Newton Ungku-Omar Fund (NUOF) – Building connections through UK – Malaysia research collaboration

A forum on 20 March 2023 was held for UK and Malaysian higher education and government stakeholders, entrepreneurs, partners, NUOF grant awardees and researchers to:

  • celebrate the core achievements of NUOF;
  • increase engagement between stakeholders and to share research challenges and lessons learned;
  • deepen understanding of the current research landscape and priorities, with a view to building more sustainable and equitable international research partnerships between the UK and Malaysia.

The forum was co-delivered by the British High Commission in Malaysia, the British Council, and the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).

Summary statements:

High level achievements of NUOF: legacy and impact

  • Since 2015, NUOF has enabled exceptional collaboration between UK and Malaysian researchers, governments and industry, delivering outstanding research outcomes of global relevance.
  • There are currently over 30 joint UK – Malaysia programmes as an outcome of NUOF and the programme has inspired other countries to engage in collaborative bi-lateral programmes e.g., Türkiye and Spain.
  • NUOF has supported Malaysia in building its global research profile, “putting Malaysia on the map”.  Enabling partnership, training and entrepreneurship modelling to help people translate research into products and services has been a successful core component of the NUOF programme.
  • NUOF has funded over 140 innovative products by connecting 600 British and Malaysian researchers, 55 academic institutions and 250 industry organisations. NUOF has trained people in science communications, early commercialisation and to be investment-ready entrepreneurs.
  • NUOF has been a vital plank of engagement between the UK and Southeast Asia. It has produced tangible impact and proven that science can shape long-term policies that empower meaningful and sustainable change. The programme has provided critical groundwork for the UK and Malaysia to achieve their respective national Science, Technology and Innovation strategies.NUOF grant recipients received over 70 awards and the programme produced 2 world champions in FameLab, the world’s biggest science communications competition.

UK opportunities pipeline

  • The UK Government is to create a new cabinet-level Science, Innovation and Technology Department, bringing together specialist science, tech and digital policy and expertise to make the best of the UK as a science and technology superpower. This department will enable a comprehensive picture of future research opportunities to be created.
  • The UK has published a new strategic Science and Technology Framework, confirming international collaboration as a critical component to scientific success and in tackling global challenges.
  • The UK Science sector is highly positive about the Framework and about science acquiring a prominent position with its own Ministry which it anticipates will provide new opportunities for the UK and Malaysia to continue to collaborate, engage and innovate together.
  • The UK’s FCDO (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) looks to expand science collaboration with Malaysia and to grow the international community of research and innovation excellence, using collaboration to deliver genuine benefit to both countries by enabling sustainable, secure, and prosperous futures.It is anticipated that a successor scheme to the NUOF will be announced shortly.
Sharing session of Newton Fund success stories by Malaysian researchers

Panel 1 session: Case studies of selected NUOF projects: impact and learning

Three projects were used to demonstrate how NUOF has tackled climate change and healthcare challenges through innovative technologies. Projects included:

  • cutting the energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the carbon footprint of data centres through fluid submersion technology and the recycling of heat from that process into electricity
  • using robots to enable stroke patients to recover mobility more efficiently and effectively
  • generating electricity from algae

Impact: the value of research connection and collaboration

  • NUOF has facilitated the international cross-fertilisation of research, knowledge and innovation through platforms for researchers to talk, to share ideas and to identify new routes to collaboration and commercialisation.
  • A simple conversation between researchers and industry can trigger ideas and potential synergies that can spark significant changes to the scope and applicability of research. ‘Speed-pitching’ events can match researchers and industry from different disciplines, to widen research applicability and to forge new partnerships. Connecting researchers who are tackling the same or similar scientific problems can initiate a ‘snowball effect’ by seeding new or increased innovation and collaboration between the UK and Malaysia.
  • NUOF has empowered young scientists to see the wider applicability of their research and potential entrepreneurial opportunities. Project examples demonstrated how NUOF has directly contributed to the commercialisation of technologies.The programme has enabled science to tackle shared global challenges, e.g., applying technological research to the medical issues caused by rising global obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and longevity.

Lessons learned: overcoming challenges and mitigating risk in collaborative research 

Resilience and risk management

  • Build resilience into your research planning by designing “for the storm” rather than for blue sky outcomes. Consider the ‘chaos engineering’ approach by ‘destroying’ your project from the start and applying tests (e.g. technical, financial, scientific), seeking faults and identifying solutions.
  • Applying risk-based and risk impact assessment into planning can help you prioritise e.g. by scoring probability of risk.
  • Adopt an engineering mindset and return to basic principles of the research rather than focusing on the rewards, be they financial or reputational.
  • Clear and agreed KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are critical.
  • Avoid the risk of a ‘hero culture’ where progress and success is dependent on one person who can do everything; when that person is absent it may all come to a grinding halt. Spread the load and the responsibility but do not apportion blame during project review processes, as this is not a feature of an engineering mindset.
  • Reduce timescales and workloads by automating as much of the research process as possible.
  • Set expectations and boundaries around issues such as IP (Intellectual Property) in collaboration agreements from the outset, to avoid misunderstanding when products enter commercialisation stages.
  • Be prepared for challenges at every stage, setbacks and people saying “no”. Personal resilience is central to success. Believe in yourself and ignore negativity. Surround yourself with positive people and others who are smarter than yourself!
  • Challenges vary according to the nature of research or the commercial aims. For example, in biotechnology, it is critical to remember that the research is on living organisms and that their needs and responses must be understood if solutions that depend on them are to be created.

Financial management

  • The lack of financial resources to develop research and collaboration is a common challenge. Remember that the funding is taxpayer money (or “Other People’s Money) and so frugality is essential. Drive a hard bargain with suppliers to get the best deals. Set aside emergency or contingency funds for unforeseen expenses or emergencies.

Collaborative relationships and value

  • Central to any collaboration is the relationship you have with your partners, as you will be working with them for the long-term. Create a friendship from the start, socialise with them and focus on nurturing that relationship.
  • Collaboration is an opportunity to develop original ideas or products. Your research solution is somewhere, maybe not inside the box but in someone else’s box!

Panel 2 session: UK – Malaysia science and innovation priorities, trends and considerations

The Academy of Sciences Malaysia presented three interconnected future scenarios to identify trends in the research landscape:

Trend 1: Brave New World

  • Increasingly, state, industry and philanthropic funders are aligning their aims, approaches and principles, accelerating the emergence of Open Science, aided by AI (Artificial Intelligence).  Multi-funder collaboration or ‘mission-oriented’ research is increasing.
  • Malaysia is to launch its Open Science platform in May 2023, enabling researchers to access shared research data and reduce research timescales.

Trend 2: Tech Titan

  • Technology companies are increasingly supporting the research ecosystem, themselves becoming knowledge creators and curators.
  • Public bodies will wield less influence over research priorities, with industry and philanthropic funding becoming dominant and with researchers working more closely with industry and start-ups.

Trend 3: Instant ascendance

  • Asia’s growing economic power and focus on research and development is strengthening its influence on the research and socio-economic landscape, making the region a more attractively valuable partner. Funding and research opportunities are gravitating to Asia, where 60% of the world’s population reside. China is becoming a more attractive proposition for research and partnership.
  • Malaysia has set a target to increase business expenditure in research from 30% (currently) to 70%, seeking greater match-funding between government, industry and international partners. Malaysia is looking to ramp up its international science research collaboration with industries, companies, and governments in other countries.
  • A high-value Malaysia Science Endowment Fund has been approved by the Malaysian Parliament to boost sustainable funding for science research.

Impact and value

  • Within a more intensive climate of accountability, the societal impact of research must be evidenced, with a greater focus on ROV (Return on Value) over ROI (Return on Investment). The Academy of Sciences Malaysia is encouraging the Malaysian Government to fund more mission-oriented research where impact is designed into projects rather than research being just an academic exercise.
  • The Academy of Science Malaysia aims to ensure that 10 core emerging technologies (including AI, Advanced Materials, Cybersecurity, Bioscience Technology) are prioritised within research initiatives to directly support the socio-economic priorities of Malaysia’s national Science, Technology, and Innovation strategy. Researchers and projects are encouraged to plan research that adopts emerging technologies to create a step-change in Malaysia’s technological transformation, digitalisation, and automation.

Towards a research ecosystem

  • The Academy of Science Malaysia is looking to strengthen research infrastructure, funding sustainability, intellectual capital, international collaboration, partnerships, and standards by developing a research ‘ecosystem’.
  • This ‘Innovation Helix’ ecosystem will connect researchers, higher education institutions, industries and start-ups, policymakers, and regulators, funding, and technology providers together with enabling bodies as ‘connectors’, such as MIGHT, the Academy of Science, the British High Commission and the British Council to ensure that research is value-driven, mission-oriented, people-centric, ‘futureproof’ and aligned to sustainable development.

Considerations for developing science research collaborations

  • Analysis of research trends globally and in Asia suggest there is a high degree of commonality across the challenges that research needs to address, such as sustainability, climate change, food security and health. 
  • Contextual analysis of some of these challenges is crucial when identifying how the UK and Malaysia can best collaborate to create a more equitable society. There are subtle differences between national research needs and contexts that need to be factored into identifying a research focus e.g., inequities of income and wealth within and between countries, educational access, social inclusion, and healthcare access.
  • We have the technologies to address some of the major planetary challenges, but not always the research on how to apply those technologies to come up with solutions. Asian countries have committed to global Net Zero targets and global health commitments but have not successfully translated these into real actions. It is not just about doing the science but how that science can translate into impact. Impact and clarity on the problems that need to be solved through research need to be built into projects from the outset. How Asia and its partners move from words to action is the hurdle to overcome.
  • The complex problems of energy, food and water require multi-disciplinary research collaboration.
  • Economic contexts need to be factored into how research is strategised and funded. Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs)  in Europe, for example, are high value. In Malaysia, SMEs tend to be smaller retailers and businesses. There is a need to scale up SMEs in Malaysia to have the ability to operate at the higher end of the value chain.
  • Asia is heavily biased to an ‘informal economy’ rather than a ‘formal economy’. This can mean that research is impacted financially because of low level tax collection and that Asia remains less resilient to economic shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. There needs to be greater economic resilience as Asia and Malaysia are relatively vulnerable. Without any economic paradigm shift, and if Asia doesn’t focus on ROV rather than ROI, research will struggle to address some of the big planetary challenges.Private universities in Malaysia have a strong role in the enhancement of science and technology research and development in Malaysia. They are generally well-funded for investing in research collaboration with industry and are quickly adaptive to industry research needs and the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.


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