IN the world of science and technology, the first half of 2019 has marked a number of milestones and triumphs. In biomedical research, progress being made in gene editing and immuno-therapeutics has not shown any signs of slowing down despite the controversy associated with gene editing. Years of research are now bearing fruit as these technologies begin to find practical applications in treating human diseases, or are being used to further the research capability.
In April, just days apart from each other, we were presented with the first photographic image of a black hole and the first commercial mission for the aerospace company SpaceX using its Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.
Unsurprisingly, the image of the black hole was just that, a black focal point, surrounded by an orange glow - and it was a fuzzy out of focus image at that. So what’s the big deal?
In order to better appreciate that achievement, we need to imagine being able to discern a black spot in a black background; add to that the fact that the spot is millions of light years away — a distance that the majority of us, including me, will have difficulty coming to grips with.
The existence of black holes have long been theorised by many famous physicists including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
The first photographic evidence of a black hole was provided by a team that had been working on the problem for well over a decade. Snapping a picture of a black hole in deep space needs a very large telescope named the Event Horizon telescope (EHT). What the team had done was to use the Earth itself as a giant telescope by placing eight receivers across the world to collect data.
The signals received by the EHT were then computationally processed to render the image presented to the public — quite an ingenious solution to the problem.
The success of SpaceX’s first commercial mission using its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle is clearly paving the way for more routine, safer and cheaper space flights.
For those who have never heard of SpaceX, it is a company with the distinction of being the first private enterprise to launch a liquid fuelled rocket into orbit, a capability that used to be only the domain of government space agencies.
Not many may know it, or may have perhaps forgotten that Malaysia and SpaceX has a historical connection.
SpaceX’s first ever commercial mission was none other than the Malaysian Earth observation satellite RazakSAT. Although that particular mission did not quite go as planned, the SpaceX rocket’s launch went about as well as could be expected when one is launching tonnes of explosive flammable materials off into space.
We can all probably agree that although the black hole photograph was quite a feat, we might be left wondering as to what the point of it all was.
Being able to capture a fuzzy picture of glowing gas being trapped by the intense gravity of a black hole at such an unimaginable distance away does not seem to make our lives any better.
This is where we need to understand that much of the knowledge and technology that we have today were serendipitous outcomes of research.
However, that does not mean that scientists are just aimlessly exploring without direction. It simply means that research directed at understanding something else, may have applications in other areas or that was not its originally intended use.
For example, the microwave ovens found in millions of kitchens was an unintended application that came out of research into radar.
So what about the black hole research? Well, the wireless connectivity that we refer to as WiFi actually came out of research in the field of radio astronomy, the same research area that provided evidence of the black hole’s existence.
A few years down the road, that same technology used to image a black hole may find utility in other areas that seems to be totally disconnected such as imaging of diseased cells for cancer diagnosis.
Progress and leadership in science and technology require a pioneering spirit and the courage to venture into the unknown. As a nation, we have not really made many headlines in the pioneering of things, much more so in science and technology. I am sure there are some, perhaps even many, who may disagree when I say that Malaysia has not had much success in science and technology.
After all, it is an acknowledged fact that Malaysian scientists and academics are among the most prolific at publishing academic papers in the region. But if Malaysian academics are publishing so many scientific research papers, why are we not seeing much success being reported in the world’s news headlines?
Let me first clarify that what I term as success are not achievements such as the number of papers being published, the number of patents being filed, awards or medals being won in expos, or even seemingly triumphant news of cures for a particular disease that are reported in our local media. In some cases, there are also claims of innovation that are unrecognised by many others, or even a success that involves a Malaysian expert but working in a foreign institution.
The success that I am referring to will only come about by focusing on high quality research. To focus on research quality, we have to dig deep and be willing to venture into research that will end up in textbooks, or even rewrite the textbooks. This in turn requires commitment not only from the scientists, but also from the funding agencies.
Developing short-term solutions to solve problems is acceptable and necessary. But we must also consider long-term goals and have the courage to explore the unknown that lie beyond the frontiers of existing knowledge.
This is where the funding agencies need to also play an important role in funding research that answer fundamental questions, but may not necessarily have obvious or any foreseeable applications other than to enrich our understanding of the universe around us.
The scientific output must therefore also be valued under such light — such as the impact it has made in the field and the depth it has achieved. The powers that be must also allow for revolutionary means of assessing research impact that is not dictated by currently used indicators only. We should not target numbers that gives us an illusion of progress but in actuality has stalled us as the rest of the world leaps forward.
We should aspire to celebrate science and technology that sparks excitement and that can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to continue the progress made by standing on the shoulders of giants.
It is high time that we start the process to nurture these giants in order to ensure our future relevance and survival in a global economy driven by knowledge and constant revolution.
The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist at the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Email him at [email protected]