THE growth and advancement of scientific research are directly proportional to the wealth and developmental status of a nation.
Countries in the North have advanced tremendously in the 19th and 20th centuries due to their progress in science.
Similarly, the current rise of China can be attributed to her emphasis on cutting-edge science, especially in the last couple of decades. China can now be counted among the world’s most technologically advanced nations.
Historically, the golden era of Islamic civilisation was also paralleled by the advancement of scientific knowledge.
Funding for research and development (R&D) in many advanced economies is quite significant. According to Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), advanced countries like South Korea and Israel allocate more than 4% of their GDP for R&D (termed gross domestic expenditure for R&D, or GERD) while others allocate approximately 2.5% to 3% , which, when translated into the actual quantum of funding, is quite significant.
In comparison, Malaysia allocates just above 1% for GERD. This amount needs to be increased if we want to propel our scientific research to a higher level.
In addition to funding, we also need talent. Here again, our country lags behind many advanced economies. Unesco reports that Malaysia currently has about 2,400 FTE (full-time employment) in the R&D sector per one million inhabitants – about half that of major economies.
Looking closely at the Unesco statistics, Malaysia’s GERD and FTE place us within the middle spectrum of R&D nations in the world. So are we doomed to be caught in the middle (read: mediocre) R&D trap or, worse, decline into the R&D abyss?
Just as we would like to break free from the so-called middle income trap, so too we should break out of the current middle R&D trap, especially when both “traps” are inextricably linked to each other.
Despite the relatively low GERD and FTE numbers, I believe that we can still enhance our current research deliverables if our R&D ecosystem is optimised.
To begin with, more flexible governance for R&D in public institutions is much needed so as not to impede research – research spending should not follow procedures for buying office supplies.
Research is dynamic and ever changing. Sometimes, research directions may need to change midway based on the data obtained. Additional resources may be needed to solve unforeseen challenges. On occasion, equipment may need to be quickly repaired or replaced. Having to go through the tedious process of acquisition can be a damper on completing important parts of our experiments at crucial moments, and waste time and money along the way.
The quantum of funding for selected stages in the research value chain also needs to be re-examined. For example, currently, the maximum funding allocated for preclinical research (as a prelude to clinical studies) is only about a third or half of the actual funding needed to complete the study.
Similarly, basic research to obtain pivotal and comprehensive data sets to help us understand a particular problem would need significant funding for meaningful results.
Neither of these examples may necessarily provide immediate financial benefit nor a significant number of research publications in the short term, but they would definitely provide crucial data as a stepping stone to advancing our work to the next level.
Hence, many exciting ideas may never be tested or see the light of day when funding for exploratory research is not readily available.
The other area needing examination is grant proposal assessment. Monitoring these should focus on scientific merit rather than a “mathematical” formula for the fulfilment of key performance indicators (KPI). Researchers are often pressured to fulfil the “promised” KPI by reviewers/university administrators rather than ensuring that they do good science or pursue new interesting pathways or receive advice on solutions to address problems faced.
The term “research” itself means to find out something that we do not know or don’t fully understand, which makes it unrealistic to draw up definite KPIs prior to conducting the research.
Also restrictive are current university or government procedures for international travel. This may directly impact on promoting visibility of local R&D findings, facilitating international networking, and competing for international grants.
Research conferences are one of the best avenues to network, to learn new methods and to be exposed to the broader knowledge of science. Requiring our researchers to vie for limited speaking slots before being allowed to participate in conferences is not realistic. Hence younger researchers find it difficult to get the important exposure to the wider scientific community they need.
International travel procedures require at least a couple of months of planning in advance. However, oftentimes, important regional or global group meetings or presentations to review panels need to be decided within weeks. Having to wait for the Chief Secretary’s approval (no less!) to travel abroad would disqualify a researcher from taking advantage of the “early bird” conference registration rates or securing cheap tickets for the trip, since we sometimes have to wait for at least a month for approvals.
The university’s vice chancellor, or person in charge, should be capable enough to make such a decision and bear the responsibility for approving such travel requests.
It is high time that R&D in Malaysia be managed by a central independent body under a more flexible governance system that is tasked to disburse funds, monitor and audit researchers, assess training requirements for researchers and students.
Such an entity should be the custodian of a comprehensive database of all R&D activities and of available expertise, equipment and facilities in the country.
This would minimise research duplications among different groups, help bring researchers within similar areas together, facilitate meaningful collaborations among researchers from different disciplines, encourage sharing of major equipment and facilities, allow industry to tap into available expertise and equipment, and open opportunities for international collaborations.
Such a management body would definitely save money and reduce resource wastage, and it would have the means and data to help strategise our national R&D priorities.
A comprehensive revamp of Malaysia’s research ecosystem is therefore much needed.
There are certainly other issues that we need to address to facilitate research within the country’s limited GERD and FTE. However, for a start, I believe that by attending to these important issues first, we can make some significant progress in pushing our R&D in the right direction.
Hopefully, when the government decides to increase our GERD, we will already have a conducive research ecosystem that is poised to break out of the middle R&D trap and be counted among the scientifically developed nations of the world.
NORAZMI MOHD NOR
PhD; Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Universiti Sains Malaysia