Monday, July 21, 2008

Malaysian Made Nobel Laureate: The Way to Stockholm

Malaysia has set a target to produce a Nobel Laureate by 2020. And I heard a number of research institutes and universities have their own targets as well on the same issue. Great! I love ambitious idea, more so if it brings pride and benefits to the nation for her to prosper further.

The first step to success is dream. We need dreams, big dreams. But a dream can only be realised if it is followed by efforts, strategies, and actions. So, how far are we in realising this dream? I trust the target was set some years ago. Has anyone done any review on the progress made? Has anyone come out with a roadmap to achieve this? Has priority areas in research identified? Which area of research that is currently carried out throughout Malaysia is most likely to stand an excellent chance to win a Nobel Price? How much fund has been spent in this area?

This is my take on the issue. The buzzword in research in Malaysia these days is ‘commercialization’. This is not wrong, as research need to be translated into dollars and cents. But commercialization can never be achieved if there is lack of fundamental science. Every applications or products that are in the market today were developed only after acquiring a strong understanding in basic science. Pesticides can only be invented if we know the biochemical pathways of the pest. We must understand which biochemical process to inhibit in order to kill the pest. Vaccines can only be developed if we understand the physiology of the pathogen (the way disease-causing agent works). Tremendous amount of basic research findings in genetics paved and is still paving the way for huge number of commercial products – GM crops, drugs, industrial enzymes, etc. Where would GM technology be if not for the discovery of restriction enzymes? Research on cloning and stem cell which is still at its infancy will not see any commercial products if fundamental aspects in these areas are neglected.

However, there is a craze for research which has commercial potential in Malaysia to the extent that interest and funds in basic research is diminishing. We must understand our priorities and needs are different from Westerners, where the bulk of research is carried out. We need products that meet our needs, e.g. local improved crops, vaccines or antibiotics for tropical diseases such as dengue and malaria, drugs for the type of cancers that occurs most in our population, suitable local feedstock to produce biofuel, cloning techniques to conserve our endangered wild species, etc. No one else will invest their money into these. Our politicians should stop asking scientists when the products can hit the market before providing the fund. We must first understand that no Nobel Prize has been awarded to commercial aspects of any research so far!

An excellent research culture need to be nurtured; collaborations between various institutes must be encouraged; strong research teams with clear-cut mission and priority should be established; funds for basic research must be increased; and training more experts in basic science such as microbiology, biochemistry, taxonomy, botany, genetics, pathology, etc. One good example I would like to quote is the direction and focus of our herbal industry and research. Just because Malaysia is blessed with abundance of biodiversity, we feel this resource will create wealth for us. But how many herbal companies in Malaysia are based upon strong scientific research and findings? How much of the herbal products out in the market have undergone scientific processes or technology? What is the global value of our herbal industry? I will talk more about the status and direction of herbal industry in another article. Suffice to say to create value, strong foundation need to be laid out. And we need to relook our priorities in research and a change of mind-set.

- Mahaletchumy Arujanan


xMARDI said...

I think what Malaysia need is an effective production of transgenic plants to help increasing crop productivities, quality and most importantly yield. Do we have any transgenic crop to be utilized by farmers now? Can we see any transgenic seed sold around here in Malaysia?

Maha said...

Thank you for your comment. I totally agree with you. Look out for our articles on agribiotech and GM. This area will be given much prominence.

Kamigoroshi said...

What Malaysia needs is a reason for people to concentrate on academic research and not just commercial stuff.

There are people like myself who are not in it for the money, but the pure love of finding new things. These are the people who will help build the infrastructure which will lead to bigger things.

I'm not saying it's bad to do it in Malaysia, the seeds are already there. It has always been a goldmine for such research, but when there are no incentives, you get your brain drain that breaks the system.

Though personally, I am more interested in research areas of cancer cytopathology, cytogenetics and molecular genetics. It's hard for me to get a leg up when I have no more contacts back in Malaysia for these things.