Datuk Ir. (Dr.) Abdul Rahim bin Hashim has a strong passion for science and research. His background in electronics and electrical engineering describes his fascination with abstract thinking and imagination; in this discipline one cannot always see what is going on. Much is simply not visible. Hence, the need for a strong grasp of fundamental concepts, the ability to think openly and abstractly, and apply nonlinear math and partial differential equations in solving problems helped create the challenge that he always thrives on.
Datuk Rahim joined Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS) as an Engineer in 1976 and devoted the next 32 years of his career in helping grow PETRONAS into the giant it is today. His illustrious career also saw him steer two prestigious universities in Malaysia; he was appointed as the 3rd Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Petronas and subsequently as the 12th Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya, the nation’s premier research University. Datuk Rahim’s appointment as MIGHT’s Joint-Chairman (Government) in 2019 comes as no surprise, a role befitting his expertise, knowledge and vast experience.
This edition of myForesight® is proud to feature his insights and wisdom on the importance of research, innovation and collaboration.
Flipping the script: Channelling connection & collaboration into purpose driven high-tech action
Collaborations are pivotal for research universities and research institutes. Are we doing well in this space?
In the early years, research did not have much traction within the ecosystem of our local universities. Looking back some 15 years, the emphasis of local universities was primarily on teaching and learning. It was not until early 2000s, when research rapidly gained ground across universities and this fundamental shift was evident in the period 2006 – 2007. By 2010, five local universities gained recognition as
research universities. This development although somewhat recent, displays a clear commitment on the part of local universities to champion research as a central part of its mission.
In contrast, research institutions in Malaysia such as the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) and the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM), now renamed the Malaysian Rubber Board have had a long history in R&D. RRIM for instance made headway for the rubber industry by producing a number of
impressive innovations including the Malaysian standards for rubber and rubber products. Another shining example is in the increase in production of value-added rubbers locally; RRIM together with the Tun Abdul Razak Research Centre in the United Kingdom developed new rubbers such as epoxidised natural rubber (ENR), deproteinised natural rubber (DPNR) and thermoplastic natural rubber (TPNR)
which revolutionised heavy duty engineering including earthquake isolators. Equally, medical research through IMR and palm oil research through the Malaysian Palm Oil Board also had its heydays.
Indeed, we are proud of the many tech blockbuster collaborations and discoveries by our research universities and research institutions; whether undertaken individually or by collective action. But are these institutions collaborating enough to garner scientific knowledge in solving complex social, environmental and economic challenges? Whilst pioneering mold-breaking discoveries are to be commended, a greater flow of ideas and research collaborations across institutions is imperative to reinvigorate our R&D activities and contribute towards the upward trajectory in translational
Perhaps it is time to pause and reset our collaborative approaches; this measure will not only strengthen our research and innovation ecosystem but will ultimately serve our nation and provide greater impact to society as a whole.
What would be the role of research universities considering today’s rapid social, economic and technological change, and why?
‘Change’ has been the buzz-word this year. The COVID19 pandemic took the world by surprise. Its profound effect has brought about unprecedented challenges requiring creative responses more now than ever before. For research universities, the key to coping during this, or any time of upheaval is to quickly establish alternative approaches and embark on critical R&D activities to support the social, economic and technological changes. All endeavours of research universities, be it research or teaching and learning will require change; we need to pandemic-proof our routines into targeted and effective responses. Creative approaches to industrial R&D can galvanise our high-tech industry.
Take for example the global demand for oil palm and the notion of producing hybridized oil palm trees in the country. Oil palm production can be transformed into a much more significant economic sector. We are already ahead in the advancement of technology to extract palm oil, but the physical work on the field requires creative solutions. Harvesting oil palm from hybridized trees can reduce time spent in searching for and collecting scattered loose fruits and minimise uncollected scattered fruits. For
the longest time, there has been no concerted attempt to champion this cause in a holistic manner. Instead, research and solutions have for the most part only addressed pockets of issues. Our research universities need to be equipped for this challenge.
We are already ahead in the advancement of technology to extract palm oil, but the
physical work on the field requires creative solutions.
What does it take for Malaysia’s oil palm industry to remain competitive in the regional and global market? Reliance on individual players in the market and the establishment of private labs may have limitations in fostering innovation. Research universities certainly play a key role here. The convergence of scientific knowledge and collective wisdom of the academic community is likely to shape the nation’
response to the many social, economic and technological changes that we are confronted with today. In this context, the role of research universities in R&D activities around the much-needed vaccine against COVID19 is worth exploring. Were our research universities in a position to play a greater role in advancing this vaccine? Given possible constraints, individually this may have been a challenge but at the National level, this could have been attempted through strategic partnerships with our research universities and industry.
Beyond academic papers, how does research inculcate a scientific literate society?
Quite simply, beyond publications, research inculcates scientific literacy which helps society in making rational and informed decisions. Research and innovation can also reduce our dependency on other industries and this can have a strong impact on our import volume and the diversity of our products. Agriculture for example is one of our strengths. However, we need to keep abreast with the latest technology and practices to maximise output, outcomes and impact. Not everything will work for us. We need to experiment with emerging trends; should we explore vertical harvesting or perhaps try harvesting out of a warehouse?
In tandem with this approach, it is crucial that our research universities and research institutes are equipped to mobilise critical pilot projects and innovative approaches which may help determine flagship products.
In terms of developing our youth in becoming scientifically literate, our education needs to be balanced and well suited to their future needs. It is no longer about choosing between arts or science courses. It is also not about the technical side of technology. What remains paramount is having a curious mind, the ability to think critically and creatively, ask the right questions, interact and communicate effectively. If we can address this, we will produce a sufficient pipeline of bright minds that can surmount challenges that come their way; and the answers might not even be science-based solutions.
There are obviously a lot of dots that we need to connect. Connecting and collaborating is no longer an option. We need to ensure that we have a clear end-goal in mind. We cannot solve issues in a holistic manner by merely addressing specific areas of research.
As an early step, our government, research universities, research institutions and industries will need to coordinate and synthesize research to build a comprehensive focus on the economic threats posed by emerging new realities. Ultimately, this can help us to translate research into robust guidelines that fully balance economic, and social risks and rewards. This would also inject accountability and transparency into vital decisions that often do not receive the input they deserve. Our research universities and research institutes should leverage on their expertise in shaping best practices for our high-tech industry in ensuring optimised economic outcomes. All said and done, we are in dire need of a coherent national research strategy and guidance from the relevant authorities, without which, we could be left scrambling for impactful execution and outcomes.
Not everything will work for us. We need to experiment with emerging trends; should we explore vertical harvesting or perhaps try harvesting out of a warehouse?