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Mega Science : The Way Forward

Dr Ahmad Ibrahim
Dr Ahmad Ibrahim
Academy Sciences of Malaysia (ASM), Malaysia

As a think tank in Malaysia, Academy Sciences of Malaysia (ASM) responsible in enabling Malaysia to leap-frog into a technologically advanced nation through Mega-Science agenda. The future of the country is merely depend on the adaption of science, engineering and innovation. The brain of ASM, Dr Ahmad Ibrahim sharing his brilliant insight and thought.

What are the missions and vision of ASM? Why it been setup and what does it do?

Academy Sciences of Malaysia is a think tank, established about 17 to 18 years ago, so our mission is actually to provide good advice to the government in relation to science, and to promote or build science literacy in the country so that science will be seen as an important investment in charting the future development of the country

Tell me about ASM as the advisor on the science policy

Yes, we participate very actively in science policy and we have created recently a platform to generate this advice, this what I am going to speak in my presentation, the mega science we called it, where we look at the future direction of sectors in the country which drive the economy of the country now, we have started with water, energy, health, agriculture and bio-diversity and we have done the first part of the studies, we look at what would be the scenario for Malaysia in 2050 in energy and water, and what are the risks that the country will face in this sectors, at the same time we also look at what will be the opportunities that will emerge because of the changes in technologies, changes of the environmental aspect of the world, demand of the climate change and we look at all these risks and opportunities, then we will provide the direction in term of, what investment in science will be needed to actually mitigate the risk or sack the risk or capture the opportunities, so this will be in the form of what research we need and what business area we need to plan to capture the opportunities.

So this also must be involving lot of coordination with other department and sector as to their necessity. Can you elaborate?

Yes, all these studies will be led by our fellows, and we have now about 240 fellows, these are selected by existing fellows, go through the process of selection based on their expertise, their achievement in science over the years, so most of our fellows are actually is a former leaders in science either in the university or research organisation, in industry, so they become the fellows, they will lead this but the team that actually contribute the studies can come different part, it can be from industry related to the sector, and they may be not a fellows but the leader does.

Any department or sectors involved?

Yes, we have what we called as stakeholder engagement, so once we produce our first report, we will engage them, even during the scoping of the study, we will invite the stakeholder to comment on the scoping, proceed with the studies and then after we develop the findings, we will share again with the stakeholder to get further inputs before the whole things are finalized.

So, where would you say Malaysia science policy, and where does it stand?

Well, for Malaysia will still have some issues on science, but this is not something unique to Malaysia because the world also has issue on science especially on declining interest among student to do science, converting research into commercial product and the collaboration, these are the issues, and we have developed a recent policy to address these issues, and this policy based on 6 pillars, 1 is issue on the commercialization, the right research, commercialization of research..

Are you saying that it’s not happening enough, or happening too much?

Not happening enough, the industry not investing enough in Malaysia, so energizing industry in one of the pillar, talent is another pillar, how do we get people join the scientific profession, students and remain in the scientific profession, how do we make sure the talent is not leaving the country, that kind of thing. Governance is another thing, the governance of science itself in term of disbursement of funds, in term of evaluating research, monitoring, so that we’ll get the most optimal output, and the other one is international linkages. This has become very important because a lot of development elsewhere, we do not want to reinvent the wheel; so we need international linkages and we has addressed it to a number of platform, for example, we have a program on Antartica, where Malaysian scientist can do some research in Antartica, so they can meet the top world scientist because Antartica now is like a new frontier, so everyone want to go there, and we have link with some international bodies like Centre for Nuclear Research Europe (CERN), International Institute of Applied System Analysis and also Noble Foundation, so through this linkages we try to bring in the local partners to come together, so this come under international linkages.

There are tendency among the academia just remain scientist in the lab and cut off from the commercialization. What do you say?

Yes, that very true, in fact, I always raised this and eventually research have 2 aspect – Basic research is more to knowledge driven, what knowledge we need to develop new understanding and this is done in university, then there is applied research. Now in Malaysia, the industry is not doing much research, applied research, the multinational (company) they do have the research except in Palm Oil for example, Palm oil is a global business so a lot of industries also do research in palm oil. Otherwise not much research is done, so my contention is that, our end games is all applied research must be left to the industries. University, institution, we only do the basic research but we can also do what we called as developed technology which is not yet in the marketplace, this is what we called as the technology push, we see unmet need in the market like internet, it’s was started from a basic research. It was not developed by industry. So, government research institute should only focus on those. Where the risk is higher, the uncertainty is higher, those which are very close to market, leave it to industry. But in Malaysia, this is not happening yet, so what the government is trying to do is to provide the resources to undertake this research but with participation of industry, so that the industry will grow to appreciate the investment in research and hopefully the research expenditure will migrate to industry in the future, like what happening in Taiwan, Korea, etc.

What is your opinion about Geo-sciences capacity of Malaysia?

I think we have a lot of users of geoscience, in a way we have institute in remote sensing, which provide the services in term of images through satellites and all this, but in term of research in Geospatial, in still in doubt whether there is a lot of research on that. Geospatial community is not pursuing much research in a sense of improving the technology of remote sensing but we do have private companies doing work on UAV etc, and we do have company like one of friend of mine, where he using a lot of long distance camera to monitor movement at borders, but he didn’t get any project here where he developed the solution, apparently he get more demands from other countries, so I think geospatial technology is being used in Malaysia but the participation on research and technology development are still at the very beginning stage.

You are the advisor to the government and geosciences also part of the mainstream science, so what has been developed so far?

Yes, we have recently created the group on Disaster risk management to warn about disaster using science application, so geospatial will come as part of monitoring, information gathering and we just started this group on Disaster risk reduction, led by our fellow. Well, I don’t know, I am also new in this geospatial thing, but I have read about the interest of the countries to invest in this because issue related to disaster, monitoring the environment, like the palm oil industry has been under a lot of pressure from the groups on deforestation, geospatial also used by fisherman..

One of the major project is in palm oil plantation where you satellite images has been used extensively.

Yes, palm oil is a big business in Malaysia, so they are looking at to improve their geospatial technology to monitor the plantation, because these plantation can be thousands of hectares, it’s cheaper to use this technology to monitor in term of palm disease, ripeness of fruits, where nowadays harvesting is done manually and can be very expensive, so a lot of automation being look at in palm oil industry.

Data sharing among the department is a great enabler, where it helps in disaster management by having the wild data, the sea level data and put all them together, is there any project you use special data or technology too?

In fact now, we are in a project initiated by one of international agency, they do a lot of work on energy, global energy, global water, and they recently initiated a project which involve Indonesia, Brazil, and Malaysia will soon be joining looking at the topics like deforestation, land use, maybe this can be another area geospatial instrument would be useful, like you say sharing of data, people are very secretive about their data, so it has to be a central agency which can demand them. I know in Korea, the science implementation policy involved a lot of enactments of Laws because otherwise it won’t happen. In Korea, they do review it on regular basis and this is by law. In Malaysia, I think the culture of innovation still not embedded within community, so you need laws to force at early stage but when people starting to see the benefit they will initiate. If you go to more developed economy, they not need such law because the culture of appreciative of science, innovation, and if you go to exhibition on technology in Germany, Switzerland, the people just come because it’s become their culture towards technology.

There is a lot of innovations taking place at private level but the culture just not there yet

I think the culture is first thing, government is trying to fund, in fact in Malaysia there is a foundation on innovation, Malaysian Innovation Foundation created about 3,4 years ago, and they suppose go to the village to monitor, to motivate the community at large and they have actually found innovation place in different part of the country, this is again to encourage innovation among the people, but for developed countries, say early scientist in the UK, they were curious about things, they go to the jungle, look at birds, documented the birds, and look at different kind of plants and this is the early science. So the curiosity driven mind will motivate the research, so this is something built for many years but I think we still have problem with not many people record what they found, experimenting new thing, making judgement and conclusion so the knowledge will develop.

You talked about data sharing problem, how you deal with that with other department?

It has to be some kind of forcing, otherwise it’s difficult to get the data. For example, even Ministry of Science and Technology through Information center also facing same problem. You have to get mandate from government. For now, there is no mandate, we have to persuade to get those data. In Academy we don’t have problem in data sharing but we have problem in generating primary data which is very costly.

Would you say, different agency have different standard of data, is it problem for you to put them together?

Yes, it might be create a problem since its come from different standard.

How do you see geospatial technology for growth & development in Malaysia?

Of course we do have issue in term of our wealth in bio-diversity, so you need to have geospatial technology, first to monitor or to generate information from this, which can be look at by planners and in term of how to harness this wealth. At present, Academy have raised a number of time that we need to invest the research on bio-diversity, we need to generate information. In Sabah for example, what species do we have there, what kind of plants species, and these are to be shared in that way, thus will help the country to plan how to allocate resources to develop certain potential plants, definitely these will be a help, of course our agriculture like palm oil which is very useful for them, even in the planning of new land use looking at the different topography of the different areas, this should help us to avoid disasters like landslide which become common nowadays, how to plan better so we won’t touch the sensitive part of the country, so geospatial would be and also sharing the big data, because planning finally will have to fall on data. If you don’t have sufficient data and not interpreted in right way, then you might end up with a wrong planning. So, we have to plan for our resources, people, energy, and water.