Monday, January 19, 2009

Innovation disconnect

I couldn't help shaking my head and sighing as I read the NST report entitled, Biotech grants going to waste? It just confirms what we've all feared.

There is a seriously lackadaisical attitude in the approach that Malaysian government agencies, which includes public universities, take when handling taxpayers' money. Get this portion of the report; out of the 5,232 R&D projects implemented under the Seventh and Eighth Malaysia Plan, only 5.1 per cent were considered as having commercialisation potential. Picture on the right courtesy of NST.

Knowledge for knowledge's sake can be a wonderful thing. It is a hallmark of many great tertiary institutions. But this is quite different. It is different because this particular issue involves a deliberate process where taxpayers' money is allocated in the form of grants to public universities to finance the undertaking of R&D projects.

So, if the Biology Department of a public university wants to study the mating habits of worms, it surely can't be for any genus of worms. The research scope should zoom in on the types of worms that has a salutary effect on agriculture. And, not just any area of agriculture but a specific crop. Otherwise, it's just a waste of taxpayers' money.

It's different if you don't use taxpayers' money. For example, Miriam Rothschild, scion of the English branch of the fabulously wealthy Rothschild family was an avid entomologist. She could self-finance her passionate research into and, compiling a veritable taxonomy of insects, thereby, advancing human knowledge of this area of biology.

But, the R&D in Malaysia's public universities do not have such luxury. Therefore, there must be accountability in using taxpayers' money. All R&D proposals must have clear objectives that must pass muster with commercial needs.

Alas! I am reminded of Juvenal's maxim, quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who will guard the guards themselves?).

This seems to be a problem that dogs the public sector in Malaysia.


Anonymous said...


Mari lah kita sama-sama memboikot Air Asia kerana sikapnya yang begitu tamak dan asyik mengejar keuntungan. Langsung tiday ada sikap memberi. Saya telah menggunakan logo "I'm not flying Air Asia di blog saya:

Saya harap saudara juga boleh meggunakan logo tersebut dalam blogsite saudara.

de minimis said...



Anonymous said...

de minimis

Hmmm... perhaps it would be more accurate to say that only 5% of the R&D projects have IMMEDIATE commercial potential. The other 95%, though, will at some indeterminable time, realise this potential, too (hopefully).

Having said this, I must say that I agree with you: When public funds are involved the selection process must be based almost exclusively on whether the projects will pay-off within the foreseeable future.

Otherwise, we'll just be financing someone else's hobby, won't we?

de minimis said...

Hi Mat B

Good of your to visit, sir. It is so true that taxpayers' money should not be used to finance a frolic. Perhaps the agency that provides these grants should have a website that posts abstracts of research proposals.

That way, the rest of us who are diligent enough can review the research proposals to see if there are commercial prospects.

The best part is that judging by earnest blogging by Malaysians, there are enough Malaysians who are prepared to perform the audit/watchdog role in the public interest.

msleepyhead said...

Dear Sir,

And if you scrutinize the 5% that CAN BE commercialized, the number will possibly dwindle further. We've seen in old RTM docus where they turn palm oil husks/trunk/waste into building material, only to be non practical. Sure is a wonderful idea and can be sold but will the contractors use it.

It is also difficult for researchers to commercialize their findings as most universities are still stuck in being education institutions and does not have the support to make a business out of it. Those who succeed in commercializing their products usually have to it by themselves, peddling it to potential investors and appointing their own patent lawyers.

Under present circumstances researchers have to be entrepreneurs should they wish to go down that road.