Prior to their actual return to the country, the contingent from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) have already alerted the Star on their incredible success - with all 14 entries awarded medals. The teams from USM won 5 Golds, 7 Silvers and 2 Bronzes. To my knowledge, Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and several other local public universities all sent sizeable contingents to the event.
Besides the above trade fair, USM has also participated in another international trade fair for "Ideas, Inventions, New Products" (IENA) held at the Nuremberg Exhibition Centre in November last year, in which they "won" 3 Gold medals. Universiti Malaya (UM) proudly announced it's "fantastic" achievements at the 33rd International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques & Products in Geneva, securing 33 medals comprising of 19 Golds, 11 Silvers and 3 Bronzes.
I have already written a fair bit about the unhealthy obsession of our local universities with trade fairs earlier. But I thought I should serve another reminder to our higher education authorities.
- Unlike international competitions whereby the contestants are judged by a panel of distinguished and expert judges, trade fairs such as those mentioned above are not. The "judges" at trade fairs are more like organisers of the trade fairs themselves who will then give liberal credits to the inventors of anything from coconut husks as bicycle helmets to specially formulated herbal toothpaste. How are such awards even credible, particularly since absolutely no peer review is conducted on the research by the academics?
- Unlike international competitions whereby participants may be required to pay at most a token entry fee, participants of a trade fair pays a large amount of money to be at the event. What these medals are, in actual fact, are tokens of appreciation from the organisers of the event thanking the participants for spending a decent amount of money with them. It's almost like, "thank you very much, here's your gold embroidered receipt!" More than half of the participants walks home with an award or other, so that they'll all come back again the year after.
- Trade shows are however, not useless events. They are just not academic events. Trade shows are meant for participants to seek new business opportunities and investors. Hence the measure of success of participation at a trade show is not the number or colour of medals received, but the contacts and contracts secured. The problem I have is, it appears to me that the objective of our academics attending such trade fairs is not to secure new business, but to determine the colour of their medals!
I have 2 questions for the universities and the higher education authorities:
- 1. How much money, or for that matter, how many millions of ringgit (yes, it's almost definitely in the millions) was expensed by the Malaysian academia for participation in the above event?
- What are the tangible returns through participation in such events? Since last year's multiple award winning year by UM and the other universities, how many of the "medalled" inventions have been commercialised or sold to investors?
- The additional question for the press to ask the universities when they hold their congralutory press conferences, is have they secured any contracts with any investors or businessmen who visited the trade fair? What is the value of the contracts secured? My guess will be that, we'd be lucky if the value amounts to anything more than five digits.