Sunday, July 6, 2008

Why Malaysia4Biotech?

When I first heard about blogs, I never thought I would be blogging one day. Certainly not a blog on politics which is spreading like wildfire. But I was on a constant search for a platform to communicate with the public and sharing my thoughts on biotechnology – an emerging technology which is rapidly changing the landscape and terrains of various aspects of our lives from food to agriculture, livestock, environment, industry, and healthcare and medicine. The 21st century is being hailed as the century of life sciences with biotechnology being at the forefront. This technology offers solutions to many crisis affecting the world today – food shortage, rising food and fuel prices, emerging new diseases, climate change, and the endless requirements of the industry to meet the needs of the modernized population.

So, why did I choose to blog? I was in San Diego recently attending the Bio Convention 2008 and for the first time, I heard speakers mentioning blogs as a new media to communicate biotechnology to the public. And just before leaving to the US, my former boss sent me a mass email depicting a negative perception of Genetically Modified (GM) food (though he is not an opponent of GM technology). As a science communicator, I felt I should put things in right perspective and I wrote a long reply and sent it to all on the email list, expecting most of them to delete or ignore my response. To my surprise, I received many emails from strangers congratulating me on my very factual and pragmatic response. The email exchanges went on for a while, with some even forwarding my emails to their friends. That encouraged me. I hope my former boss is reading my blog, thanks to him. And I have a third reason – the mainstream media is often biased towards those who oppose GM technology and proponents are seen as traitors who are eager to sweep away all the biodiversity we have, give away all our bioresources to a handful of multinationals, and make our farmers dependant on these multinationals. Hence, my blog on Malaysia4Biotech! This is not something new that I am doing. I have been involved in science communication for the past six years and have organized dozens of seminars, workshops, forum, and conferences. I have also written articles and presented talks at various events both local and international. And here is my new attempt to further enhance public understanding of biotechnology.

As many nations are racing to be a biotech player, Malaysia is not spared from this infectious fever to be on the bandwagon. Biotechnology has been given prominent attention and emphasis by the Malaysian Government, as it recognizes the importance and potential of this sector to the nation’s economy. As a result, the National Biotechnology Policy was launched in April 2005. The policy aims to build a conducive environment for R&D and industry development while leveraging on the country’s existing areas of strength. The policy addresses vital aspects of biotechnology development such as the priority areas, legal, safety, and financial among others. The policy spells out nine thrusts, which include transforming and enhancing the value creation of the agricultural sector through biotechnology. The other area of priority is healthcare and industrial biotechnology. The support given by the government was further boosted under the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006 – 2010). The government’s aspiration is to make Malaysia a preferred destination for foreign biotechnology players and investors.

All these sound well and good. However, the success of the biotech sector not only relies on the research and commercialization but also on public acceptance. My organization, the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) is the first and only NGO in Malaysia that is dedicated to promote this industry and support the government’s efforts. However, the path to success is never sweet. Like any new, emerging field, biotechnology is clouded with various controversies and public concerns. Research on stem cells, cloning, gene therapy, and genetically modified crops raises various concerns among the stakeholders. The debates on these areas are further enhanced by issues related to intellectual property rights, ownership, patents, religious and ethical implications and trade monopoly. This puts modern biotechnology under public scrutiny and is currently the focus of intense public and politic debate. Though there are some valid concerns which must be addressed, there are also fictitious concerns raised by certain parties with vested interest, mainly the scaremongers and naysayers. When public perception is shaped by these parties, it spells trouble for the nation which is eager to race forward.

Besides public acceptance, a number of hurdles must be crossed for Malaysia to be a biotech hub. Funding is the biggest issue among industry and scientists. Setting the priority right, excellent implementation and execution regime, collaboration among public research institutes, joint ventures with the industries, the ability of public research to attract investments and venture capital funds, the entrepreneurship skills of our scientists, the ability to leap frog from traditional biotech to modern biotech among scientists and industry, creating an enabling regulatory framework, and creating an excellent research culture are some of the challenges staring at our face before we jumpstart this industry.

My co-bloggers and I had a deliberation on whether the blog should be Malaysia4Biotech or Biotech4Malaysia. And we decided on Malaysia4Biotech because, Malaysia needs to change her perception, attitude, priorities and mindset in order to embrace biotechnology. No matter which area in biotech we choose to excel in, the ingredients are the same. Our biodiversity is certainly not going to be driving scientists, industry, and investors in droves into our country, if we lack all other ingredients. Most, if not all big biotech players are not rich in bioresources. So, it is not about choosing the right biotech for Malaysia, but how we prepare ourselves to excel in this sector. Hence, Malaysia4Biotech!

We need to be pragmatic in our approach, and forgo the myopic vision we are known to have. Without this approach, we will forever be talking about biotech in the future tense whereas all other countries will be far ahead of us.

Expect more thoughts on various areas in biotech, with a special focus on Malaysia. It is our commitment to keep this blog the first active blog on biotech in Malaysia and create a platform for the public to discuss and say their two cents worth.

A warm welcome to everyone!

by Mahaletchumy Arujanan


Anastasia said...

Welcome to the world of science blogging. It's so nice to see another young scientist talking about science. I'm really looking forward to reading more from Malaysia about biotech.

Maha said...

I went through your blog as well and I am impressed. Good work! Together we shall promote this beneficial technology for the betterment of humankind and environment.