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26 June 2017

Ismail: A vision for Malaysia's future

For Asma Ismail, the new president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, scientific progress and social benefits are inseparable. Now she'll push for strong research and policy on health, environment, water and other critical needs.

Malaysia wants to be a science nation, and its "science beyond scientist" philosophy well reflects this aspiration. The process of strengthening science was envisioned in 1990, when the government introduced its 2020 vision policy where science and technology would be the backbone of future development.

Despite some economic and developmental uncertainty at the global level, Malaysia is certainly witnessing not only economic strength – with its gross domestic product experiencing 5% growth per year – but also a strong  commitment to science.

Science in Malaysia's agenda is indeed moving to the forefront, especially after the recent appointment of Professor Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail as the fifth president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), effective 28 December 2016.

Asma Ismail, elected to TWAS in 2010, is a renowned leader in medical microbiology and biotechnology. She is also a committed advocate of the scientific and education community. Ismail takes over the role of ASM President from Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Ir Ahmad Tajuddin Ali, who completed his second three-year term in 2016.

As Ismail explains in the following interview with TWAS's staff writer Cristina Serra, Malaysia is betting on a future where science holds a prominent position. And the Academy of Sciences Malaysia will certainly be part of this process, driving the nation towards achieving the 2050 National Transformation (NT50) where science, technology and innovation are harmonized and operate in synergy.

Professor Ismail, what scientific priorities do you plan to address in Malaysia through your new role?

The Academy of Sciences Malaysia since the times of my predecessors has carved a niche to be the nation’s thought leader for matters related to science, engineering, technology and innovation. In upholding this reputation and in pursuit of even greater horizons, I will continue to focus on our core strengths on sustainability sciences, emerging technologies, socio-economics and Malaysia 2050.

To complement this, I will inject my passion on championing science to address the needs of the bottom billion. I am passionate for developing health technologies and innovations that can create wealth for the nation and improving the quality of life for her citizens. My focus would be to enhance R&D capacity in Malaysia for creating more local innovations for the benefit of society.

How will you take action on that?

It must start within every one of us. Firstly, it is by empowering the scientific community through ASM’s current platforms which are capacity-building, science consortium, gateway and consultative fora.

I would like to take this one step further by nurturing our future generations with the right mind-set and attitude. The world we live today is different than the one our parents lived in. We see disruptive changes happening at a rapid pace. Tomorrow’s world will be even more different than today. Hence, we can no longer groom our future generation in the mould we set yesterday. Instead, we need to nurture our future generations to be job creators rather than job seekers.

Learning must be inculcated with critical thinking, and the drive to create ethical and values-based solutions to global problems especially to address the needs of society and the bottom billion. Our young ones must start thinking what can they do to improve the future world rather than what career should they pursue. We hope those in the area of the sciences will be able to become job creators that can start and consolidate the innovation economy in Malaysia, which is knowledge-based. In order to achieve that, Malaysia must move STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] as a driver of the innovation economy.

Our young ones must start thinking what can they do to improve the future world rather than what career should they pursue. We hope those in the area of the sciences will be able to become job creators that can start and consolidate the innovation economy in Malaysia, which is knowledge-based.
 

How does it feel to be the first woman in this position?

As the first woman to become president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, I consider it as a big honour since the election of the president is by the sovereign king of Malaysia. I am also overwhelmed by the support received by all senior fellows and fellows of ASM. I have great support from the Young Scientist network of ASM. Additionally, I am thankful for the guidance received from the immediate past president and all the past presidents of the Academy. The support received has motivated me to lead the Academy to new heights.

Did you encounter any resistance?

As a woman in Malaysia I thank the Almighty that my country gave equal rights to men and women. Women scientists have the freedom to choose to be in the fundamental or applied fields. But as women become wives and mothers, the feeling of being torn to stay in the demanding hard-core sciences or achieving family balance has created the ‘leaky pipeline' as the women rose to the ranks of professors. Many choose to be in the soft sciences to cater to family-work balance. Although the glass ceiling still exist in certain fields in Malaysia, but in many places it has been broken. I am glad that in our Academy, I have made a monumental first and will strive hard to bring the voice of the scientific community – especially the women scientists – to the forefront.

How well represented are women in Malaysian universities and what is their overall condition?

In Malaysia, 70% of university students are females. Hence they have access to higher education and the ability to hold high positions in both the public and private sector. Of course there is room for improvement, like the aim for 30% of women to become CEOs of the corporate world (we are at 11% now). Even in the academy there is a need to enhance the number of female fellows (currently at 18%). Given the smaller pool of eminent women scientists due to the leaky pipeline and the criteria of becoming a fellow must be of high merit, it will take more time to balance the equation. As far as I know in the public sector there is no difference in salary received between men and women. For that I am thankful for the farsightedness of our leaders to realise that it takes both men and women to contribute to the 21st century challenges and economic stability of the country.  

How important are science, technology, engineering and mathematics for the future development of Malaysia?

Knowledge in STEM is the fuel for the future economy and enhancement of societal well-being. But science and technology alone are no longer enough. Tomorrow is about the multi-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary approach. Tomorrow is the blend of science and arts balanced with values and ethics. The future is a collaborative economy where knowledge is now the currency that travels across borders. Collaborative economy depends on trust and trustworthiness for knowledge-sharing to take place. Hence it is very important that we train the future generation to be balanced between knowledge and character.

How is the current status of science in Malaysia: do policymakers embrace science as a tool to build prosperity and development?

Science is on the rise in Malaysia. Malaysia ranks 23rd in Bloomberg Innovation Index 2017, jumping two places from the previous year’s ranking. Research and development spending in the country is positive, with Malaysia attracting many high-tech companies to invest.

A concern is that the scientific community in Malaysia is relatively small, thus limiting the impact it desires. Our scientists need to widen their focus and collaborate with other countries in research. Only then will science in Malaysia play a larger role and bring impact globally.

In order for science to sustain in the long run, ASM set up the Young Scientists Network (YSN-ASM) in 2012. YSN-ASM is a network of top-notch scientists in Malaysia who have the capability to strengthen the scientific community and contribute innovation and science-based policy ideas. They started with 32 members, and have now grown to 58 members and 52 affiliates, all aged below 40. Being young, the network will help foster their career with excellence and bridge them with the senior scientists for wisdom.

You are a TWAS Fellow: how do you rate TWAS's activity for the development of scientifically lagging countries? What is in your opinion a strong added value of TWAS and its work within developing countries?

TWAS’s activities for science in developing countries are laudable, especially the CAS-TWAS Centres of Excellence [organized with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and based in Beijing]. They give the chance for young scientists from developing countries to learn and experiment with Chinese experts, and bring back their research to develop the technology needed back home.

I think an added value with TWAS’s activities is the vision to build partnership in science for a better world in the developing nations. Science is key to addressing global challenges such as climate change, disaster management, food and water resources, and sustainable energy. It is important that developed countries with strong scientific resources help other countries in need to overcome them together.

Can you name one or two important projects that Malaysia is pursuing in science, perhaps in collaboration with foreign countries?

ASM is one of the local delivery partners of the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund (NUOF). NUOF is a collaboration between Malaysia and the government of United Kingdom (UK), which began in 2015. The funds are allocated to encourage collaborative research and knowledge-sharing between scientists in Malaysia and the UK. ASM manages and implements several programmes under NUOF. A good example is the programme Researcher Link, with the British Council, which provides workshop grants up to GBP125,000 per year.

Other programmes are run in partnership with the Royal Society, the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, whereby International researchers collaborate with a partner in UK. Through the Mobility Grants, Malaysian researchers are sent to UK for study visits and network-building.

And in the medical sector we have a programme with the Medical Research Council UK that allocates GBP2 million for medical and health science collaboration. For the above programmes, a total of 23 recipients were awarded in 2015, and 35 recipients were awarded in 2016.

Two ASM reports are in the pipeline: "Envisioning Malaysia 2050: Foresight Report" and "Science Outlook 2017". What kind of suggestions will they provide to policymakers for science development?

ASM launched the first Science Outlook report in 2015. The report is an independent review on where Malaysia currently stands in STI along with recommendations to address them effectively. Six focus areas reviewed were: STI governance; research, development and commercialisation; STI talent; energising industries; STI enculturation; and strategic international alliance.

Science Outlook 2017 is expected to launch by the end of this year, and will continue reviewing the six focus areas with updates from 2016-2017. I look forward to this report becoming a guiding reference for our nation’s policy and decision makers for evidence-based decision making.

While the Science Outlook reviews our nation’s current state of affairs, the "Envisioning Malaysia 2050: Foresight Initiative" was conceived as a guiding framework for the bold journey between Malaysia’s status quo and its future destination 33 years from now. ASM along with the Foresight Alliance brings experts from a myriad of subject areas to assist in building the scenarios that are plausible for Malaysia by 2050. For our desired future, it is envisioned that in 2050, Malaysia will be living in "smart communities”, where we are able to live in a harmonious, sustainable and prosperous milieu. The vision will be realised by addressing three fundamental drivers: governance, wealth creation, and well-being.

This report is timely in view of the Malaysia’s National Transformation 2050 (TN50) initiative and is eagerly awaited by policy- and decision-makers. Our challenge is to ensure this report does not only appeal to this group of people but society at large as the future belongs to everyone. We need to each play our role to ensure the future we desire is realised. Hence, this report will be an inclusive journey for all Malaysians.

By 2020, about 10% of Malaysians are projected to be aged 60 and above. Will this have an influence in long-term planning of scientific education and activities in Malaysia?

The trend of Malaysia as an aging society is also reported in the upcoming "Malaysia 2050: Foresight Report". By having such long-term vision and planning, we can respond more effectively and make preparations for such a scenario today. We need to put in place measures to fully benefit from the wisdom of the silver-haired generation by ensuring their health and quality of life. In addition, we also need to ensure that the talent pipeline is continuous as we do not want to fall into the dark ages of scientific pursuits due to the lack of talents.

It is without a doubt, seniority influences by providing wisdom and shared experiences to our planning for the younger generation. Malaysia is in the midst of formulating a National STEM Action Plan to strategize on growing and retaining STEM talents before and after 2020.

Furthermore, the National STI Master Plan is also in planning which will act as an overarching plan to synchronize all STI related policies in the nation. The Master Plan will cut across various ministries and move the initiatives forward coherently.

What are the countries with which Malaysia has stronger ties in terms of cooperation?

Malaysia has strong ties with United Kingdom and has partnered in several programmes. We also have good relations with National Academy of Sciences (USA) regarding the Responsible Conduct of Research module.

Other countries we have strong ties with are Sweden and Japan. Every year, we organise the National Science Challenge – secondary school teams nationwide participate. The champions of the competition, along with representatives from ASM, are given the opportunity to witness the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, thanks to the Nobel Foundation in Sweden.

Is there any initiative in science diplomacy in Malaysia?

Malaysia has leadership roles, which includes Fellows of ASM in several international organisations in which these organisations act as platforms for science diplomacy. Professor Khairul Anuar is the vice president of the Association of Academies and Societies of Science in Asia (AASSA). In the TWAS family, we have Professor Looi Lai Meng serving as an Executive Committee member of IAP for Health (IAMP); Professor Khatijah M. Yusoff, who is TWAS  vice president for East & Southeast Asia; and Dr. Lee Yee Cheong serving as a chairperson at IAP Science Education Programme. In addition, ASM is a host to two international offices: the Asia and Pacific Regional Office of International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Science, Technology & Innovation Centre (ISTIC). ASM also launched the Network of ASEAN Science Academies, soon to be established by the end of 2017. ASM has organised several international programmes that encourage science diplomacy such as the International Conference on Science for Peace in 2016.

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Who is Asma Ismail

A native from Kedah, Malaysia, Asma Ismail – a 2010 TWAS Fellow – holds a master's degree in microbiology from Indiana University (USA) and a PhD in cellular and molecular biology from University of Nevada-Reno (USA).

Among women scientists, Ismail is a pioneer: She is the first woman appointed as the vice-chancellor, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). She was formerly the first woman appointed as the director general of higher education, Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia (2014-16). She was also the first woman to be appointed as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia in 2012, making her the first woman to be appointed twice as vice-chancellor of public universities. She is also the first woman appointed as the president of Academy of Sciences Malaysia (2016-2019).  

Asma Ismail has provided contributions in medical microbiology and biotechnology, offering important insights to develop rapid diagnostics for infectious diseases. Her scientific discoveries led to the production of rapid diagnostic kits for typhoid fever.

For these and other achievements, she received an honorary doctor of science from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 2013. In July 2017, she will receive the honorary degree doctor from Keele University, United Kingdom.

The Academy of Sciences Malaysia

The Academy of Sciences Malaysia was established in 1994 through a parliamentary act. It aims to be the Malaysia's think tank for matters related to science, engineering, technology and innovation. Its role in the promotion of public understanding of science is equally important. Today, the Academy has 326 Fellows.

 

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