The RM400mil allocation for research and development (R&D) efforts under various ministries and agencies to support the development of science and technology under Budget 2021 is expected to spur product commercialisation among private higher learning institutes, and encourage greater online collaboration between institutions, researchers and students across the higher education community, Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities president Datuk Dr Parmjit Singh had earlier noted, while Academy of Sciences Malaysia president and fellow Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail expressed hope that the fund would also be used to allow for the purchasing of equipment to upgrade the facilities and infrastructure at public varsities.
No doubt, with varsities struggling to cope with the costs of equipping their campuses with digital infrastructure and training their educators for teaching and learning in the new normal, and the challenge of bringing in new students amid the pandemic, funding for research will be an uphill battle.
The reality, nonetheless, is that research is key to ensuring financial sustainability, boosting international rankings, providing solutions to communities and industries and developing the country.
With that in mind, both private and public higher education institutions are encouraging their academics and students to embark on more research work in the coming months.
And, with a 13% increase in funding for research universities compared to the previous year, 2021 is going to be exciting for innovation.
Here’s a look at what some of the top varsities are working on this year:
Data analytics, health and sustainability
Taylor’s University has invested in specific niche areas under its Flagship Research Programmes.
According to Taylor’s University pro vice-chancellor (Research & Enterprise) Assoc Prof Dr Anthony Ho Siong Hock, these areas include obesity; data analytics, modelling and visualisation; sustainable cities; and ageing and quality of life.
“We believe that each of these programmes addresses crucial problems prevalent in our community.
“In the sustainable cities programme, for example, our researchers work with local municipalities and non-governmental oraganisations in proposing models for the rejuvenation of forgotten but historically important townships.
“These flagship programmes bring together team expertise that we hope will spur even more research ideas at the end of the projects, which is currently slated to be completed between 2021 and 2022, ” he added.
The Covid-19 pandemic, he said, caused the varsity to re-evaluate its research priorities.
“While we continue to support existing programmes, the future will require greater knowledge of mental health, flexible work environments, technology in education and innovative entrepreneurship.”
Each project, he said, requires funding ranging from anywhere between RM10,000 and RM30,000.
The varsity has also embarked on another project for the year – embedding multidisciplinary learning experience at the undergraduate level.
The aim, Prof Ho said, is to produce students who would become postgraduate students and subsequently, the driving force of research in Malaysian universities.
“We also intend to grow the expertise in our faculty with the aim of tackling more complex issues, ” he added.
Big data science, economics and health
Sunway University is centring its research on themes such as materials science, big data science, biomedical science, sustainability (sustainable city living), economics and business competitiveness, and ageing health and well-being.
Sunway University vice-chancellor Prof Graeme Wilkinson said in materials science, the varsity is looking at ways to improve the efficiency of solar energy through nano-materials.
“We are also conducting research on viruses and vaccines including for Covid-19 and dengue fever, and our researchers are developing anti-tumour therapies to combat cancer. All such areas of research are expensive and we have progressively invested millions of ringgit over the years to build up the resources and facilities such as laboratories to undertake such research.”
The varsity received 19 government research grants last year which will help support its research projects for the year.
Sunway is also collaborating with its foreign partners to share the costs, increase manpower and exchange ideas to enhance its research projects, he said.
These collaborations include anti-tumour research with Harvard Medical School, the graduate medical school of Harvard University in Massachusetts, United States, and carbon capture research with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Industrial and community-based research
With the new year comes renewed hopes and ambitions, said Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) deputy vice-chancellor (research & innovation) Prof Datuk Dr Zulkifli Idrus.
The varsity, he said, would adopt a multi-pronged approach to sustain its research activities.
This is due to the challenges in funding the university faces, he said, in addition to possible work constraints resulting from Covid-19.
“Apart from focusing on basic research in critical areas of agriculture, biotechnology, engineering, and medicine, UPM’s key focus will be to advance industrial and community-driven research that could aid post-pandemic recovery.
“These include improvement in agricultural productivity in response to labour shortages and environmental pressures, nanomaterials, ecological and green technology research, non-communicable disease and emerging disease research, and research into fourth industrial revolution technology enablers, ” he said.
Prof Zulkifli pointed out that community-based research is crucial to meet sustainable development goals by addressing specific challenges.
UPM will align its approaches by selecting a few key research projects to achieve this objective, he shared.
“Funding for these research programmes will be challenging, but not impossible.
“Over the years, according to the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, Malaysia spends roughly 1.4% of its GDP on research.
“Based on the GDP contribution of the Malaysian agriculture
sector of around RM8bil, the estimated funding would be in the range of RM112mil for the entire nation.
“UPM, one of our country’s five research universities, would require at least RM20mil for agriculture-based research alone, ” he said.
Digital technology, advanced medicine and smart living
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s research ecosystem is defined by a centre called IDEA-UKM.
According to the its pro vice-chancellor (Strategy and Corporate Development) Prof Dr Norman Mohd Salleh, the centre organises multidisciplinary research ideas and mobilises the research community in UKM.
This year, Prof Norman said, the research university is focusing on sustainable resources, environment and smart living, digital and frontier technology, health and advanced medicine, social and economic transformation heritage and civil society research.
“UKM is aiming to get RM50mil in international grants, RM40mil in industry grants and competitive research grants to invest in these areas.
“To achieve this, we plan to promote double tax deduction for companies that give research grants to UKM, provide seed money for researchers who bid for international grants, and promote translational research among researchers who benefit the community, government and entrepreneurs.
“We’re also looking towards having more engagement with industries and agencies where relevant, ” he added.