IN the Malaysia innovation ecosystem, research universities can be the key connector to the community, business, government and universities, in the sense of creativity flow via seven key points — training skilled graduates and competent workforce; producing novel research output; educating the public; gathering the right-minded people; creating opportunities; addressing national and global priority areas; and predicting future prospects.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) Professor Dr Ahmad Fauzi Ismail said the vision of the establishment of the research university in the country is to actively participate in new adventures of ideas and experiments with innovative methods.
“Researchers should take intellectual initiatives to further discover and expand the frontiers of knowledge.
“The mission is to be the engine of growth for the nation where scholars and students exchange ideas and conduct research in a conducive environment.
“This will further nurture exploration and creativity to discover knowledge, create wealth, and lead towards an improved quality of life,” said Ahmad Fauzi.
As UTM is part of the ecosystem, it — directly and indirectly — works towards innovation.
“Directly” means universities contribute in terms of product commercialisation, patent filing and research output (knowledge) whereas “indirectly” means they offer capacity-building (postgraduate holders and students as consultants to the government), and attracting big names to the country with their reputation.
Ahmad Fauzi believes that UTM needs to be the leader in innovation through research — both pure and applied research need an equal foothold.
“Pure science research is normally known as fundamental research whereas applied research is about utilising fundamental knowledge to solve problems.
“In laser technology, for example, ‘pure’ means understanding the emissions of lasers and how they interact with other matter. ‘Applied’ means using a laser to map caves and create a 3D model.
“Another example is E. coli where ‘pure’ is understanding how to tweak E. coli as a cell factory to optimise the production of ethanol while ‘applied’ means the mass cultivation of E. coli to produce an industrial bioreactor for a fuel additive,” he added.
“We ought to address national prioritised areas and be the centre of excellence for the nation. At the same time, we seek to produce world-class, high impact research output.”
UTM’s best brains engage in teaching and research while producing students of high standards. Instead of traditional knowledge delivery (teaching), it implements research-led teaching, which means using the experiences and knowledge or know-how (whatever results — even negative ones — and knowledge obtained in one’s research) to enrich teaching and learning.
“As an example, let’s take laser technology. In normal teaching, we learn the laser can be reflected or absorbed by matters. But research-led teaching means sharing the latest findings and methods with students.”
DIVERSIFYING FUNDING AND THE CHALLENGES
“UTM’s core business can be best summarised in terms of knowledge, innovation and communities. Instead of being passive by tackling current problems, it has been very active in exploring new frontiers, creating opportunities and being a part of the national innovation ecosystem,” said Ahmad Fauzi.
However, the toughest challenge is financial sustainability. Resources are being optimised and streamlined everywhere in the world and UTM needs to be less dependent financially.
“We need to think out of the box and generate income from assets, investments and sponsorships.
“Next is the talent pool. Like companies, research universities need their workforce because there is competition among tertiary institutions to attract and retain the best brains — both staff and students.
“The government, industry and universities should also be working together to gain a win-win situation.”
Another challenge is moving beyond the conventional research ecosystem.
“We should look at income generation, impact on society, and patents and technology licensing aspects in every research project to move beyond scientific contribution and academic achievement.
“Research universities need to matter to society. In addition to fundamental research, UTM needs to educate and involve the broader community, ultimately effecting long-term changes through increased knowledge or changes in policies and systems.”
The other research universities in the nation are University of Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“Human resource is very important. This does not only apply to academic staff and researchers but also to support staff.
“The workforce needs to be optimised, streamlined and geared towards the mission and vision.
“The vision has to be in everyone’s DNA so that we can mobilise the whole team towards the goals. The synergy between support units and researchers is also crucial, which is why we emphasise engagement in UTM.
“Engagement is the platform where the top management relays the information and the expectations to the units and, at the same time, we get feedback from them.
“The two-way communication encourages operational transparency, open-mindedness and the convergence of mind, vision as well as togetherness.
“The top management needs to respond quickly to opportunities which sometimes requires devolved decision-making and reducing red tape. These are made possible with the flexibility of the research structure in UTM.
“Performance across departments is closely monitored. This induces a competitive culture among peers and underperformance, once identified, will be corrected.
“With such tenacity and unity, only then the realisation of the mission and vision is possible.”
“Firstly, the government especially and the public in general should continue to support research universities in monetary and non-monetary ways. Most fundamental research is investment that most likely does not have an immediate impact.
“However, as proven by advanced countries such as Japan and the United States, research is one of the key aspects in a country’s long-term economic growth.
“Most of the today’s technologies were born in the labs, 20 or 30 years ago.
“The government should further engage research universities in national agendas. We have sufficient manpower and resources to address national priority areas in various aspects.
“We should also be allowed to spearhead the national research direction and granted full autonomy by the government. This can enable faster country growth in terms of economy, human capital and innovation.”
The next step for UTM is stronger collaborative efforts in national priority areas and global trends.
“Research universities here have taken one step forward in terms of establishing a strong collaborative effort via the Malaysian Research Universities Network to ensure proper governance.
“UTM is becoming more aggressive in frontier fundamental research. Although it does not have an immediate impact, this research drives the future.
“Some of the strategic cutting-edge research involves advanced materials, water, energy, biotechnology, robotics and medicine.
“Research universities should lead Asean research, particularly on topics such as sustainable living for marginalised groups, tropical infectious diseases (dengue, malaria, zika) and work closely with top universities.
“We, too, need to be idea connectors to the industry in dealing with the real world problem-solving. We have to continue producing knowledge via research to generate income via commercialisation and make an impact on the community at the same time.”