CONGRATULATIONS to Khairy Jamaluddin on his appointment as Science, Technology and Innovation Minister (Mosti). Science, technology and innovation (STI) are intricately linked to the nation’s economy and social well-being. This includes education, health, transport, agriculture, commodities, environment, women and youth, defence, rural and urban development, housing, communication and trade, among others.
Despite this, the ministry does not seem to be highly prominent, as it seems to be receiving the least number of questions in Parliament and little public attention. I trust that this will change under Khairy’s leadership given his far-sighted views and aspiration, not to mention charisma to get the public and youth to take note of science, its policies and implications.
Under the previous Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (Mestecc) minister, science and technology were placed on the back burner. The scientific community in the country “suffered in silence” as Mestecc was overly consumed with issues on plastic and energy.
These are global challenges but Mestecc failed to realise that the answer to these problems lay in STI. Solutions to climate change, sustainable agriculture and development, food security, employment opportunities, health and well-being, energy security, waste management and many other global challenges can only be mitigated by deploying science.
The end result of ignoring STI is disastrous. We are already lagging behind easily by 30 years in key technologies while other countries are leaping and racing ahead.
Malaysia is a consumer nation with borrowed technologies, but that does not mean we do not have experts. We have excellent scientists, but the ecosystem and enablers are not there to support research and development (R&D) and commercialisation.
Here are some of my key thoughts that I hope will receive Khairy’s urgent attention:
1. Bring prominent scientists/thought leaders into the ministry’s fold to strengthen decision-making. Expert input and consultation are key for an area that is extremely multi and interdisciplinary, and advancing at the speed of light. These experts do not have to be on the payroll. In the past, consultations were done just to tick the box and members with differing views were removed from committees and panels. This culture has to change to allow policymakers to make decisions based on the current and best information available.
2. The year 2020 should have seen the realisation of our biotechnology aspiration by placing Malaysia as a global player, but we digressed as the Malaysian Bioeconomy Corporation was mysteriously moved from Mestecc to the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ministry (MOA). The National Biotechnology Policy was under Mestecc whereas the implementation agency was under MOA. Please bring BioeconomyCorp back to Mosti.
3. Shed the practice of hiring foreign experts. Industry must be incentivised to collaborate with local universities, research institutes and scientists. Public-private collaboration needs to be strengthened. Get more local experts to be involved as consultants, trainers and speakers.
4. In order to attain OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) status, Malaysia has to start allocating more than the normal 1.3% of our GDP for R&D.
5. We need to set a clear research priority and move away from the low-hanging fruits. For so long, our politicians have been demanding a quick fix to innovation. They were expecting a short turnaround of R&D and scientists to deliver commercialised products in a short time frame. They failed to realise the long gestation period of R&D. There is no stamina for long-term research. Quaker Oats took 18 years to get FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval for their product’s cholesterol reduction claim. Has any of our research been funded for that long?
6. We need a research consortia made up of scientists from different institutes who work on mid- and long-term research programmes that would address national issues such as dengue, climate change, high-yielding and resilient seeds, precision agriculture, science of palm oil, renewable energy, smart cities, etc.
7. Promotion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) education is futile if we cannot ensure employment opportunities. Urging more students to pursue STEM education will be a hypocritical call if the industry and ecosystem are not developed first. We need industry players who carry out R&D activities and not just sales and marketing.
8. Science communication must be prioritised as decisions on science are not just based on outcomes in the laboratories but also on what society perceives science to be.
I wish Khairy the best in the daunting task ahead to bring glory to the nation’s STI. The Petri Dish and Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (Mabic) will be happy to support his initiatives.
Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre
Monash University Sunway Campus