Boosting a two-way link in research

ENERGY, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin recently voiced her concerns on the lack of researchers working in the industry.

She said that research and development (R&D) in the country focuses on academic research but the outcome is not utilised in related industries.

As such, this has deterred the development of advanced technologies and products.

It was reported in the New Straits Times that some 78 per cent of the country’s full-time researchers work at universities while only 12.3 per cent work in the industry.

Yeo added that the country has to work towards the direction where R&D will no longer be limited to academia but also through collaboration with the industry.

The ministry will be allocating at least 50 per cent of research and development funds to experimental research next year.

“The government wants to create an ecosystem that encourages industries to thrive and allows talents to grow.”

Last year, 70.5 per cent of R&D expenditure was spent on applied research, with only 8.6 per cent allocated to experimental research.

“If we have an ecosystem supportive of new technologies, which allow industries to develop quickly in this fast-changing world, we will be able to overcome the challenges we face in this disruptive world.”


Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor (UKM) (research affairs and innovation) Professor Dr Mohd Ekhwan Toriman said researchers excel at university because passion for research inspires students.

Mohd Ekhwan said universities allow researchers to be independent and explore transdisciplinary research compared to those working at companies where the work scope is limited.

“Working at the university exposes researchers to the latest research and technology revealed at international conferences and facilitates networking with researchers from other tertiary institutions.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor (UKM) (research affairs and innovation) Professor Dr Mohd Ekhwan Toriman.

“There is no requirement for researchers at companies to attend international conferences, thus limiting their opportunity for networking,” he added.

Furthermore, he said researchers at the university share their findings and latest discoveries with students.

“Most universities provide researchers with facilities to carry out their work. They benefit from grants and incentives to conduct their research independently.”

University of Malaya (UM) deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Dr Noorsaadah Abd Rahman said researchers at the university do research to generate new knowledge that will push, not only the boundary of knowledge but also create new technology.

She said those working in the industry usually focus on experimental development research such as optimisation and scaling up research.

The industry should commercialise the output from university research.

“Researchers at both the university and industry are equally important. Good collaboration between the two boosts the flow of information between them.”

University of Malaya (UM) deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Dr Noorsaadah Abd Rahman.


UKM’s Institute of Systems Biology senior research fellow Dr Mohd Firdaus Raih said academic research has multiple aims which are usually long-term. Research into fundamental areas of science and translating findings into useful technology take time.

He added that such types of research are not sustainable in the private sector due to the need to serve the balance sheet and investors, especially so in Malaysia.

“Academic research provides technologically-and research competent-manpower for the private sector. In Malaysia, R&D is university-centric because the capacity to carry out research has not been present in the private sector and as such it is common to associate research with universities and not the private sector.

“This is slowly changing but we need catalysts and incentives to hasten the progress. We can overcome this by creating a conducive R&D ecosystem and providing incentives for both sides.”

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Systems Biology senior research fellow Dr Mohd Firdaus Raih

Noorsaadah said to move the output from academic research to the industry requires different skills and large investment.

For example, in science and technology, academic research tends to be small scale to test a hypothesis and/or prove a concept.

“Once this is achieved, research needs to be carried out to upscale the output. In advanced nations such as the United States and Japan, this type of research known as experimental development research is usually carried out by and at the industry.

“In Malaysia, our small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are not ready for such research or do not have enough funds to invest in such research and convert academic research output into a viable product in the industry.

“In addition, SMEs here do not have enough human capacity skilled enough to do the specialised research required for optimisation and/or up-scaling in experimental development research.”


Researchers at both the university and industry are equally important. Picture courtesy UM Corporate Communication Unit

There is a necessity for an ecosystem that encourages industries to thrive and allow talents to grow. The ecosystem should also support new technologies, which allow industries to develop quickly in this fast-changing world.

Mohd Ekhwan said the industry needs the mirror lab at UKM so that research elements can be felt by industry researchers.

“They need to conduct research at university on rotation to maintain a research culture and carry out impact assessments,” he added.

Mirror lab is a collaboration between universities and the industry, without the need for the latter to develop its own facilities.

At UKM, the Centre for Collaborative Innovation was set up as the driving force in the innovation ecosystem. UKM intellectual property, technology transfer and commercialisation are managed by the centre, which also promotes the culture of innovation and the transfer of UKM-developed technology for the benefit of society.

“It also generates unrestricted income to support research and education, and develop new enterprises from research and technological innovation and create value or multiplier effect in the economy.”

Mohd Firdaus added that talent growth needs to come first before the industry can thrive, thus creating an ecosystem that is able to capitalise on the available capacity.

“In Malaysia, we have a very limited post-doctoral training system. In the West, Australia, Japan and Korea, many doctoral graduates go on to take up post-doctoral positions for three to five years.

“This is perhaps when they are at peak performance capacity of their research careers. After this post-doctoral research stint, they take up faculty posts at university or appointments with more leadership and management responsibilities.

“However, this is not the case here. Doctoral graduates at their peak are in management or faculty positions with responsibilities not related to research. This is what we need to address.”

Noorsaadah said fostering collaborative projects between universities and the industry is a good way to encourage a thriving research ecosystem in the latter.

One way to drive research in the industry is to have it set up laboratories on campus.

“This will enable an easier flow of research output between the university and the industry. In addition, graduate students should be encouraged to spend time doing research in the industry, especially if the work is connected with industrial output.

“The then Higher Education Ministry initiated the ‘industrial PhD’ programme where doctoral candidates did research in the industry, working on an area related to the industry.

“Research culture and activities in the industry thrived under the initiative. In the United Kingdom’s Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science and Technology programme, industries and businesses take the lead in arranging projects with an academic partner of their choice and provide studentship or fellowship to doctoral candidates to carry out research.”

Mohd Firdaus added that universities and the industry should be allocated funds and given incentives to nurture a post-doctoral training ecosystem.

“But ideally, we want some of them to also form up start-up companies in high-technology domains such as telecommunications, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“Such start-ups usually remain not too far off from their intellectual birthplace. For example, innovation hotbeds such as Silicon Valley, Bay Area in San Francisco and Oxford-Cambridge in England are areas in close proximity to some of the world’s top universities.”

In Malaysia, there is such a corridor which extends from Petaling Jaya to Bangi/Serdang and on to Nilai.

“If companies are interested in having their R&D situated along this corridor, there may be advantages. In such a situation, the benefits go both ways. The start-up can benefit from the infrastructure available on campus while the university has an avenue for making its research benefit the people through the commercialisation of technology.”


Noorsaadah said: “At UM, we encourage researchers to carry out contract research and consultancy work for the industry to add value to products in addition to incorporating newer technology.

“The industry, particularly SMEs, and the university need to learn to trust each other and be more open.

“Then we can better work together and allow easy access and sharing of talents as well as facilities.”

Mohd Ekhwan said the benefits of university-industry collaboration for skills development (education and training, innovation and technology transfer) and the promotion of entrepreneurship (start-ups and spin-offs) that can benefit researchers should be highlighted.

“We should provide more flexibility in university-industry partnerships by considering formal and informal collaborations. Formal arrangements include equity partnerships, contracts, research projects and patent licensing while informal partnerships include human capital mobility, publications and interactions at conferences and expert groups.

“Offer the flexibility of short- or long-term collaboration, thus encouraging researchers to define their preference,” he added.

“Another way to have more researchers in the private sector is to privatise research. For example, universities have facilitated their R&D to be commercialised as start-up companies.

“But some research at universities and government institutes can also be privatised. Once privatised, the companies must be in the business of research, not the business of making profits,” said Mohd Firdaus.

Public sector laboratories that are privatised must be allowed the independence to operate as a private company without interference from their original parent agency. They can hire outside of the civil service system and operate outside of government regulations.

“This has advantages because the companies can hire the right people and pay competitive salaries. By operating outside of the government bureaucracy, for example, purchases can be made fast and simple ­— even buying equipment on eBay if appropriate.

By Zulita Mustafa.

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