Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Madius Tangau spells out the need to look beyond 2020 to gear Malaysia up for what lies ahead, stating that a lot of work needs to be done to prepare the nation for the future.
Today, the 58-year-old finds himself heading one of the key ministries to spur Malaysia towards Vision 2020 as Science, Technology and Innovation Minister.
But with just four years away from the target, Tangau has been focusing on looking at the bigger picture and going beyond 2020.
In fact, a “foresight” study or plan to map out Malaysia’s economy of the future (in 2050) is currently being prepared by the ministry through the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) and will be presented to the National Science Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, in the last quarter of this year.
The plan will envision how Malaysia will be in 2050, based on the aspects of science, technology and innovation (STI), economics and finance, society and culture as well as governance.
Ultimately, this outlines the need to leverage on STI to design and engineer the future that Malaysia desires.
“The new economy will be science and technology-driven, moving away from resource-based industries. We must also realise that knowledge is the currency of the new economy. So, in order to be competitive, we have no choice but to enhance our capacity, capabilities and talent pool in STI.
“It has to be. Malaysia has committed 50% of its land to forested areas. Our sea is only so much, even fishing has to be innovative through the application of sonar technology.
“This is exactly why the plan needs to be out and we are driving it,” says Tangau in an interview with Sunday Star recently.
With climate change being an inevitable part of the future, the ministry will upgrade the equipment at the Malaysian Meteorological Department by this year to better forecast and deal with weather changes.
“About RM66mil has been approved to enhance the department’s forecasting capabilities. It is currently in the tendering process,” he says.
As for growing the local pool of talent, Tangau, who is also United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (Upko) acting president, says there is a great need to increase the percentage of science students from the current 20%.
“No, I’m not confident we can achieve our target of science students being 60% by 2020. But by 2020, we will increase it from the present 20%. If I can push it to 30%, I will be very happy,” he says.
How is our progress towards Vision 2020 at present?
We are not too bad in terms of some achievements. But in terms of the contribution from science and knowledge-based businesses, I think it is very low. There is a need to drive the economy into one that is based on science, knowledge and technology and innovation-driven. The economy will not be sustainable if we continue to be a resources-based economy. Our STI policies are there.
The problem is how to get them implemented and carried out, especially when it comes to research and commercialisation. In this sense, if compared with Singapore and other developed nations, our achievement is still low.
In terms of coming up with intellectual property (IP), our achievement is around 24,000 in 2014 while it is 33,000 in Singapore and over 523,000 in South Korea. Another matter to look into is the rate of commercialisation of such IPs. We have a long way to go.
One of the strategic challenges of Vision 2020 is for Malaysia to be a nett contributor to technology and not a nett consumer. We have four years to go.
Within the next four years, we have a lot of work to do.
There is waning interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) among schoolchildren. What is your take on this?
By 2020, the ratio of science to non-science students is 60:40. Currently, eligible students taking STEM subjects is only 20%. Where have we gone wrong? I find that one factor is that principals and teachers are not actively promoting science and mathematics for students. Maybe they think it is a harder subject to pass and their KPI might be affected. There are other various reasons. On the other hand, students find it boring and bothersome. For the ministry, I need to work on the career path. I need to create jobs and encourage more technology-driven companies.
We need companies in biotech, nanotechnology, nuclear sector, aerospace and so on. We need to create a lot of (such) companies so that there is a career path for our students. At the same time, applied research agencies are saying they don’t have enough scientists. Currently, we only have around 58 researchers for every 10,000 workers.
We need to create more scientists, identify talents and provide more incentives to create them. There are companies that want to apply for licences to set up clinical research and one of the reasons why companies are not bidding is (due to) the lack of scientists. Even within the ministry, we do not have enough.
Research by scientists must result in commercialisation so that there is a form of royalty and income. The rate of commercialisation is low at present. In 2013, it was reported that commercialisation through the ministry’s R&D funds stood at 3.1% and institutions of higher learning at 2.1%.
With 2016 being declared as Malaysia’s Commercialisation Year, I hope the ministry will be able to meaningfully increase the percentage of R&D commercialisation and spur the local R&D institutes to make Malaysia a competitive technology hub in the region.
Also, agencies dealing with science, technology and innovation are all over the place. Perhaps, there is a need for rationalisation. There is a need to study whether agencies should be under my ministry or other ministries.
At the end of the day, this ministry must be driver of the new economy or economy of the future, which is science, knowledge and technology driven.
How do you plan to do this?
How do we drive the new economy? The Government must have a very clear policy on research, commercialisation and innovation. As the ministry mandated to lead the National STI Agenda of the nation, a major responsibility of ours is to develop and implement an effective STI Policy.
In the current National Policy on Science, Technology and Innovation (NPSTI) 2013-2020, there are six strategic thrusts to respond to the challenges of the new economy, including advancing scientific and social research, development and commercialisation, developing, harnessing and intensifying talent and energising industries.
However, there are still gaps in the execution of NPSTI which we will need to address as we explore, develop and utilise STI to generate knowledge, create wealth and ensure societal well-being. All ministries need to work together as each have a role to play in ensuring the success of the nation’s STI agenda. So, it is important for me to highlight here that NPSTI is not a ministry policy but a national policy to achieve our goal of becoming a developed country by 2020.
How can we move forward beyond Vision 2020? What’s in store from the ministry?
We want to drive Malaysia beyond 2020 where the situation will be technology and innovation-driven. For example, we can expect artificial intelligence to be part of the future. To illustrate, we are wearing clothes to keep warm and look good, but maybe the clothes of the future can tell you about your health. When you have that, the existing industry will be wiped out. The future in five, 10 and 20 years will be totally different. We have to be prepared for that in so many ways.
How is Malaysia preparing for that?
We start with our human resources. If our students are not into STEM, codes, computer language, algorithm, they will not be able to participate and create. Inventors today are those who create applications, those who are into codes and mathematical models.
We will need to take stock of the current national STI situation, focus on leveraging on our advantages, moving forward and reinforcing the implementation and monitoring of STI projects. The economy of the future must have a very strong STI foundation.
How is the ministry going to intensify the promotion of STEM?
Everybody has to do their part. Communicate and tell the people about the importance of science. Start with that. We have to start with ourselves. We have to be passionate about it. Next, we have to address it to community leaders, teachers, principals and education officers. Bear in mind, our science students are at 20%.
The ministry has also been actively promoting Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE) method in teaching and learning of science, which doesn’t require a science teacher. A pilot study has been done in four schools and after introducing IBSE, they have done better.
We are now testing it in Sabah and a few other states. After this, we hope it will be absorbed into the school system beginning from kindergarten, secondary school to university. With this, science will be interesting subject.
It sounds like a lot still needs to be done. Are you confident we can achieve the ratio of 60:40 for science students?
No. I am not. But by 2020, we will increase it from the present 20%. If I can push it to 30%, I will be very happy. When the Prime Minister heard about the current percentage, he was very concerned. My ministry was appointed to lead a team to overcome this.
The Education and Higher Education ministries are working together with us. We have started working on this with ASM and we will be coming up with strategies soon to address this. We are also doing our own promotion through social media to educate students and the public about science.
What are the plans for beyond 2020?
For the new economy, we have a plan or foresight that maps out strategic moves for future from 2020 to 2050. That is the year world leaders have agreed to have zero carbon emissions. The plan will be unveiled in late 2016. A lot of work needs to be done and international treaties to be signed. Several agencies are working with ASM on this plan, to be presented to the National Science Council.