NOT so long ago, biotechnology was touted as an industry that promised lucrative job opportunities. Many were taken by that promise. They lined up at colleges to enrol for the course. Universities competed to get students. Many eventually graduated, but the promised jobs were not there. This was understandable since the biotechnology industry then was still small. Many biotechnology graduates ended up working for banks selling credit cards!
Biotechnology is different now.
While we lament over the unfulfilled job promises, the rest of the world has not given up on biotechnology. In fact, it has become the subject of intensive research as nations exploit it to develop solutions in medicine, renewable energy and food production, just to name a few. In medicine, genetic biotechnology has made impressive progress in gene therapy and biotechnology-based diagnostics.
In fact, the latest we hear is that biotechnology is now being actively explored to revolutionise vaccine manufacture. As the world clamours for safe and halal vaccines, producing vaccines using genetically engineered plants has reached the last lap of R&D. Ger-many’s Fraunhofer institute for biotechnology based in Aachen is among those which has successfully produced vaccines from genetically engineered tobacco.
In renewable energy, there have been reports of success in deploying biotechnology to engineer more robust bacteria to convert waste into energy. This has improved the economics of harvesting bioenergy from waste considerably. There is no doubt that scientists everywhere continue to harness the power of biotechnology.
The progress in food production through biotechnology has also been impressive. There are now available new varieties of genetically modified crops which are not only higher yielding but are also able to resist crop-destroying diseases and pests.
Despite the objections by some environmental NGOs, the land area under genetically modified crops has witnessed prolific increase.
But sadly, here in Malaysia, our earlier gung-ho attitude towards biotechnology has simmered down a lot (except maybe for the breakthroughs made by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board in genomics research).
Why do we view biotechnology as less “sexy” now? On record we have invested quite a lot in biotechnology. The Biotechnology Corporation which at one time was busy promoting biotechnology to foreign investors is now almost unheard of. The latest we heard is that it has now been renamed the Malaysian Bioeconomy Corp and has been moved from the Science Ministry to Agriculture. Is this a sign that it will soon be phased out? We must remember, biotechnology is more than just about agriculture.
A few years ago, the Science Ministry created three biotechnology research institutes purportedly to spearhead biotechnology research in the areas of genomics, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Much money has been spent on buildings and equipment but unfortunately nothing much has emerged in terms of research. Why?
We need to bear in mind that a successful biotechnology industry must have the support of both basic and applied research and development (R&D). While applied R&D should have relevance for the market, basic R&D should be knowledge-driven. We should therefore create a research ecosystem where much of the applied R&D is industry-funded and driven, while the bulk of the basic and fundamental R&D should be government funded.
We need to take another look at the business model of the three biotechnology institutes. There is no doubt that in the current era of sustainability and the growing world preference for renewables, biotechnology is seen as a tool that will become more and more useful. In many developed economies, the emphasis on biotechnology is evident as they see biotechnology as the new way to produce products for the world.
In fact, the percentage of research funding going into biotech R&D has witnessed much growth in developed economies. Investment in biotech R&D is not cheap. To generate returns to the country, we must be clear about R&D directions. Do we plan to lead in pharmaceutical, energy or food biotechnology? We need to focus.
Since the existing biotech policy was developed more than 10 years ago, there is a need to revisit and maybe even review and revise it. We desperately need a long-term plan to build a truly competitive biotechnology industry with better coordination and clearer direction.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia