Monday, May 08, 2006

Give me those grants!

I read this terrific letter in the Star by Zaharom Nain, an associate professor at the Centre for International Studies in Universiti Sains Malaysia, on research grant abuses in the local university system. I'd encourage our readers to read it too.

I don't want to analyze every statement made by Dr. Zaharom though many of his points are spot on. I want to discuss his letter in the context of one of my favorite topics - incentives. It is clear from her letter that many of his grant hungry colleagues respond to incentives. It is a path towards promotion. It is a way to obtain 'easy money'.

The only problem is that the incentives, in this context, are screwed up. Here in the US, almost all professors across all fields have to apply for grant money. While there are tons of grants out there from different institutions, both private and public, the grant application process is also extremely competitive. Most importantly, the grants are used towards an end product - a publication(s) in a journal, as a report or as a book. Grants are a means towards an end. In Malaysia, we seemed to have stopped just at the means.

Dr. Zaharom says that "there have been – and continue to be – many local academics who hold numerous research grants but have come up with virtually nothing of value, save the oft-repeated “unpublished research report”. And what is frightening is that this genre of “unpublished research report” is fast becoming the norm and no longer the exception in Malaysia."

The point of this posting is this: If academics respond to incentives such as the need to have grants to obtain promotions, then is it not reasonable to assume that they would respond to incentives such as promotions based on their publication records?

The only hitch is that applying for grants might be the easy part. Getting published (especially in internationally renowned journals) is the hard part. My gut feel is that often times, things operate in a virtuous (on in this case, unvirtuous) cycle. In the haste to promote academics up the ladder, many underqualified ones have been promoted. Their publication records are far from stellar. If this is the case, then is it realistic for these, by now, senior academics to exact a more stringent promotion process and requirement on their more junior staff?

There's a saying in economics - "Bad money drives out good money". If the circulation of fake money in an economy reaches a certain point, everyone would keep their genuine money at home and only transact using fake money. Past this point, all bills in circulation would be fake money. Put in the local university context, if academics are rewarded based on something other than their publication record, then past a point, you'd have almost all academics with poor publication records. The good ones would have left the country, retired, gone into another profession or committed suicide (I'm kidding on the last one).

Thankfully, we haven't reached that stage yet. I know of many good academics in our local university system. One of these days, when I have more free time, I'll start compiling the publishing record of our scholars in fields which I am more familiar with - political science and economics. I'll go through each department in our major research universities (UM, UKM, USM, to start) and do a and search and list their publication 'hits'. It's a rough and ready indicator but I'm sure it'll tell a more or less accurate story. I did a google search for Dr. Zaharom and found more than a dozen publication hits, many of them in international journals. I did a similiar search for four professors in the School of Business Management under the Faculty of Economics and Business in UKM and found that only one of them had any significant hits on Try the exercise yourself - I'm sure you'll find it amusing. (Being a 2nd year grad student, I don't have any major publications yet so a search on me won't yield any significant hits. Hopefully this will change next year when a book that I'm co-authoring with another US academic, Dr. Bridget Welsh, on Malaysian elections come out.


Anonymous said...

1) Dr. Zaharom is a man. And when i read his article, I could not help nodding in agreement.
2) Grants are competitive and only selected grants are easy money. Grants award cookie points which are used for promotion but the cookie points are almost negligible (1-3 points) while it is the publication that speaks volume. An international journal can easily give you 6-8 points. So in fact, like the US, grants are means to an end. Unfortunately, some ppl do not see the larger picture and is contented in securing grant and that's it.
3) Similarly, presenting a paper at conference award points but again it is negligible. It is when the paper is turned into a publication that gives high points.
(so while some boasts on the number of grants and travels they make, it is another story when ask about the product of all those grants and travels that they do)
4) With the points system academics are surely responding to incentives but it do get to a point when you question is that what the vocation is all about. Do one do something because of the amount of cookie points awarded or is passion still the driving force?

So you work with Dr. Bridget Welsh... it will be a good experience for you and good luck on your book.

Anonymous said...

It will be worth to study the results of those grant awarded.Are they the same people or group of people receiving the lion's share everytime?
That is why transparency is very important. I feel the University or research institutes should make it public every year in newspapers:
1 Who received the grant
2 How much grant
3 Number of papers in respected peer reviewed international journals

By being transparent, it would put to shame the research charlatans from applying and abusing such grants which again are tax payers money.

This will allow more money being given to the right people who are capable of doing good research

Maybe those grants are valuable not to secure ' gold medals' at trade conventions. I wonder how big a cookie value are those medals won at the trade conventions?

Anonymous said...

Many IRPA grants are small, just enough to hire a research officer and pay for overseas conferences. I don't see a problem for young researchers like us holding multiple research grants, and have our names as co-author, since we have to spend considerable effort and time in preparing the proposal, and multiple revisions in the rigorous proposal reviewing process.

I agree with dracula77's comment, it is inevitable that we have to include senior staff (preferably malay staff) in funding proposal to have better chance of obtaining it. Moreover, have their names included as co-author even though they did not contribut. However, it's the same research/paper game being practiced in UK, AUS, and etc as well, get over it.

In regards to ground breaking research, there is simply not enough funding to carry out fundamental research that may lead to ground breaking outcome.

I do have one question, which four universities are now categorised as research universites ?


Anonymous said...

Anon Tue May 09, 07:29:54 AM:
I do come across some Faculties/School who practice publishing the lecturers' CV on the uni website. You just have to search for it. How frequent they update it is another thing. For sure, it is not feasible to do it on newspapers; not everyone is that enthusiast in knowing it.

dracula77 Tue May 09, 08:28:45 AM:
Every research done should be published, or else why conduct research in the first place. However, granting the amount of funding based on "output" (quantitatively; e.g. no of publications, presentations) is not a fair system. Some research need little financial support, some need large amount of funding.

bh Tue May 09, 10:27:35 AM:
If i am not mistaken, the 4 research universities are UM, USM, UKM and UPM. IRPA grants vary greatly, from few thousand up to millions (i am not kidding here). Vote F grants are much less but easier to get.


To be fair to the senior academician, many are actually helping the junior academician in research. Knowledge and experience on research can never be learned solely form textbooks. Furthermore, it is the senior academicians who actually sit on the board to approve funding for research projects. This is the norms everywhere, so please do not see it negatively.

However, there are always some bad apples, senior academician doing nothing but want to claim being involved in the research projects (better CV=promotion). Again, this is quite common malpractice in academis world.

Anonymous said...

Do you know some of the ground breaking research is the result of using more brain than more equiptments?

Do you know that comparatively the local universities here have well equipped labs compared those in UK?
Yet their research output is better

Do you know the syndrome of the people who receive large chunks of IRPA? They tend to spend so much money on creating beautiful labs, new equipments, new benches, new floorings, new wooden doors....?

And the worst thing that befallen us is the " et al " syndrome, where you are forced or purposely put names of your peers to butter him up.

It is very surprising nowadays under the ' et al' syndrome even for a simple research paper, there are so many 'pachats' or ' academic leeches' willing to stick their names and claim as being the main author of the papers

And in any promotion exercises, these thick skinned pachats claim they are involved dominantly in the research

hehe...I dont even know what this country will become. Now they admit the teachers colleges will be upgraded into institutes that can confer degrees for teachers...22 colleges becoming institutes...Adoihhhh!

At the same time they want a moratarium to be in effect on the increase in the number of private colleges and institutes
Ayoooooooo.....definitely going to get brain cancer thinking wats happening in the education scene in malaysia

Anonymous said...

research grantes should be given to the feasibility of the research. like in any case, a good research proposal is always important.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

"Anonymous said...

1) Do you know some of the ground breaking research is the result of using more brain than more equiptments? Do you know that comparatively the local universities here have well equipped labs compared those in UK? Yet their research output is better.

2) Do you know the syndrome of the people who receive large chunks of IRPA? They tend to spend so much money on creating beautiful labs, new equipments, new benches, new floorings, new wooden doors....?"

I am seriously doubting the creditability of your 2 claims in 1) and 2), unless you provide some facts !

Who should be held responsible if there is no internationally recognised output from a hugely funded project ? a) The reseachers involved, or b) the board of IRPA review comittee, who misjudged the feasibility of the project and hence approved the proposal

Anonymous said...

IRPA has been so long on the scene...hehe

The only significant changes IRPA has been undergoing all over the years is the ' borang2 and kaedah2' it used to set the format and reporting of results

The quality of research produced and results expected has always been the same.... as before

Anonymous said...

our research funding is poor to begin with. compounded by the fact it's mostly given out to projects that do not help us in arts, science or technology. honestly, who cares if they do a project on the "broadband rate in malaysia"

Anonymous said...

I think if any project failed under the IRPA scheme, the IRPA applicant and his group together with the Board on the IRPA is accountable for the failure.

The IRPA board should account the reasons why so much money is given to the project
Why it fails to detect the failure of the projects in term of results expected

Makes me wonder if those on the Board have any good links with the applicants? After all, it is a small world in Malaysia

Are those on the BOard good researchers or just by position of office?

Anonymous said...

Deal all,
I am just curious here. How many of you are
<1> actually academician or postgraduate students?
<2> researchers? is it political science? economics? physical science? clinical science? IT? maths? etc.

<1> i don't mean to offend anyone here, but if you give comments based on hearsay, many people will get confused and having difficult time to differentiate between facts and gossips. if you are not actively involved in research, your observations may not reflect the actual situation.

<2> different areas of research have their own set of challenges. for example, if you are in the biological science, you cannot expect the microbs, enzymes, PCR, cultures etc to be very co-operative and get the desired results within certain period of time. So, it is still possible to have huge financial funding but the output is miserable. another best example is the pharmaceutical inductry. this is science!

Anon Tue May 09, 04:54:32 PM:
you are right in saying that our research funding is very poor. we are not developed nation with extensive infrastructures and experts. with the limited resources, i think we need to wisely focus on selective fields where we are at the frontiers.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kian Ming,

Thanks for highlighting my article and generating so much discussion. It's good that you're working with Bridget Welsh. I do hope that you - and others like you - will come back and fight the good fight, despite the odds. Take care.

Anonymous said...

It is very obvious from the analyses of the discussions here, the bloggers are all educated people and know what they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

our research funds are extremely small and limited. most projects are funded in the RM5k-10k range which is good enough to probably get an RA to help out over 2-3 mnths and stationary items.

higher end projects will probably garner around RM50k-100k. very rarely exceeding this figure except maybe in the medical research field.

i can only speak of my experience at UM. we do have a handful of really dedicated professors and researchers. but the numbers are very small. for those who are competent, they do work hard and tries to get funding for a variety of interesting projects. often, they will unfortunately fail to get the much needed funds. nevertheless, they don't give up. they continue on. academicians like prof. khoo kay kim and former prof. jomo are all good examples.

Anonymous said...

Khoo Kay Khim spends most of his time incubating in the carrel reading microfilms in UM library

Anonymous said...

I am an academic of Malaysian origin, currently attached to a UK university, so I can speak with some authority. Most of what is said in the article is agreeable. However regarding the comment about co-authoring, it is rather misleading as it is full of assumptions. I do co-author lots of papers with my PhD students and this is mainly due to the fact that it is joint work, no more, no less. In the Sciences, PhD students do depend on their supervisors quite a bit and most new ideas are generated by the supervisors with the PhD students pursuing them. Most new PhD students are very raw in solving problems let alone generating new ideas. Unlike the Arts, in the Sciences prior knowledge is much more crucial and building on shoulders of giants is common practice. I'm speaking from experience, both as an ex-PhD student and a current supervisor of four PhD students. I normally give my students about 1.5 - 2 years before I see any original work being generated which will eventually lead to a singly authored PhD thesis. Unlike what the author implies in the article, most supervisors (at least in the UK) is an integral part of the research team. We absolutely do not treat our students as paper generating machines as quality is better than quantity, the government's RAE rating ensures that.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with what "graduate student" mentioned earlier. A friend of mine currently pursuing MSc at USM faced the same problem. Been working on the MSc for the past 3 years, Honeybee buzz. Many things beyond your control.

Anonymous said...


Is your friend doing MSc project on " how to split atom" in a test tube?

Anonymous said...


Are you familiar with the graduate education systems? I don't claim to know all, but this is what taking place at my uni (should be similar for the other public uni too).

Graduate study can be done either (1)coursework-dissertation or (2)dissertation. (1) and (2) are usually a 1 and 2 years program, respectively. You don't immediately get accepted into the MSc program after completion of BSc. Usually potential students will look for supervisors who share similar research areas. The intake is done once or twice annually and also dependent of the research grants available to the supervisors.

As such it is common for the potential students to start working as research assistant in the lab even before officially registered. So 0.5-1yr is for the "MSc-hunting" and another 2 years for MSc.

By the way, Dalton, Rurherford, Bohr et. al have already extensively studied on atomic model 100 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Just wanna add to the above comment; the dissertation only programme has no official intake dates. It's open throughout the year. BUT the application process is amazingly long at 3~4 mnths! However, if you're lucky you should be able to start as an "unofficial" student if you have good supervisors.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Rutherford, Bohr and Dalton et al has studied extensively the atom about 100 years, but to date and in the future more will be known about the atom.

The study of atom has never completed with the three scientists and et al....:)