Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Talent Corporation: A view from a LOCAL Scientist

I posted an article by Dato' Salleh Majid: Pertimbangan Talent Corporation back in November 2010; Must Read: Pertimbangan Talent Corporation. Much has happened since then, just hope that the Government we elected knows what it is doing and the long term implications to bring back people who has turned their back on this blessed country for whatever reason(s).

I would like to now reproduce a letter from DR FARIDA SHAH, Fellow, Academy of Science for Developing Countries, Kuala Lumpur. Its sound advise from a academic who is here in Malaysia already and its worth the read:

"We need to look at the total mechanisms holistically to increase the number of researchers and scientists, and not bring back scientists who had turned their backs on the country in the first place"

Brain gain: 4 ways to keep, build, tap talent
(NST16 Feb. 2011)

I REFER to the setting up of the Talent Corporation to woo Malaysians home to contribute towards the development of the country.

As a scientist, I am aware that in the past 15 years or so, numerous talks had been held on how to increase the number of scientists to 50 per 10,000 people in the country.

Science, technology and engineering have been touted as critical engines of growth, contributing towards an increase in socio-economic status, gross domestic product and sustainable development.

At present, we have about 15 researchers per 10,000 people and we have only achieved a slow two-fold increment in the past 25 years. 
The Brain Gain scheme was introduced about 15 years ago -- an effort to dangle the carrot to the Malaysian diaspora to return. But it failed miserably.

I cannot envision how the setting up of the Talent Corporation can do better as the details of organisational structure and strategy are unknown, even to the scientific community.

Nevertheless, even if it succeeds, and doing the math, the potential number of returnees would not be sufficient to make a total of 100,000 in full-time employment in science and engineering in the country. In an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report, Malaysia's target was 50 researchers per 10,000 people by last year, which was not achieved.

Instead of forming the Talent Corporation, with the objective of bringing back people, the country would benefit more if the Science, Technology and Innovation; Higher Education; Education; Health; Agriculture and Agro-based Industry and Human Resources Ministries work synergistically together in an integrated and comprehensive approach to achieving the targeted number for the future.

We need to look at the total mechanisms holistically to increase the number of researchers and scientists, and not bring back scientists who had turned their backs on the country in the first place.

The effort to increase the researchers per 10,000 population has been discussed at the Academy of Science for Developing Countries and at the global level.

Key strategies suggested for implementation are:

- bringing back the country's diaspora, which in many cases had been ineffective and failed;

- collaborating with the diaspora in developed countries through joint research programmes;

- nurturing indigenous young researchers by enhancing as well as retaining them in science and technology; and,

- creating a more prospective career path for them in order to keep them in the country.

I feel that apart from brain gain, another critical issue that needs to be addressed is the prevention of brain drain.

Any decent scientist, who is worth his or her salt, is not interested in just remuneration, incentives and approved permits.

Top scientists involved in lab-based research not only need well-equipped labs but also talented and dedicated researchers and postgraduate students to achieve their objectives. And, of course, the most important carrot is research funding.

Then, there's the added responsibility of the scientists having to uproot children and spouses. We will have to pay for all the additional expenses.

As a recipient of the Brain Gain "Back to Lab" scheme for local scientists, I have given my suggestions about the scheme, but no one has been in touch with me to seek feedback.

One of the flaws of the scheme is the yearly contract without research funding. This is not satisfactory as scientists who go back want to do research and not waste time applying for funds from the host university or research grants from the ministry, which takes nearly two years.

Questions that beg to be answered are:

- If we look at bringing back talent, shouldn't we find out why the previous scheme did not work? We need to analyse the various outcomes from the last exercise. What were the lessons learned? What were the deliverable outcomes? What was the feedback from returning expatriates? If it was not successful, what were the reasons and what would be different in this new strategy?;

- If the people to be wooed back are required by the industries as well as the universities, then the industries concerned should be responsible for the exercise. If the talents are for research at the universities, what are the incentives given under the new scheme that will be different from the previous Brain Gain programme?; and

- How do we harness the expertise of scientists abroad without the need for them to leave their jobs, as some prefer to remain abroad, citing a better quality of life and a better scientific and conducive environment as the reasons?

We need to identify how to solve the issues raised.

The money spent on bringing back scientists who left for greener pastures could possibly be spent in curbing the brain drain.

Money could also be spent on capacity-building in science and technology, such as training more researchers at doctorate and postdoctoral levels and nurturing the young by increasing scholarships, stipends or allowances and fellowships.

We need to create job tiers in the scientific structure, such as postdoctoral research officers and senior research officers, so that researchers and scientists have a specific career path.

In nurturing the young, we need to ensure that meritocracy is in place, where rigorous and stringent evaluations are conducted to ensure that only the best are provided the right cultural and scientific ambience for success and incentives to make them want to stay.

One of the more effective ways cited by the Third World Academy of Sciences is to have a collaborative effort between the countries and their diaspora, such as sandwich programmes and adjunct positions. These strategies have been successful in countries like China, India and even Pakistan and Latin America. The most successful is the sandwich programme.

Since we are pushing for innovation, we could have joint collaboration in terms of setting up a virtual lab linking the labs or create other innovative ways.

We should look at bringing back young PhD holders and giving them full funding, better wages, enabling mobility between their labs in Malaysia and foreign colleagues' labs, and abolish any form of perceived discrimination. The local scientists should also be given the same incentives to work with them.

To date, there is no information on the strategies to be implemented by the Talent Corporation, and there is no mention of prevention of brain drain. There is no mention about the effort to engage or get more young people in postgraduate training and on how to keep them in the country.

An effort to prevent scientists from leaving the country at all levels, from the first-degree holders to retired professors, needs to be put in place.

Among the reasons for leaving the research sector and country are the lack of clear career path, poor salary, poor prospects in scientific research and lack of respect for people in research.

We need to find out what other reasons there are for them to leave research and development, and get feedback on how to make a career in R&D more attractive. We need to get suggestions on what mechanisms are needed to prevent them from leaving.

Equally important, if we are to achieve our desired objective of having 50 scientists per 10,000 population, the question is how to keep our young and experienced scientists in the country.

How do we prevent our top professors from leaving the country before and after retiring? What are the strategies to get the maximum benefit from retired professors who get extensions from their organisations? At present, some get extensions but without any research funding.

It is time we committed ourselves diligently and realistically to improve a system which has failed. I suggest we develop a multipronged strategy which looks at prevention of brain drain, a mechanism for Brain Gain and a third or even fourth mechanism of keeping and nurturing the young and engaging the Malaysian diaspora around the world to work with us.

Without these multipronged strategies, I doubt the efforts of the Talent Corporation alone will succeed in attaining the number of researchers in science and technology that we require. We cannot afford to fail again.

Read more: Brain gain: 4 ways to keep, build, tap talent 

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