Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A more promising US-Msia collaboration?

After the fiasco that was (and perhaps still is) the Malaysian University of Science and Technology (MUST) that Tony blogged about here, I was a more than a little sceptical when I got news of this new collaboration between California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) and the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation. But perhaps this partnership has more potential for fruition than MUST because it has more realitistic ambitions.

You can get details of the QB3-Malaysia Postgraduate and Postdoctoral Training Program here. The intro to that website goes like this:

The term neglected diseases refers to all human diseases in which there is little or no commercial interest. Western pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies believe that they cannot recover an income from those diseases commensurate with the development costs. In practice, neglected diseases predominantly affect the populations in the developing world. We foresee that diseases neglected by the west can become commercially viable targets for emerging economies like Malaysia, if they can deploy a less expensive but technically sophisticated work force to do development at a cost that moves many diseases out of the neglected category.

With this vision in mind, the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation has entered into a partnership with the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3) to start an exciting new training program to train outstanding Malaysian researchers who will both help developing nations and create biotechnology jobs for Malaysians.

This makes good sense to me. It's an area of biotechnology which Malaysia and Malaysians would have an interest in. No point competing with the 'big boys' where there is plenty of funding and interesting floating around e.g. AIDS antiviral drugs or cancer research.

The 'Purpose' section reads something like this:

Our purpose is to train scientists who eventually will conduct research in Malaysia and be leaders in the field of developing drugs and/or diagnostics for neglected diseases. During the course of the program, the trainees will conduct research projects with QB3 faculty and participate in courses, seminars and symposia at UCSF. A common criticism of sending Malaysians abroad for access to sophisticated and cutting-edge training is that they cannot return to an intellectual environment equivalent to the one they left. This program is fundamentally different. All the students in this program go to the same institution, QB3, where they will form networks with each other as well as QB3 scientists. After training, all the students will return as staff to the same institution, the new National Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals. In this way the trainees should be able to take back home with them the culture they have been exposed to. That culture, QB3, emphasizes awareness of the problems of the developing world and at the same time the need to solve those problems through entrepreneurship and commercialization, rather than relying exclusively on philanthropy.

So, this program hopes to eliminate brain drain by sending the trainees back home to Malaysia where the onus will be on the newly created National Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals (located in USM, Penang) to make use of their talents.

So who is eligible for this program? The program is open both to those who want to pursue a PhD or do postdoctoral training in biological sciences or other related fields. This training will take place in UCSF (University of California at San Francisco). While this school may not be a household name in Malaysia, it is one of the top schools in the US in the field of biological sciences.

US News and World Report in 2002, the last time it surveyed doctoral programs in the biological sciences, ranked UCSF fifth best overall. In that survey, UCSF ranked first in neurosciences, third in biochemistry and cell biology programs, sixth in molecular biology and ninth in microbiology

I think there are several reasons why this partnership has a much better chance of success compared to MUST.

1) The training takes place in the US, specifically in UCSF, one of the top biological sciences schools in the US instead of in Malaysia, which, as far as I know, was the intention of MUST.

2) The trainees return to an existing instutional setup in Malaysia after their training has been completed. Even though the National Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals is a new set-up, it is located within USM and is likely to draw upon the resources of existing faculty there, unlike MUST, which had to start more or less on its own without much institutional support or infrastructure.

3) Its ambitions are relatively modest. While it is not stated how many students the program will accept, I'm sure that not more than 5 students per year will be accepted. In fact, in the early going, I'm guessing that only 1 or 2 students will be able to make the cut and get into this program.

I have have some caveats:

1) How much did the Malaysian Biotechnology Coporation have to 'pay' to QB3 to establish this program, I wonder? My gut instinct tells me that this is nothing close to the proposed RM500 million 'donation' to the University of Cambridge. My less cynical side tells me that some faculty in UCSF got to know a few promising students and faculty members from USM and wanted to encourage promising Malaysian researchers to train at UCSF. The involvement of the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation is mostly in funding the National Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals. I'm guessing that UCSF might even be picking up the tab for training the PhD and postdoc students.

2) The first few Malaysians who enter this program will have be impressive because if they are not up to par, you can be sure that UCSF will be less willing to take on future trainees.

3) The National Institute for Pharmaceuticals and Nutraceuticals must be run like a research institution and not a place where non-research academics or academic wanabees are placed for political reasons and for reasons of gaining prestige.

Watch this space for future developments in regards to this program.


Anonymous said...

Just tell me of one single joint venture that has really been successful between our government and other countries?

Look at UM since the Abdullah Sanusi era, how many MOUs have been signed but how many have been implemented siccessfully?

What ever happened to our Biotechnology Park which has converted to A University college with a US college?

Cure MUST problem first then go for other things. No points having all these ventures that will abort or not coming to fruitations

Anonymous said...

It would be unlikely that UCSF will be picking up the tab at all. To give you a good perspective, the Singapore Government is the sole funding entity for the Singapore-MIT Alliance program.

Anonymous said...

Satu lagi projek kerajaan barisan nasional :D

Vote for BN!!

coleong said...

It's not a problem to train a good scientist. The problem is how to retain them in country.

Anonymous said...

i agree with coleong, getting the training is easy (if you are good), but having to leave America after being trained at the best institute, with the best advisors, in the best scientific environment --- is not easy. I hope these great Malaysian scientists who eventually return to Malaysia will not feel "trap" in a "small pond", which i consider it another form of brain drain.


Anonymous said...

According to the latest news at MIT's website, MIT has broken all ties with MUST.