Friday, November 25, 2005

Trade Fairs Glory for Universiti Sains Malaysia?

It appears that there is now an extremely worrying trend that the local academics, instead of focusing on reputable international journal publications and academic events, are now obsessing over international trade fairs to win "acclaim".

The New Straits Times reported today, that "scientists from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) here have won three gold medals" at an international trade fair "Ideas, Inventions, New Products" (IENA) held at the Nuremberg Exhibition Centre from Nov 3-6. Three other submissions were awarded silver medals. This "achievement" is also proudly displayed on the USM website.

The focus of my post here is not so much about the actual quality of the products and innovations of the local academics (I'm not the right judge for that). My concern is that there appears to be a very unhealthy trend to seek trade fairs glory amongst Malaysian universities and academics. Earlier this year, 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.

My question is, are trade fairs the best places to "judge" the quality of a university or an academic's research, publication or inventions? With all due respect to "trade fairs", the objectives of such fairs are typically not to judge the quality of one's works but to actually create a "meeting place" between the "inventors" and the potential buyers or investors.

What about the medals, shouldn't they be "worth" something? Yes, but probably not much. Typically, the works of academics - their invention, research or publications - are judged by peers i.e., other academics in the same field who understands the subject and are able to best judge whether the "output" meets the necessary criteria to be regarded as a "quality" piece of work.

Trade fairs on the other hand, typically comprises of a hodge podge of products and innovations from a diverse set of fields. The judges, again with all due respect, are definitely not the best party to judge if a certain Probiotic Dentifrice for oral health or a biodegradable and environmental-friendly polymer for residue oil flocsorb is an innovative invention or just a waste of time. These judges are also not expected to have conducted trials on these products to determine their effectiveness and efficacies. (I'll put good money on this!)

In all likelihood, judges at trade fairs probably make the necessary awards based purely on the write up provided by the "inventor". While I've not been to an "inventor's" trade fair, I've participated in sufficient trade fairs to know that the manner in which judging is conducted is almost always based on the information contained on 1-2 sheets of paper.

What's more, and I can testify to this for IT trade fairs, the organisers of these trade fairs have an incentive to award all sorts of prizes and medals to the participants and exhibitors. Firstly, this will hopefully enable the exhibitors to attract potential buyers or investors with the "awards", to ensure that the fair will be considered a "success". And secondly, these awards, should serve as a consolation prize, should the exhibitors be unsuccessful in securing good prospects or contracts.

While students from our neighbours at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) participate in the proper university challenges like the Young Inventors Awards (YIA) which recognises research and innovation among tertiary students in the Asia Pacific, our senior academics are paying good money to take part in trade fairs to collect medals of dubious significance. Awards such as YIA are sponsored by corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Far Eastern Economic Review. On the other hand, trade fairs are organised by commercial organisations seeking to make a profit from the exhibitors.

Before I end this post, let me just add that it may be relevant for universities to take part in trade fairs. However, the objectives and measures of success must be commercial in nature, i.e., the ability to secure investors, buyers or project contracts. The best method to judge the worth of these "gold medals" is how much tangible returns have been achieved from spending such a huge amount of money participating in the commercial trade fairs. If there are no conclusive commercial contracts arising from the trade shows (which I suspect is the case), then the medals are academically and commercially worthless.

I'm not finished with this topic. I'm doing some additional research into these trade fairs, the amount of money actually expensed for these fairs and the estimated returns. If any of you readers out there have access to some of these information - particularly with regards to UM's participation at the trade show in Geneva, I'll be extremely grateful (and I'm sure the Malaysian public will be too). Please email me here. Hopefully, I'd have gathered sufficient juicy details to be blogged by the end of next week.


Anonymous said...


Actually, it's hard to judge the credibility of these trade fairs unless you have actually been involved in one before. Although what you are trying to point out has its validity, it is just a minor issue of the bigger crisis that the Malaysian education system is facing.

Even if these "awards" have very little significance, let them have the fun. As the saying goes, small people are happy with small goals.

Nevertheless, it is good that you pointed out the credibility of the medals and awards, although most of your arguments are based on your gut feelings.


Anonymous said...

First we got Billboard-istis now trade exhibitionitis. Other people got educationitis. How?

Anonymous said...


you are right, trade fairs shouldnt count. in reputable universities, the number of successful patents a researcher is able to file is the indicia of the quality of research.

clk said...

Trade fairs are opportunity to travel abroad using public funds, period! Those with access to public funds are always on the look out for such opportunity regardless of its justification...

Anonymous said...

I keep seeing the image of our professors with flowing robs and that headboards selling shoes and singing songs, drinking beer with people with Moose-fur hats and cheap suits.

Anonymous said...

Trade fairs and exhibitons have their place but do not lend much credibility for university research.

I am sure that UM has spent probably hundreds of thousand of RM to send a delegation to Geneva recently. But such money could better be placed to fund more research at the university.

Trade fairs are very much a marketplace for independent or commercial inventors to hawk their goods, probably to make a sale or gain funding for further research.

Universities already have ample support and funds and do not need to subject themselves to such practices, and not many universities do...