UCSI University recently hosted a talk by the Science advisor to the Prime Minister, Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, who spoke on “Science and Research for a Sustainable Future Malaysia, Have We missed the boat, the train or the plane?”
The audience, about 150 of them, came from various institutions including research institutes and public and private universities. A few came from industry.
The talk was the third in the university’s eminent persons series.
Zakri shared his experience contributing to science at the international level. These included his involvement with many United Nation’s projects related to biodiversity, sustainability science and research in science.
Many agree that Zakri has left a mark on the international stage in science governance. No wonder he has been appointed to helm a number of UN entities, including the Science Advisory Committee of the UN Secretary-General where he is the only Malaysian member.
He was the founding co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). His latest recognition came about a month ago when he was appointed co-chair of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which is based in Bangkok.
What became clear from his talk was that a lot is happening in science and research at the international level. Prominent among those was the recent announcement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Though much of the sustainability issues concern the environment, especially how climate change will have dire consequences on the world, a recent meeting in Senegal, Africa highlighted a worrying trend in social sustainability.
The discussion there touched on the real possibility of massive social consequences arising from the growing youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa. We were told that by 2020, there may be close to 500,000 youths without jobs there. The social repercussions are serious indeed.
Some must be wondering if a similar trend is shaping up in our part of the world. It has been reported that the infamous Arab Spring was in fact driven by frustrated unemployed youths!
He also went on to compare the science that is actively pursued in the world with what is happening at home. Though there is some silver lining in terms of a few of our local scientists getting international recognition in the category of highly cited publications, on the whole we are still behind on many scores.
Our national spending on research, which is struggling to breach 1% of the GDP, is still considered low compared to the more developed economies where, on average, they spend in the region of 3% of the GDP.
As if adding salt to injury, interest in science among our students is also showing a serious decline. This does not augur well for future talents that we need to drive the nation’s science and innovation. The Government is doing something to address the issues, but the slow pace of implementation is worrying.
Zakri emphasised the importance of talent in science and innovation. He presented some statistics on the shortage of science talents in the country.
Measured in terms of scientists per 10,000 workforce, we are still at a low level of 70 to 80. We need a critical mass of at least 100 to 120 scientists per 10,000 workers if we are to effectively compete internationally.
It is rather unfortunate that a few months ago, more than 150 professors had their contracts terminated. We may have to rethink this decision. Many of these professors are still active researchers contributing to the nation’s innovation.
We must remember that these professors, at 60 years plus, may have just reached the pinnacle of their research contributions.
Some are even world authorities on certain topics. It is a real shame if we do not tap on their knowledge not only to lead research but also to provide mentorship to our young scientists.
Training them must have cost the country millions of ringgit. In developed economies like the United States, professors never really retire. Even after they reach retirement age, they are given access to facilities to continue their research. We need to seriously consider keeping these professors in our talent pool.
DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow Academy of Sciences Malaysia