A DECADE or so ago biotechnology was touted as a discipline which promised big job opportunities for those who took up the subject.
Many were attracted to that promise and chose to pursue biotechnology. Many private and public universities alike fought to get students.
Unfortunately, the eventual number of graduates in biotechnology was more than the biotechnology industry could absorb. This was quite understandable since the biotechnology industry then was still struggling.
As a consequence, the much promised jobs were not there.
And many biotechnology graduates could not get jobs in the field they studied. Many, in fact, worked for banks selling credit cards! Now, biotechnology is again in the news.
This time the number of jobs mentioned by Biotech Corporation is 160,000. It is still unclear which sector of the biotech industry will offer the jobs.
Recently, there have been announcements about a caviar project in Pahang and a lobster project in Sabah. Many doubt that such projects can lead to the creation of such big job numbers.
But the Biotech Corp is confident they can attract the young to take up biotechnology.
Apparently, the thinking is that Gen Ys and Zs would be interested. Let us hope that this will work out this time. But more importantly, the job projection is right.
We do not want to have a repeat of that episode a decade ago. We should not again disappoint the nation’s biotechnology graduates.
An idea worth considering is to go back to those who are already qualified in biotechnology but are still jobless. Or even those biotech graduates who have been forced to take up non-biotech jobs.
Some among them may still be passionate about pursuing a career in biotechnology.
At least that will save a lot of costs training new graduates in biotechnology.
There is no doubt that in the current era of sustainability and the growing world preference for renewables, biotechnology is seen as the tool which will become more and more useful. In many developed economies, the emphasis on biotechnology is evident as they see biotechnology as the new way to produce products for the world.
In fact the percentage of research funding going into biotech research and development has witnessed much growth. Investment in biotech R&D is not cheap.
In order to generate good returns to the country, we must be clear of the endgame to such R&D spending. Unfortunately, we still do not spell out the endgame clearly.
Are we planning to become a leading player in the pharmaceutical sector of biotechnology? Or do we want to build world competitiveness in the energy business which uses biotechnology?
We need to focus. We do not want to spread the investment too thinly. Since the existing biotech policy was developed more than 10 years ago, there is need to revisit it and maybe even review and revise. We desperately need a long-term master plan to build a truly competitive biotechnology industry.
We need to bear in mind that a successful biotechnology industry must have a strong back-up of both basic and applied R&D. While applied R&D should have relevance to market, basic R&D should be knowledge driven.
We should, therefore, create a research ecosystem where much of the applied R&D is industry funded and driven, while the bulk of the basic and fundamental R&D should be government funded.
For a number of years now, the government has funded the National Institute of Biotechnology Malaysia (NIBM) under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Three separate entities make up NIBM.
These are the Genomic Institute, the Pharma Biotech Institute and the AgroBiotech Institute.
Since all are government run, with no industry participation, the institutes should rightly focus on basic R&D.
However, it is important that all are linked to the National Biotech Agenda which should be properly coordinated under the proposed master plan.
The Academy of Sciences Malaysia has enough expertise to lead in the formulation of the proposed master plan. Only this way can the biotech industry make true progress. And, biotech graduates will no longer be disappointed. Dr Ahmad Ibrahim NST Columnist 18 December 2015 @ 11:00 AM