REMEMBER a decade or so ago when biotechnology was touted as a discipline that promised big job opportunities for those who took the subject? Many were attracted to that promise and chose to pursue biotechnology, and private and public universities alike fought to get students.
Unfortunately, the eventual number of graduates in biotechnology was more than the industry could absorb. This was quite understandable since the biotechnology industry then was still struggling. As a consequence, the much promised jobs were not there and many biotechnology graduates ended up working for banks selling credit cards!
Biotechnology is again in the news. This time the number of promised jobs mentioned by the Biotech Corporation is around 160,000 but it is still unclear which sector of the industry will offer the jobs.
Recently, there have been announcements about the caviar project in Pahang and the lobster project in Sabah. Many doubt that such projects can lead to the creation of such big job numbers. But the Biotech Corporation is confident they can attract the young to take up biotechnology.
Apparently, the thinking is that Gen Ys and Zs would be interested. Let us hope it will work out this time but what’s more important is the job projection must be right. We do not want to have a repeat of that earlier episode a decade ago. We should not again disappoint the nation’s biotechnology graduates.
To fulfil the new job demand, we should consider going back to those who are already qualified in biotechnology but are still jobless, or even those biotech graduates who have been forced to take up non-biotech jobs. Some among them may still be passionate about pursuing a career in biotechnology. At least that will save a lot of costs training new graduates in biotechnology.
There is no doubt that in the current era of sustainability and growing world preference for renewables, biotechnology is seen as something that will become more and more useful. In many developed economies, the emphasis on this is evident because they see biotechnology as the new way to manufacture products for the world. In fact, the percentage of research funding going into biotech R&D has witnessed much growth.
Investment in biotech R&D is not cheap so we must be clear of the endgame to such spending. Unfortunately, we still do not spell out the endgame clearly. Are we planning to become a leading player in the pharmaceutical sector or do we want to build world competitiveness in the energy business, which uses biotechnology? We need to focus.
We do not want to spread the investment too thinly. Since the existing biotech policy was developed more than 10 years ago, there is a need to revisit and maybe even a review and revision.
We desperately need a long-term master plan to build a truly competitive biotechnology industry. We need to bear in mind that a successful biotechnology industry must have a strong backup of both basic and applied R&D.
While applied R&D should have relevance to the market, basic R&D should be knowledge-driven.
We should therefore create a research ecosystem where much of the applied R&D is funded and driven by industry while the bulk of the basic and fundamental R&D should be government-funded.
For a number of years now, the Government has funded the National Institute of Biotechnology Malaysia (NIBM) under the Science Technology and Innovation Ministry (Mosti). Three separate entities make up NIBM – Genomic Institute, the Pharma Biotech Institute and the AgroBiotech Institute. Since all are government-run, with no industry participation, the institutes should rightly focus on basic R&D.
However, it is important that all are linked to the National Biotech Agenda which should be properly coordinated under the proposed master plan.
The Academy of Sciences Malaysia has enough expertise to lead in the formulation of the proposed master plan. Only in this way can the biotech industry make true progress and interest in the biotech profession will be renewed.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
UCSI University and Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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