Standing Up for Science

Some six hundred rallies were held last weekend in the United States and around the globe. Scientists stepped out of their comfort zones of labs and classrooms, thrusting themselves into a whirlwind of “political but not partisan” foray.

 

At the main March for Science venue in Washington, demonstrators were reported to be protesting against U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to slash 18 per cent of funding from the National Institutes of Health and 31 per cent from the Environmental Protection Agency.

 

The President is infamously known to have discredited climate change as a hoax, vowing to exit from the Paris accord – a legally binding climate agreement adopted by 195 countries in December 2015 – to “bring jobs back to America”.

 

America was a strong advocate of the agreement during President Barack Obama’s administration.

 

The agreement calls for governments to commit financial, technological and capacity building plans to “keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degree Celsius”.

 

Malaysia is also committed to ratifying the Paris Agreement. We have pledged to reduce our greenhouse emissions by 45 per cent by 2030.

 

Back at Washington’s National Mall on Earth Day, protesters were railing against their current policymakers for dismissing carbon dioxide as the primary contributor to global warming, a view protesters claimed to contradict decades of scientific findings.

The crowds were essentially marching to campaign for science and evidence-based policies.

In Malaysia we have been a championing science, technology and innovation (STI) for policy. Tan Sri Omar Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, in his book The Essentials of Science Technology and Innovation Policy, said that STI must be for socio-economic development based on the Economic Transformation Programme, which forms the basis of our national polices. Only then we can escape the middle income trap.

 

He cited the example of government’s emphasis in the research and development (R&D) infrastructure of rubber and palm oil industries, allowing Malaysia to remain as a competitive global player.

 

The palm oil and rubber industries are expected to contribute RM 178 billion and RM 230.9 billion to Gross National Income (GNI) respectively in three years’ time. For palm oil especially, we want to greatly enhance the downstream sector through the increased production of high value oleo derivatives, new generation of bio-fuels and palm oil-based food and health products. This can only be achieved via R&D.

 

In the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, like the policymaking process in Malaysia in general, we strive to consult as many relevant stakeholders as possible, ensuring well-researched, evidence-based blueprints. Our policies are considered as an “enabler” rather than a niche issue of its own.

 

The Technology Roadmap for Cyberspace Security for example was to support Malaysia in using Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for socio-economic development. It called for more R&D to protect our everyday cyberspace such as communication and e-commerce, as well as critical infrastructures like power grids, air traffic control, financial systems and for defence.

 

To accommodate the emerging application of Internet of Things (IoT), we formulated a National IoT Strategic Roadmap and set up a steering committee to ensure that Malaysia remains at the forefront of connectivity.

 

The National Biotechnology Policy launched in 2005 looked into the aspects of health, economic and social well-being. This policy would be due in three years’ time. In drawing up a new roadmap, besides expanding our role from merely encompassing biotechnology to the entire bioeconomy, we would also take sustainability into account, such as in energy and food security, as part of our effort in reducing carbon footprint.

 

These show that our policies are dynamic and scientific.

 

However, in moving forward, we want to encourage more open, scientific discourses not only just among the scientific community but among the public. The effective communication of complex, technical science such as on genetically modified organism, embryonic gene editing, stem cells and nuclear energy to the man in the street should be a must-have skill for each scientist.

 

There are many initiatives in science outreach but they can be more impactful if our efforts are coordinated. Ultimately each scientist should be professionally trained in science communication.

 

Our government has also showed seriousness in implementing evidence-based policies. The National Science Council was set up two years ago to allow for Prime Minister, Ministers and the industry to deliberate and decide on solving national issues through STI.

 

The appointment of the current Science Advisor to Prime Minister Prof. Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, a distinguished scientist in biodiversity, is another testament of our policymakers’ earnest interest in science.

 

I have also initiated regular meetings with state executive council members who are in-charge of STI to strengthen state and federal governance.

 

Even in the charting of a new policy, the 2050 National Transformation, “Technology and Connectivity” have been identified as one of the five pillars of our future.

 

That saying, to raise the science literacy of Malaysians, we need to revolutionise science education beginning from the young. MOSTI is working with several schools in the country to promote Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE) pedagogy in science lessons.

 

Last Thursday, I led a delegation of MOSTI officials to SK Bandar Tasik Kesuma in Beranang, Selangor, to observe the IBSE approach first hand. We joined the lively science classes of Standard One to Three where pupils were given hands-on materials to learn the subject. They were constantly interacting with each other and their teachers.

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Outdoor activities complemented classroom lessons. You could see the children’s excitement when they were brought to the school’s mini garden. Their teacher encouraged them to engage all five senses to learn about their world. This hands-on science teaching had certainly piqued the students’ curiosity in learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

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We must nurture a scientific culture beginning from the very young. A society with high science literacy would then appreciate the benefits of STI for their well-being and the environment. While the government has to be balanced in imposing new regulations as backed by well-researched science, the nation has to recognise the long term gains that come with these changes.

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