By Syamala Ariyanchira, PhD
January 20, 2015
Many of us have dreamt of a career as a scientist during our school days. Most of us had to forget these dreams as we confronted the hard reality of a severe lack of job opportunities for fresh science graduates as scientists in science-based industries such as life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare.
Due to this, satisfying research careers in science were limited to a few lucky ones-those who got the limited opportunities in multi-nationals with deep pockets to sustain research. If you did not get a chance to be associated with some developed countries where science-based companies could get better financial support and hence were in a better position to offer research jobs, your dreams lay crushed by the roadside.
Things have definitely improved significantly during the past couple of decades. Developing countries are having greater focus on research and are offering commendable support to science-based industries lately, which in turn is creating a local demand for skilled research scientists. Some of the new entrants creating significant scientific R&D job opportunities lately include Korea, Singapore, China, and India. This growing demand is possibly helping these governments to control the brain drain of skilled scientists.
Unfortunately, Malaysia has been slow in this regard compared to some of its neighbouring countries. The country is yet to have a significant number of science-based companies involved in cutting edge biotechnology research – almost a decade after implementing its biotechnology policy with the ambition to become one of the key players in the region. No wonder, a lot of skilled scientists are seeking greener pastures elsewhere.
The science graduates in the country keen on developing scientific career are facing serious dilemma. While a few of them get career opportunities in other countries, many at home eventually adapt by moving to other streams such as sales or finance. This deepens the existing gap in the size of employable science graduates in the country.
I happened to meet a new staff, a fresh postgraduate in biotechnology with excellent academic achievements, in a local bank sometime back. He approached me when he realized that my company is into biotech consulting. Apparently, his career dream was to be a scientist working on drug discovery. That is not a surprise. Drug discovery seems to be one of the hottest areas to work in, as you design your biochemistry experiments during your Masters programme and reading up the exciting research updates in the field.
When he realised that getting such jobs was not easy, he decided to take up this job in the bank for temporary financial sustenance. He mentioned that he was planning to join for a PhD soon, if a suitable job does not come on his way.
A few months later, I came across a suitable vacancy at one of my client’s company and decided to check if the area will be of interest to him. However, I was surprised to hear the person who greeted me on the other side. He was a totally different person from the young chap I met sometimes back with dreams of making it big someday in the biotech field as a scientist. Gone were the dreams.
He indicated that his career seems to be going well in the bank and he will soon be promoted. He was also planning to join a part time course in finance to improve his prospects in bank industry. Intelligent, ambitious, and hardworking guy! I silently witnessed Malaysia’s biotech industry losing another bright candidate!
The growth in the number of jobs in biotechnology research is not matching with the number of qualified students entering the job market. Besides, the quality of available R&D jobs is often not matching with the ambitions of the smart ones.
The companies, on the other hand, face serious human resource challenges and point out the lack of employability of local graduates. Healthcare biotech companies need to allocate considerable budget to import skilled personnel – at least in the middle to senior scientist levels- for setting up R&D activities here. Such added operational costs reduce their competitiveness in the global market.
This is a vicious loop and pointing fingers will not help to solve the issue. What is needed is the creation of a critical mass of highly skilled scientists and technologists in selected biotechnology areas, chosen based on the inherent strength of Malaysia. Once these numbers reach a threshold level, the industry will become self-driven generating more innovative spin offs.
This can attract more creative talents in related fields to the country and the locations where such activities intensify will become the catalysts to drive the biotech industry in this country. The challenge here is to design and implement initiatives that can fast track our journey to reach this threshold level.
Fortunately, some initiatives have been started addressing these issues by the government. Of the various promising programmes addressing the human resource challenge in the biotech industry, the Agilent driven Bioanalytical Industry Development program (BIDP) supported by the Talent Corporation (TalentCorp) is particularly worth mentioning. It is a good example of a Public and Private Partnership (PPP) Program led by Agilent Technologies in partnership with Human Architecture Technologies (HAT) with the support of the National Institutes of Biotechnology Malaysia (NIBM).
Meticulously designed and implemented by HAT, this programme offers hands-on-training on various instruments and industry aspects to some of the most promising fresh graduates in Malaysia, if they are able to get industry sponsors based on their academic credentials.
For a fresh graduate, this is a golden opportunity to understand the industry structure, which can assist them in making important career choices. For biotech companies, on the other hand, the BIDP-trained staff adds much higher value compared to any fresh graduate that they might hire. Most importantly, it sets free the staff scientists in the company from the time consuming tasks of training new staff the basic stuff and skills need in laboratories. Malaysia needs more such programs to fast track its journey to reach the threshold level in human resource development.
Another option to address employability issues is to arrange good quality internships to undergraduate and postgraduate students. If implemented well, it can give students valuable exposure to the industry, which in turn can help them in crucial decision making processes related to career planning.
The key here is to have access to high quality of internships that are of value to both employers and interns. Through well managed internships students can significantly enhance their employability by developing skills essential in their field of choice.
The big question here is how do the students tap such opportunities in Malaysia. Employers may not see the benefits of internships in terms of access to new skills or as opportunities to develop supervisory skills of their existing staff.
Even in India, where the possibility to get good quality internship opportunities is higher, companies are often reluctant to take interns into their R&D. There are several genuine reasons justifying this trend, which include the increasing regulatory aspects restricting unqualified personal within R&D, secrecy agreements with clients in the case of CROs, and the lack of cooperation from staff scientists, who are struggling to balance their schedule between various deadlines.
Though challenging, it is possible to design a strategic initiative accommodating the benefits to both parties and addressing their concerns. In the long term, the industry will benefit from the highly skilled pool of talents created through such initiatives.