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Make winning a habit
  - Comment -
By: Professor Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli Abd Razak
Source: New Sunday Times - July 6, 2014
   

THE recent announcement listing the achievements of three Malaysian academicians in The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014 must be a surprise to most.

At a time when local universities and the education system are under scrutiny and found to be lacking in certain areas such news offer some optimism.

The report by the Intellectual Property and Science Business of Thomson Reuters, one of the largest scientific database providers worldwide, named Professor Abdul Latif Ahmad from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) School of Chemical Engineering, Professor Saidur Rahman Abdul Hakim from University of Malaya Faculty of Engineering and Professor Ishak Hashim from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Faculty of Science and Technology as among the distinguished scientists who publish prolifically and are most frequently cited by their peers.

These scientists’ work and findings are of utmost importance, exerting significance influence on the work of others. Researchers in the academe regard this recognition as the highest order.

Admittedly, Abdul Latif, whose field of expertise includes membrane technology and wastewater engineering, reckons that research grants provided by the government and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation are instrumental in attaining this accolade.

He was quoted as saying: “It is clear that our researches have made an impact on the research community around the world through citations and ranking, but any research carried out should be relevant to the time and people.”

Research works are carried out not just for the sake of publication in the rush to be ranked, rather for their relevance to the time and people so that they can bring about some improvements, and add value, over and above their academic merits. This is often not easy because it needs deeper commitment and an understanding of problems and addressing the gaps in providing the right solution. It takes time, patience, support and also guidance.

Is the mention by Thomson Reuters a one-time happening, a fluke?

The involvement of the three oldest public universities and the researchers’ relatively young age indicate something.

One, it takes time to build the infrastructure and culture to conduct purposeful research with meaningful outcomes. Second, it takes an equally long time to draw on collective experiences, findings and creativity before arriving at a point where the outcomes are of considerable potential and value in making a difference. These two dimensions, namely the interactions between material and human aspects, go hand in hand. They are sensitive to consistent support in creating an enabling ecosystem for experimentation where autonomy and flexibility help unleash innovative ideas and where mistakes are expected and tolerated. Between the two aspects, the human dimension needs nurturing with a great deal of handholding — mentoring, leadership and team rapport.

On the last point I dare say that Abdul Latif and his colleagues have had the privilege of a mentor-leader in Professor Subhash Bhatia from the very early days. A life member of the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the American Chemical Soceity, Subhash is just the right person who can spark the right kind of research activities among young and enthusiastic researchers.

He provided the father figure needed to develop and guide the research agenda. There is no substitute for experience in translating theories into practice. That said, it is an uphill bureaucratic task to acquire and retain talented expertise.

Yet another factor is the question of public support, recognition and incentive to make one feel appreciated. In USM, it takes the form of an annual Malam Anugerah Sanggar Sanjung since 2001 (which later became the precursor to Anugerah Akademik Negara). Abdul Latif is no stranger to the event year after year. This must have hardwired his psyche as a confirmed winner. He will be the next Subhash, who will spark yet another cycle of potential winners.

After all, winning is a matter of habit — so let’s get the next cycle moving with these three winners. Don't let the goose that lays the golden eggs "die" in oblivion.


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