Political will, planning behind rapid rise in research

There has been a concerted effort in Malaysia over the past decade to grow research capacity and it has shown dramatic results – the number of researchers per 10,000 in the labour force was 58.2 in 2011, up from just 15.6 at the turn of the century – and science has been placed at the heart of the country’s Vision 2020.

Malaysia’s research achievements and challenges were outlined by Professor Zakri Abdul Hamid, science adviser to the prime minister and one of 26 members of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s scientific advisory board, at a major conference in Johannesburg from 10-14 May co-hosted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association.

The day before, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had said in a statement that the 11th Malaysia Plan would focus on people’s priorities such as cost of living, education, security, public transport and rural infrastructure.

The government’s latest initiative, Science to Action or S2A, extends current transformation efforts and is one of five pillars of Vision 2020, with the aim of mobilising science to build a knowledge-based economy.

It is, Zakri said, an “initiative to intensify the application of science and technology for industry development, people’s well-being, and governance of science, technology and industry that aligns to the New Economic Model introduced in 2010”.

The people’s economy, he added, “needs to raise the bar. It needs the support of the private sector in increasing incomes, generating employment opportunities and facilitating career advancement and development”. Key issues are how to minimise youth unemployment, grow female labour participation, upskill employees and raise incomes.

Changing landscape

Malaysia’s expanding research efforts are taking place in a rapidly changing international landscape, where science, technology and innovation are becoming increasingly global and interconnected and the ‘scientific superpowers’ – the United States, Western Europe and Japan – are finding their dominance challenged by China, Brazil, India and South Korea.

China’s spending on research and development, or R&D, has increased by almost 20% a year and the country is now the world’s second largest R&D investor after America. “In India, levels of R&D investment are also rising with a talent pool of 2.5 million new graduates every year in IT, engineering and natural sciences,” said Zakri.

“Brazil is now the world’s 15th largest producer of scientific publications, up eight places in under a decade, and the Middle East is also showing signs of renewed ambition in science, technology and innovation.”

Speaking during a roundtable session on “Research and Innovation for Poverty Alleviation and Social Impact”, Zakri described a route to development that moved Malaysia from an agriculture-based economy up until the late 1970s to a production-based economy from the 1980s to the mid-1990s and subsequently towards an innovation economy.

Today there is a population of 30 million people, 54% of them middle-class, per capita income has risen to US$10,687, and Malaysia is ranked twelfth in the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook and sixth for ease of doing business by the World Bank.

“We are an extrovert nation, and Malaysia is not doing badly,” said Zakri. “Programmes taking place have achieved sustained economic growth of on average 7% a year with low inflation, a poverty rate of less than 4% and unemployment of only 5% to 6%."

Plans, achievements and challenges

At the hub of the development plan since 2009 have been National Transformation Programmes to effect progress. The six key areas are reducing crime, fighting corruption, improving student outcomes, raising the living standards of low-income households, improving rural basic infrastructure and upgrading urban public transport.

The New Economic Model has three goals – US$15,000 to US$20,000 per capita income by 2020, inclusivity in a country that is very multiracial and multicultural, and sustainability in respect of the environment.

There are three main prongs to the government’s Education Blueprint, and they are to produce rounded and balanced graduates who meet the needs of industry, focus on technical and vocational education and training, and mastery of science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM.

“Mastery of STEM subjects is at the heart of it, and there are challenges,” said Zakri. “In spite of the aim to improve STEM education we are not doing brilliantly.” In the OECD’s international school assessment project PISA, Malaysia’s children scored below the OECD average and also below some of its neighbours.

“That is a concern for the political leadership, and so in this new Education Blueprint there are targets to improve Malaysia’s performance.”

While the rapid rise in researchers per 10,000 people in the labour force was an achievement, and the numbers had grown from 15,000 in 2000 to nearly 74,000 researchers in 2011, “we need to strengthen researchers and there is lots of room for improvement”, said Zakri.

Similarly, while Malaysia has passed the milestone of spending more than 1% of gross domestic product on research – its rate is 1.07% – “this is still very low and the government is trying to target at least 2%”.

A focus on science

The government has placed science at the heart of Vision 2020 and there are three Science to Action thrusts:
  • Science to governance – The aim is to strengthen public and private service delivery systems to create a conducive environment and ecosystem to catalyse the development of science.
  • Science to well-being – This focuses on raising living standards through the use and mastery of science, technology and innovation, and on achieving excellent education – especially in STEM fields – through intensive concentration on the young generation.
  • Science to industry – The goal is to establish an innovation culture and strengthen the capacity of industry to generate new wealth, including inculcating a Silicon Valley culture of ‘innovate or perish’. Government-linked companies and small- and medium-sizes enterprises will be encouraged to venture into potential growth areas.
There is also movement on the research partnerships front, with an agreed need for more international collaboration and networking.

One programme, the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund, will create new opportunities to enhance the country’s bilateral relationship and for British and Malaysian scientists to work together on important research and innovation initiatives.

There will be skills-building study tours and exchanges, collaborative research and the application of research into the market, and a focus on five areas – health and life sciences, improving environmental resilience and energy security, future cities, agritech, and digital innovation and creativity.

Importantly, the prime minister has created a Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, which will help to guide scientific development, will benchmark Malaysia’s ranking and competitiveness in science against advanced countries, and will provide advice annually on how to improve the country’s capabilities in science and innovation.