research and money

Sunday July 29, 2018

Since many people are quite wrong on the internet, I guess we should discuss this a little more thoughtfully.

So, fellow Malaysian, we have two issues to discuss now: that we do not have MyBrain program anymore and why you should think twice before criticizing the merit of funding PhD scholars. For the sake of this argument, we need to decouple these two arguments into their own separate bins.

First, let’s talk about MyBrain program. The statement that was dropped by YB Maszlee received a huge interest from the netizens which we can categorize into two different factions: the first faction that calls for the program to be maintained while the second faction questioned why the government should nanny graduate students. I am more interested in dissecting the arguments by the latter faction, but let’s do some cursory look at this MyBrain program.

Note that I do not have outstandingly credible sources with solid facts and numbers, rather I will be relying almost exclusively on the arguments that I saw buzzing on my Twitter timeline and news releases that I have read in the past. This will, for sure, create some biases in my arguments but that’s the best that I could do for now. This is why I advocate for proper press releases done by governmental agencies themselves. In this case, I am still hoping that MOHE would do a proper presser to provide reason, numbers, and facts why MyBrain program met its demise.

First of all, words came flying that MyBrain program was not actively and properly maintained prior to the Malaysian General Election (GE14). This did not come as a surprise to me, because previously in February 2016, the MyBrain applicants were having a catch-22 situation: that the government failed to disburse funding, and applicants could not enroll in classes due to late payment, which led to riot on MyBrain15 KPT’s Facebook page. The government then announced RM 300 million in the revised budget for MyBrain program, which then celebrated by the deafening cricket noise. Did it get disbursed at all?

Based on what I read on NST, RM 90,000,000 (RM 90 million) was allocated for 10,600 students. This translates into roughly RM 8,500 per student. Note that the fee for Masters or PhD program is in the neighborhood of RM 4,000 per semester (maybe more, maybe less). A quick calculation reveals that this amount of funding can only cover fees for two academic semesters, leaving almost no room for monthly allowance (food, rent, etc.), which also means a post-graduate student has to fork more resources to make ends meet. Let’s not forget the fact that some principal investigators (a.k.a research advisors) do have grant, but I do not think this represents the major portion of the pie.

If this is a fact that MyBrain did not have any future even before GE14, then its demise was not far-fetched post-GE14. However, it is really unfortunate that the new government has to take the blow by axing this program. I would not go as far as calling it a tone-deaf statement, but YB Mazslee could have averted outcry if he carefully worded the announcement by not squarely blaming the previous government on-air (although that is sort of the truth). By blaming the previous government, this feeds into some parties’ conspiracy theory and that’s a bad PR move.

Hence, the conclusions that we could draw from the first half of this article are (1) MyBrain program was not well-oiled in the first place and its demise could have been projected, and it was the new government that somehow took the blame by eventually killing it, (2) its success rate is now a question that begs for answers and numbers.

Now we are done with the first part pertaining to the MyBrain program. On to the next part: should the government provide mechanism for funding postgraduate students, especially for PhD scholars?

Yes, the government should and Afiq Asri already made a good case on this.

Now before you come to me with arguments “well the government should not be spoon-feeding students” blah blah blah, PhD is a real job. To quote Dr. Ann, PhD is a double work: the actual research side (which many of us lose good sleep) and the writing/academics side (which means more sleep loss). To shove down the throat of these PhD scholars with “hey go do part-time job lah at Starbucks” is irresponsible and you should be ashamed of yourself.

Then came another with “hey it is taxpayer’s money so we have a say how it is spent”. This statement, now, really a tone-deaf one. We had challenging years before with funding cuts there and there, and our public research institutions struggled with staggeringly massive cuts. And then by saying that “hey the private industries should be the one advocating for R&D”, I seriously fear that you are not well-informed with how private industries (at least in the USA) are funding research: does not look good. As far as the USA is concerned with how research is performed and coordinated, the funding provided through governmental agencies is the best bet to make sure the science is accurate, just, fair, and free from bias such that all data must be publicly available for the broader scientific communities to look at and criticize.

To summarize, government-backed research enterprise by channeling funding to academia is imperative into making our R&D field stronger. If you are concerned with immediate results such as more patents as the metrics for good investment, then I believe we live in different scale of time. This was discussed in the US when Rand Paul advocated to fight wasteful government spending (by attacking academia). These peeps have a little clue (if they do at all) how science works. Let’s take an example: the vaccine for dengue took more than 20 years to be developed, yet it is still facing trouble.

This article could go longer by citing how government-backed research enterprise could spin up industries, but I fear that time is not the luxury that I have. This should do it, I think. ROI from scientific enterprise is not something you will see immediately.

I was planning to write about how some of us come into academia because of tight labor market, but maybe I should save that for later. I acknowledge that this happens and needs to be discussed.