By Murray Hunter
Malaysia is spending about 5.9% of GDP on education and 1.13% of GDP on research and development. However as at 2014, no Malaysian universities have made the top 100 of the THES global or Asian university rankings, or QS World University Rankings. This is in great contrast to universities with a similar start-up time frame in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India, and even Saudi Arabia, making the top 100 in the Asian rankings over the last few years.
Although Malaysia's ranking is high (33rd place) in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) world innovation index in 2014, the level of resident patent applications and grants is still relatively low, being ranked 44th. Patent applications have grown from 218 applications in 1999, to 1,199 in 2013, with only 39 granted in 1999, growing to 288 patent grants in 2013. When considering that 10% of these applications have been made by only 10 companies in Malaysia, there is still a long way to go for Malaysian university research to have the impact that some feel within Malaysian Government circles is due.
Malaysian university researchers, according to a Malaysian Government bibliometric study in 2012, recorded an output of 29,815 papers, although these figures may have gone up since then. This placed Malaysia in 45th position in the world, but only 50th based on citations, which is a good guide to the usefulness of knowledge presented. In terms of the research impact measured by citations per paper, Malaysia only ranked 136. This is in contrast to Singapore, Thailand, and Taiwan, which were ranked 46, 75, and 84th respectively. Even papers produced in Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia had greater citation rates per paper than Malaysia.
There are a number of probable reasons contributing to this poor performance.
The first reason stems from the organizational structure of the Malaysian research community itself. Research has been organized into clusters with top-down priorities formulated by 'unknown sources' within particular ministries. These priorities are not always in line with market or community needs. Most often, like the biotechnology plan, the lead time to create commercial and bankable projects is too long. A Government corporation like the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation, controlled by bureaucrats is put in charge, where market needs often don't make sense to the administrators. Projects are often kept in the hands of these corporations rather than commercialized, just to show the bureaucrats are doing their jobs.
Malaysian research is hindered by a lot of unnecessary costs, and bureaucracy. Although agencies like the corridor authorities were set up with the view to decentralizing research and development, most initiatives are still top down and controlled by bureaucracy. These authorities are notorious in not talking to local community groups and develop strategies like paddy estates that local communities cannot accept, thus becoming 'white elephants'. In more sinister terms, many of these research and development projects turn over community assets to government linked companies (GLCs), with little or any community benefit.
The second major problem is the nature of Malaysian academia itself. Research is a prerequisite to promotion within the Malaysian University system. This requires academics producing papers to apply for senior faculty positions. In some of the newer Malaysian universities, entering prototypes and products into technology and invention exhibitions is a way around producing papers. Consequently, a large proportion of research funds go into making up promotion materials, travel, and accommodation, rather than actual research. Having a research grant is seen by many researchers as a means to travel, be it to an exhibition or conference in some exotic part of the world.
As a consequence, much university research output has little community or market relevance. The paper or prototype was produced to achieve a publishing KPI, or gain a medal at any of the international exhibitions around the world. Paradoxically, Malaysian researchers are travelling the world, but actually producing little, if any output of any commercial nature, even with the awards they are winning.
Many researchers with the above objectives in mind tend to work in isolation to industry and the community. Unlike Thailand, universities in Malaysia don't have the same need to outreach to the community, so there are very few research projects undertaken within local communities. There is also very little collaboration with industry. This is probably not the complete fault of the researchers as industry in Malaysia, tends to be still unsophisticated when it comes to university collaboration.
As a consequence. very few production prototypes ever get scaled up to commercial production. Even if there are willing parties, university bureaucracies often stall efforts to commercialize research with high financial demands, and lack of time due to other responsibilities like teaching by the researchers.
Many complex areas of research today, say in biotechnology, require teams of specialists to make specific disciplinary contributions to research. However, although in Malaysia we see many papers with multiple authors, most of them passengers. Deans, Vice Chancellors, or senior members of faculty are often put into paper authorships to carry favor for promotional purposes.
Malaysian universities have tended to put emphasis on producing large quantities of papers, rather than quality. Many academics are practicing 'checkbook academia' by paying to place articles in journals that can publish them within a month or so from submission. The quantity of paper output rather than academic weight is the prime KPI of Malaysian universities today.
In addition, many of the papers produced originate from the work of students, who may or may not have their name on the paper as co-author. The author has witnessed the ludicrous situation where many a Malaysian academic delivers a paper at a conference, but is unable to answer questions from the floor during question time. Some Malaysian academics are producing over 30 papers per year from this method.
Malaysian academics are very hesitant to take up alternative methods of research, such as ethnography and narrative in the social sciences. This is a symptom of a general will to innovate in the area of research. The preferred route is a safe one where other research tends to be duplicated within a Malaysian context. So, in an engineering conference or invention expo, one will tend to see lots of solar panel concepts that have been revamped into new contexts, as an attempt to be novel.
Malaysian academics tend to follow local leads. If for example, Balanced Scorecard is popular at a particular university, then one will see a number of faculty members doing their PhD thesis on Balanced Scorecard.
Innovation is desperately needed in Malaysian university research, but the panels who vet research grants tend to be bitterly conservative and penalize any academic who tries to be innovative.
Malaysia needs to look at what China is doing with university research. It is quickly becoming a powerhouse, looking at contemporary problems and issues with strong research teams. The language barrier is being broken with good editors employed to work up papers to international standard.
Malaysian university research needs a paradigm change. Instead of following national agendas instituted by bureaucrats, bottom-up thinking needs to be appreciated and accepted. Most technologies already exist, and don't need to be re-invented. What is needed is applying these technologies to community and industrial problems that exist outside local universities.
Citations to research need reward rather than the production is raw papers. A realization is needed that patenting concepts and products that have no commercial value is a futile pursuit, although it fulfills a university KPI.
Grant panels need to practice meritocracy, and grant fund to the most innovative rather than conservative.
Although overall research output is increasing from universities within Malaysia, emphasis must now be put on producing quality research, if Malaysia is not to continually fall behind its other ASEAN neighbors.
Why Malaysian university research still has a long way to go
By Murray Hunter