THIS year counts as the most challenging year for research and development in the fields of science and technology. The year saw substantial cuts in the budget for R&D. This has never happened before. Some put the cut at close to 70 per cent.
It was definitely a painful year for the R&D community. The research universities were especially affected, not only by the drastic curtailment in R&D activities, but also by the cuts in funding for their contract research professors.
Since R&D is an investment for the long term, such drastic reduction in the financial allocation coupled with the ill-advised termination of the country’s key R&D talent, will have negative implications on the nation’s resolve to use science and technology as the strategic weapon to prop up the nation’s competitiveness.
Many are hoping for a reversal of the cuts in the 2017 Budget, to be tabled by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak tomorrow.
Actually, many among the science community were taken by surprise by the almost insane cuts in R&D funding this year. This is because the government has always emphasised that investment in R&D is strategic for the nation.
This is especially crucial at a time when we want to use technology as the platform to spearhead our aspiration to become a fully developed economy.
The fact that technology supremacy breeds competitiveness and prosperity has been demonstrated many a time, not only among the many developed economies, but more so by the top businesses of the world. It would be a serious mistake if we as a country do not recognise this fact.
We are fortunate that the prime minister is a strong believer in the power of science and R&D.
We see clear evidence of this in the many science driven initiatives he has taken. One prominent action was the establishment of the Global Science Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC).
A major outcome of GSIAC is the renewed vigour on STEM education. This is the education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics which is extremely crucial in charting the nation’s future in science.
A recent talk by a prominent futurist from the United Kingdom held at the Academy of Sciences highlighted the importance of science and technology in securing future opportunities in the global economy.
The drastic cuts in R&D this year can set the nation back by many years. All the hard work that was making good progress was suddenly stalled and it will be more expensive to restart the whole process.
A good example concerned the funding that was allocated for high-impact research hosted by Universiti Malaya.
Yes, there were criticisms about the poor coordination. But this could have been remedied. Closing the entire programme altogether is even more damaging.
We cannot afford to slow down the progress of science, and in particular its R&D investment, if we are to achieve our dreams as enshrined in our New Economy Policy of high income with sustainability and inclusiveness.
In this respect, we can look for guidance from countries which has reaped the benefits of their long-term commitment to R&D spending.
I am referring to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and the Scandinavian nations. Records have shown that all these countries would not slash their R&D allocations even during times of grave economic difficulties.
This largely explains why these countries have scored envious success in their pursuit of technology development and innovation.
Furthermore, we have yet to reach the international benchmark of R&D spending of three per cent of GDP annually.
So far, our R&D spending has not even breached the one per cent GDP barrier.
Reducing the allocation for R&D did serious injustice to the momentum we have created all these years. We must also be reminded of the fact that the spending in R&D caters for two important target objectives — developing innovation and building scientific talent.
Therefore, under 2017 Budget, the science fraternity would like to appeal to the government to not only reinstate the R&D allocation according to the formula of preceding years, but also allocate more. It is in our long-term interest.
Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is a Fellow at Academy of Sciences Malaysia