the right places? Are newly formed institutes born of fresh new strategies doing what they are supposed to do? And more importantly, can they do it?
Its series of Mega Science studies complements a 2013 report by the National Science and Research Council, which indicates there is much to be done if Malaysia is to achieve its goals of becoming a developed nation by 2020.
The report, Public Research Assets Performance Evaluation: Unlocking Vast Potentials, Fast Tracking The Future took a critical look at Malaysia’s science, technology and innovation (STI) ecosystem. Some of its key findings were that, despite enormous funding increases and new programmes designed to both build research and development (R&D) capabilities and commercialise new technologies over the years, return on investment has not been up to par.
At the heart of the problem is the lack of a coordinating body to better manage, monitor and evaluate the nation’s R&D investments.
Right now different research universities and institutes – sometimes subjected to overlapping and even conflicting directions from different ministries – often end up competing for resources, influence and control over specific research areas.
Another major problem is the disconnect between private industry and public research institutions. Research conducted by the latter tends not to be market driven.
At the same time companies, especially small and medium enterprises, tend to be happy with the status quo and spend little on R&D, while exhibiting a low rate of innovation.
The general attitude seems to be that companies expect “ready-made” technologies from government-funded research institutions, without having to bear any huge costs themselves.
At the same time, effective policies and programmes to overcome these core problems that prevent productive partnerships between business and researchers are lacking.
These are but a few of the challenges highlighted in the study which was published early last year, through a mandate from the Prime Minister under the Global Science Advisory Council.
And there are many more problems – relating to human capital, policy direction, availability of support staff as well as infrastructure management issues.
A stronger community
Many of the solutions related to the challenges above will have to be driven by a top-down approach. That’s not to say ASM is not in a position to make valuable contributions.
The Mega Science studies are one example of how it can help shape national strategies in terms of how we use science and technology to innovate. It also contributed to the Science and Technology Human Capital Roadmap 2020 that was published just this year.
The report was a response to a statement issued by the National Science and Research Council that Malaysia will need 500,000 science and technology professionals if it is to have any chance of attaining developed-nation status by 2020. ASM helped contribute to that report, which was circulated internally within government agencies, and has since been taken into account in the drafting of new policies.
Aside from its advisory capacities, however, ASM’s greatest value lies in its ability to act as a platform for building a strong, healthy network of scientists who know, talk to and collaborate with each other.
In addition to a core staff of 60, ASM has a network of over 230 fellows, accomplished scientists from a wide range of fields.
“Our fellows are our greatest assets, because they represent a huge resource of brain power on everything from nuclear power to chemical engineering, from nanoscience to
molecular biology,” says Dr Tajuddin.
ASM has also been making an effort to introduce its fellows to the public. Inspired by the Sketches of Science exhibition at Galeri Petronas last year which featured photographic portraits of Nobel laureates and their sketches, ASM did its own Malaysian spin-off, Faces of Science, and then posted a series of videos on YouTube featuring interviews with 21 of its own fellows.
Granted, some of the videos could do with a little editing, but the effort to make the scientific community more accessible is there.
Of course ,no community is complete without young blood. The average age of an ASM fellow is 61, which happens to be roughly the age by which someone would have racked up the kind of achievements needed to qualify for the fellowship. But Dr Tajuddin conceived a way for young scientists – fresh or midway through their careers – to get active with ASM too: the Young Scientists Network.
Syahrilnizam Abdullah,41, an associate professor who heads the Clinical Genetics Unit at Universiti Putra Malaysia, says it’s been a great way to expand the community.
“Previously, you would hardly see a young scientists at events or meetings, or giving ideas at policy level, but now there are more avenues for us to give our input,” he says.
And if the long-gestating plan to establish an Academy of Social Sciences and Humanities alongside ASM finally comes to fruition, it will mean an even bigger pool of scientists, both from the social and hard sciences, ready to mix and mingle through ASM and Young Scientist Network events.
As soon as that happens, network chairman Mohd Basyaruddin Abdul Rahman – a professor of Chemistry at Universiti Putra Malaysia – says they, too, will take on social scientists, perhaps in the form of affiliate memberships.
How Malaysia overcomes the challenge of developing its knowledge economy and powers through its drive to developed-nation status remain to be seen, but a vibrant and lively community of local scientists is definitely going to play an important part.