Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A wish list for a reformation in science and technology

Reproduce from The Petri Dish April issue

It is election time once again. Parties from both sides of the political divide are feverishly campaigning to convince the electorate to embrace their manifestos. Bread and butter issues are being pedalled by both, the current caretaker government and the opposition coalition right out and upfront. On the macro level, eradication of corruption and transparent governance takes the slot.

For the next couple of weeks at least, the mainstream print and electronic media will be inundated with colourful news of political campaigning - which will all culminate with the outcome from the ballot boxes. There will be those wearing the victor’s crown and those standing on the loser’s pedestal.       

In fact even long before the dissolution of parliament - we have seen different sectors of societies, politicians from both sides of the divide, university students and NGOs championing various issues that will have an impact on the electorate. However, reformation on science, technology and innovation is hardly heard off – although in the United States and in the national British election campaign trails science, technology and innovation gets high mention in the agenda.

Science and technology are key pillars for economic development, national robustness and self-sufficiency. Science and technological innovation spearheads and provides a high quality and standard of life for the citizenry. How else can we attain a developed status as a nation and even create job opportunities for our graduates if science is put away in the back burner?

This is my wish list for the new Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation and Minister for Higher Education who comes on board when the colourful fanfare of our national elections on May 5 draws to a close:

>>  Inculcate a strong research culture among our scientists and researchers. When we walk into a research institute overseas we see labs buzzing with activities, researchers sipping their coffee in cafes and staff lounges while in discussion with their colleagues with journal papers and work plans in their hands, and meeting rooms occupied to discuss research and reports and not merely administrative meetings. The same certainly cannot be observed when we walk into our very own labs. Are there loud stories that can be told from every lab besides purchasing of new equipment?

>> A long term vision and direction. There should be focus on  continuity  of long term research and sustained research.  Research priorities change when there is a management change. Research is not followed through till the objectives are achieved. The frequently asked question is “when can we see the product?” And my answer would be “two years if we want to sell at night markets.”

>>   Understand the need for basic and translational research. We are currently too much into commercialisation that we fail to understand it is basic research that would lead to product development. How can we develop anti-cancer medicine without understanding tumorgenesis pathways and cell genetics?

>>  Prioritise research areas to set national challenges. Can we set priority areas for the various research and   proposed grand national challenges to address problems of the countries and the region. This will motivate different groups from different institutions   to work together within some timeline? Let us break the territorial walls and have scientists working in teams regardless of their affiliation and institutes with one goal in mind. I know there are teams made up from various institutes now, but I also often hear, “we should be the one working on this project as we are the designated institute for this crop/product/project.”

>>   Scientists to have an independent voice. Freedom of speech is not just important for the media but also for scientists to comment on policies, regulations and to rebut misinformation. How many of our scientists came out in the public to talk about Lynas, labelling of GM foods, GM mosquitoes, etc? Is it lack of time or lack of confidence/independence to speak without fear and favour?

>>   Tackling brain drain . How do we find ways to create job opportunities or incentives so we can keep our best brains at all levels to contribute to our national need and objective  of getting  50 scientists per 10,000 population
This is may be a tall order but I wish, with the hope of a renewed sense of commitment, direction and strategies - that my wish list in some way will catapult the country’s existing research laboratories to greater heights. It requires a paradigm shift and strong sense of commitment and perseverance.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan