COVID-19 has focused the world’s attention on science. And not just health science but also economic sciences. While some don’t
appreciate the value of the sciences, others, especially those in more developed economies, value it enough to increase investment in it.In Malaysia, though, I have heard some lawmakers call our
science ministry – the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry (better known by its Malay acronym, Mosti) – insignificant. This, in a way, is a reflection of how this country is not very science literate.
The Academy of Sciences has long fought to raise more discourse about science among lawmakers and citizens. Many are not well informed about the strategic importance of science in addressing global challenges. For instance, fighting climate change, a major threat to humankind’s survival, would be difficult without resorting to science. Finding the cure to many of the world’s health challenges falls to science. This applies to both infectious diseases as well as noncommunicable diseases that continue to challenge the world.
In this current pandemic, those who are more science literate appreciate its value in bringing the crisis to an end. We have just heard from Mosti’s minister on how the country is strategising to procure the right vaccine once it is ready and proven. Mosti, together with the Foreign Affairs Ministry,
is actively pursuing access to the world’s supply of vaccines. It has been estimated that the cost to acquire the vaccine will run into billions of ringgit. And still, some look down on Mosti as an unimportant ministry.
No wonder all these years the allocation for science has been low compared with that for other ministries. No wonder there is little debate on issues of science in Parliament. I think this has to change. The coming budget must provide more for science not only to cater to demands arising from the pandemic, but also to new demands imposed by the fast- changing business models of the nation’s economy.
The whole world’s economy is undergoing drastic change. The need to embrace digitalisation has become more urgent. Again, it is about science and technology. We have been bombarded with news about the nation going digital and embracing Industrial Revolution 4.0 technologies. Blueprints have been announced and launched, but there has been no communication on how they will be implemented.
There has been enough publicity about the many technologies that will shape the new economy, especially post pandemic. It is no secret that technologies like AI (artificial intelligence), robotics, data analytics, IoT (the Internet of Things) and automation will be the key drivers of business and industry in the new normal. How are we preparing and putting into place the necessary support infrastructure for such technologies?
We cannot just depend on importing such technologies. We need our own experts in these areas not only to participate in the development of the relevant technologies, but also, more importantly, to be able to advise industry and government on the right technologies to acquire. Furthermore, the operation of such technologies require regular updating. We cannot forever wait for such services to be sourced externally every time we face breakdowns.
This is where we need an expert centre, a Digital Technology Expert Centre – DTEC, I would call it. One option is for this centre to bring together already established centres in universities. Apart from building expertise in the digitalisation space, the centre should also undertake relevant R&D in technologies supporting digitalisation as well as provide the necessary advice on technology planning and acquisition to industry.
During the initial establishment, DTEC should be government-funded and placed under Mosti. But the council of DTEC must be industry-driven and an industry person should be made chairman. And over time, as more businesses adopt digitalisation, there is no reason why DTEC cannot be fully financed by industry.
It is important that the activities of something like DTEC take cognisance of industry needs, both current and future. If science can offer better governance as proposed, lawmakers and citizens may soon change their view of science.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia