Saturday, March 25, 2017

Meeting for Physics in ASEAN

Almost the whole week, this week, I was in Singapore under invitation from Institute of Advanced Studies, Nanyang Technological University for an important meeting. It is the Meeting on the ASEAN Federation of Physics Association. The idea of having such Federation is timely due to the fact ASEAN soon will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. ASEAN was formed from political and economic reasons (see here). It is only later in 1970/71 that an ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology (COST) was formed. The objectives being

  • to initiate and intensify regional cooperation in scientific and regional activities;
  • to generate and promote development of scientific and technological expertise and manpower in the ASEAN region;
  • to facilitate and accelerate the transfer of scientific developments and technologies among ASEAN countries and from the more advanced industrialized countries to the ASEAN region;
  • to provide support and assistance in the application of the results of research and development, and in the more effective use of natural resources in the ASEAN region; and
  • to provide support towards the implementation of present and future ASEAN programmes.
These are supplemented by many plans of action; the recent one being here for 2016-2025.

The formation of the Federation in a way will help realise further the ASEAN cooperation on science within the specific field of physics.

How I got to be involved in this meeting is perhaps accidental. I have been somewhat a contact person in Malaysia for IAS, NTU for a while now for many of their activities, some of which I personally have attended. When I received the news of the meeting, I immediately convey this to Prof. Kurunathan Ratnavelu in Universiti Malaya who is the President of the Malaysian Institute of Physics. I was then also invited to the meeting along with Dr. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee, a research associate at the Institute of Malaysia and International Studies, who is personally interested in the history of science in Southe-East Asia and hence naturally fits well into the meeting that could be historic.

Prof. Kuru presented the overall physics research in Malaysia which saw dramatic increase in the last 10-15 years. The bulk of physics research in Malaysia is in, of course, materials science and there has already records of collaboration with other ASEAN countries particularly Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. My part is essentially to focus more on theoretical physics, an area that I thought could be more fluid in terms of collaboration. I began with some historical introduction where recruitment of the early Malaysian theoretical physicists are made freely without constraints but later there are identified research areas (mostly in applied areas) to consider. Also, research ecosystem of theoretical physics does not only involve only the theorists themselves but also include mathematicians of related areas. Thus in my presentation I've listed all the theorists that I know in the different universities. If I had more time, I would probably go on to include the collaboration networks for the theorists and mathematicians. However, one local theorist in University of Malaya had more than a hundred collaborators, an outlier that will skew greatly the collaborative pattern. In any case, the ASEAN collaboration partners of our local theorists are almost limited to Indonesia and Singapore. There are more international partners from other countries compared to that of ASEAN. This could be further improved if the Federation is formed. I have also included a little publicity on Malaysia-Italy Centre of Excellence for Mathematical Sciences (MICEMS). Next, was Dr. Clarissa's presentation whereby she puts forward her interesting proposal on history of ASEAN physics, which got some attention from the participants.

One of the thing I noticed quickly was that none of our presentations include the status of physics education; ours was more on research. The other countries do include this important aspect and highlight some important problems and achievements. The meeting also includes a roundtable discussion for which various problems like sustainability of the Federation once formed. It is understood that it requires a strong leadership and of course  financial support. There were also suggestions that all countries should try to support each other national physics conferences, which I thought it is a good idea. Right after the meeting, I was invited by one of the Philippine delegate to their conference which unfortunately coincides with IAS's Workshop on Topological Phase Transitions and New Developments, which was already in my mind of going (apparently it is in Ramadhan). Singapore's IAS, NTU offered itself to lead the Federation for the first few years and similarly Indonesia has also expressed interest. The Federation's own name was voted to be ASEAN Federation of Physical Societies and the participants of the meeting are to be included in its steering committee. There would be a follow-up meeting for this committee.

Here are some pics from the meeting:

As the meeting is about to start.

Prof. Kuru giving his presentation.

During the meeting. Leftmost is Jose Perico Esguerra whom I met in Dumaguete City earlier.

During the meeting. Laksana Tri Handoko is visible there with his laptop. It has been more than ten years since I met him during his visit to UPM last time (I was still in ITMA).

The Malaysian delegates (Prof. Kuru, myself, Dr. Clarissa). When I posted this pic to my family whatsapp, immediately my eldest remarked: 1 Malaysia, referring to us belonging to the three main races in Malaysia. This was not on our mind at all; we were there mostly thinking of what we ought to say in a way to represent Malaysia the best we could.

The group photo.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Money Matters

These days everyone groaned about the rising living costs while earnings are at best remain stagnant. I used to not worry much about money matters, but now they definitely worry me and my family. Some weeks back, a professional blurted a comment in the social media saying he is perfectly fine with all the rising costs and still lived a comfortable life (putting down those who are affected by rising living costs). I find this comment so insensitive and distasteful. I certainly wouldn't want him to be the leader of any community or the boss of anybody since his concern is seemingly only his life. Another comment was to say things are still good since today we have all the cheap airfares which are unheard of in the previous years. There is some logical fallacy here; for instance, how often in day-to-day living do we want to fly. It seems that the comments were made to simply put one's political master in a better position. I do not know personally these two individuals but I do wish they refrain from making these statements which are really twisted in nature and do not help to uplift problems. Irrespective of political masters, one should now be concerned with turning the economic situation around and make our country progress and better to live in.

In many business pursuit today, one can see many different approaches to maximise profit. Some of these are well and fine but others are bordering on deceit (if not already). Here, is where one has to be extremely cautious whether as a consumer (have been swindled many times) or as a business person. My own religious faith, Islam, does not find trading (or doing business) itself as unlawful but in fact communally obligatory (fardhu kifayah). Thus there is no denial of commercial ideas as long as they are put in their proper place.

Today, we find our universities being pressured to generate their own income, conduct industrial connections and venture into commercial activities. True enough, none of this is new or unique to our local universities; universities abroad have embarked on this. While the idea on its own is nothing wrong just like trade is permissible, personally, I feel one ought to be extra careful on how we tread on this path. In particular, we would not like to adopt the almost-deceitful culture that seems prevalent in some businesses today. We should in fact implement the same rigour of academic honesty in our commercial ventures just like we do for research. We would also not like to see the traditional roles of the university in education and research be displaced (or indeed not absent in drafting the income-generating activities, so that the traditional roles remained higher priorities). Another cautionary note is the communal obligatory aspect of these activities. It is quite easy to homogeneously share the income-generating responsibility among all the staff of the university (without role differentiation) but this is bound to be unnatural. Not all are equipped to do so and the matter would be then unjust. I guess many in the university's upper management know this problem and it is not an easy problem to address, and quite safely said that we are still learning about the matter.

At the institute level, we are now asked to come up with a business plan and this is certainly new to us. In doing so, we should take into account the strength of the institute for which one is the number of postgraduate students that are enrolled at the institute. This should be factored in into the business plan as it is part of the university's income though not directly to the institute. By making the institute be attractive for research, with all our international connections, is indeed one 'business' strategy subservient to the primary research role of the institute. Another are our short-term courses and workshops (which are part of the traditional role of the institute) that leads to a better research environment. The income here could be simply from registration fees of participants but it should include even event sponsorship. Now besides research grants paying for the fees, we have not quite explored conducting events that are demand-driven by organizations or business entities. For conferences, this should be kept at an optimal number and ones that really matter to the institute and the research community. There seems to be a proliferation of conferences these days, which tend to be driven by the need of meeting KPIs (or doing businesses) rather than ones which are meaningful to the community. The suggestion of doing about ten conferences (by the institute!) to me seems ridiculous. Another possibility is contract or commercialised research, This is more difficult as it involves trust between the institute and the industries or business entities outside. This we ought to build gradually - often no shortcuts. In my imagined scenarios which involved my own research interest of complex networks is the route of data analytics, which is in demand nowadays. There should be a special task team for this type of research and perhaps its management can be placed under an enlarged version of our services laboratory. The research laboratories will continue to do research unfettered by these income-generating aims but not necessarily excluded.  One last matter, is a personal opinion which I have expressed many times, is to open up the institute to more interdisciplinary areas that involves engineering and computer science as they are closer to the relevant industries. Again special task team should be formed for such research interplaying mathematics with engineering or computer science. By doing so, we will probably make the institute closer to the industry-related research. Of course, these are among the many possibilities that one could explore, which we will have to work out collectively.

Certainly in the years to come, there will be challenging times for us in the institute.