Surgeons operating on a patient. Unlike graduates in medicine and engineering, many with qualifications in fields such as environmental science, health science, social medicine and biochemistry backgrounds have been forced to go into banking, management and insurance to make a living. REUTERS PIC

IT is agreed that there is a lack of awareness and emphasis on the arts, including literature, languages, social sciences, and humanities, even though these courses provide the vital components needed to formulate sustainable policies, strengthen diplomatic ties and present our voice on global issues at international platforms.

During the broadcast of the Merdeka Award Roundtable Discussion in 2014, titled “Building Bridges: How the Arts and the Social Sciences Can Support National Goals”, the panelists acknowledged the “widening intellectual divide between the arts and the sciences”, and that “every science study must incorporate an element of social science” for a holistic outcome.

Graduates in the lesser-known fields of science also face similar predicament. Unlike graduates in medicine and engineering, many with qualifications in fields such as environmental science, health science, social medicine and biochemistry backgrounds have gone into banking, management and insurance to make a living.

One reason for this quandary, is that public universities offer courses that may not meet local market demand, compared with private universities, which offer programmes relevant to industrial needs. It is time that public universities ensured the courses they offer match market demand.

However, it is often debated whether we would sideline “unpopular” courses not in demand today, and design curriculums that produce marketable graduates. Then, what about the goals and visions of higher learning institutions to be the producers and curators of knowledge?

A decade ago, biotechnology was deemed the change-maker to propel our nation forward in research and development (R&D), in line with the 2005 National Biotechnology Policy. However, today, there is a surplus of biotechnology graduates. These graduates can be tapped to carry out R&D and be future policy implementers, if they are given adequate training and opportunities.

In the United States, for example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH, the primary agency of the US government responsible for biomedical and public health research) offers a wide range of career prospects and internships for graduates and post-graduates, including behavioural to social sciences, mathematical modeling, computational biology, epidemiology studies and global healthcare research. NIH also has user-friendly websites that provide a wealth of information on health issues that the global public can access.

In a similar context, we need to reflect on where our local institutes and research centres stand, including their capacity to absorb graduates for employment. Of late, a lot of emphasis is being given to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, which is undoubtedly crucial for the country’s growth and to prepare us for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

However, the implementation of STEM education in schools needs to take place in a fun- and inquiry-based environment. In 2014, the ratio of science to non-science students in schools was 47:53, which is far from our national target of 60:40.

According to the Academy of Sciences Malaysia’s Science Outlook report in 2015, one of the reasons for the declining interest in science and mathematics is “the ineffective teaching method, which is theoretical, textbook based and examination oriented”.

It is timely that both the government and private sectors take proactive measures to study the prospects of Arts and the lesser-known fields of Science, and create new openings for the graduates, instead of just focusing on market-driven academia. The challenge for the learning institutions is to strike a balance in offering courses that are market worthy without compromising its core mission to pursue research and contribute towards knowledge building.

Emphasis must be given to fundamental science and not applied science alone. New areas of research related to diverse cultures and traditions need to be explored. Our local stories which are unique and research worthy must be delved into in depth and shared with the world. Regional projects which have a significant and positive impact on society must be encouraged.

The integration of the Arts and Sciences will help us to understand our values, make our mark in the world, and excel without sacrificing humanity for a better tomorrow. Only then will we not miss the forest for the trees.

DR S. MATHANA AMARIS FIONA, Puchong, Selangor

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