“The world needs science, and science needs women.”
This statement was made by H.E. Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) during her address to the 3rd Biennial Conference on Women in Science, Technology and Innovation two weeks ago.
Her message of women’s role in science was loud and clear, and set the stage for the conference.
Organised by the International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC) under the auspices of UNESCO and under the purview of our Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), this conference invited accomplished women to share their successful innovative solutions in alleviating problems faced by women globally.
Ada Yonath, an extraordinary scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009, in an interview said,
“Women make up half the population. I think the world is losing half the human brain power by not encouraging women to go into the sciences.”
Historically, many women have made significant scientific contributions.
A very notable scientist is Marie Curie, born in 1867, a Polish and naturalised French. Under very challenging conditions, together with her husband they studied the phenomenon of radioactivity.
They also discovered two radioactive elements, polonium and radium.
Radioactive compounds then became important sources of radiation in scientific research and medicine, especially in treating tumours.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 along with two others, and a second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in Chemistry. So not only she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she was also the first person to win twice!
It is said that it was not the original plan to include Marie Curie as part of the Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 winners. Thanks to the intervention of Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, a Swedish mathematician who was an advocate of women’s rights and a member of the Nobel Prize committee then, Marie Curie’s work was eventually acknowledged through the Nobel Prize, along with her husband.
We are blessed that in Malaysia, women in the field of science, technology and innovation are generally faring well.
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that around the globe, women account for a minority of the world’s researchers at less than 30 per cent.
According to the National Survey of Research and Development (R&D) Malaysia 2015, 48.8 per cent of the total number of 84,516 researchers are women. They are from higher learning institutes, business enterprises, and government agencies and research institutes.
At MOSTI we are proud to have Prof Datuk Asma Ismail as the fifth Academy of Sciences Malaysia president for a three-year term until 2019.
She is well-known for her specialisation in proteomics (large-scale study of proteins) and its application in efficiently diagnosing infectious diseases. She is credited for bringing her discoveries from lab to the shelves by commercialising rapid diagnostic kits for typhoid and exporting them to over 18 countries since 1994.
Prof Asma’s appointment as the first woman president of the Academy is noteworthy as few national academies of sciences in the world have a woman president in a short history of just over 20 years.
We certainly look forward to her leadership in promoting women’s involvement in the sciences.
Professor Datin Paduka Dr Khatijah Mohamad Yusoff is another acclaimed academician and scientist in virology. She is a 2015 Merdeka Award recipient for “Health, Science and Technology” for her contribution in understanding fatal viruses in poultry, and the potential of virus in treating cancer.
During her five-year stint as Deputy Secretary-General of MOSTI she anchored several science, technology and innovation policies and councils to strengthen its governance and help drive emerging scientific areas.
The general idea of advancing women in the workforce and in leadership position is that it benefits both men and women. For one, more women in the country’s workforce translate to increased contribution to our gross domestic product.
We have made significant progress in terms of Female Labour Force Participation Rate. Prior to 2010, for every 100 women of the working age, less than 48 were in the workforce. In 2015 this percentage increased to 54.1.
However this rate typically exceeds 60 per cent in the developed world.
Besides adding value to the economy, increased representation of women in science, technology and innovation can save lives.
The idea of “Gendered Innovations” started at Stanford University in 2009. It warns that “research is often marked by a gender bias that is harmful”.
For example, research in heart disease is over-reliant on reference models that consider males as the norm. In the research for osteoporosis, healthy young white women’s bone mineral density has been used to develop diagnostic models for women and less so for men.
The integration of the gender dimension is now required by the European Commission to achieve research excellence and a requirement to compete for funds from Horizon 2020, the largest EU Research and Innovation programme to date with almost €80 billion of grants available from 2014 to 2020.
Such is their commitment to improving gender and sex representation in scientific research, and to be more inclusive in their innovations.
I am also supportive of initiatives by non-governmental organisations such as Girls In Tech to help empower girls and women who are passionate about technology.
Girls In Tech is headquartered in San Francisco with 50,000 members around the globe. At a Girls In Tech Malaysia event I was shown some very creative products by women technopreneurs. I was happy to share about MOSTI’s programmes and facilities that could support them.
As we celebrate women’s significant contribution in the Malaysian workforce thus far and specifically in science, technology and innovation, we need to continue all the good efforts in encouraging female’s participation at work such as policies by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, and programmes by TalentCorp.
As robots gradually take over laborious, grunt work that requires minimal education level and social skills, human characteristics such as love, compassion and face-to-face communication where women typically excel in would be increasingly invaluable at work.
The world needs science, and science needs women. This is the era of women.
Wilfred Madius Tangau.