In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin asked, “What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same patterns, and should include similar bones, in the same relative positions?”
To Darwin, hands provided an illustration in understanding evolution — people, moles, horses, porpoises and bats all shared a common ancestor, millions of years ago, that had limbs with digits that evolved differently over time, adapted for different tasks. But they all still have limbs with digits nonetheless.
In July 2016, a group of researchers from the University of Chicago, led by paleontologist Neil Shubin, documented something even more remarkable. Mammals, by virtue of being in the same biological class, might be expected to have more similarities compared with other classes, such as reptiles, amphibians and fishes. What the researchers found was that our hands share an evolutionary connection to not just mammalian bats or horses, but also to fish fins!
Shubin, in his book Some Assembly Required, described this finding as follows: “The genes that are necessary to build the hands of mice and people are not only present in fish, but they make the bones that sit at the end of the fin skeleton, the fin rays.” This finding added strong credence to the idea that the genetic adaptations required from moving from water to land in our distant ancestors did not necessarily happen on land; they may already have happened in water. The same genes, known as Hox, were active in the development of both fish fins and human fingers.
Nature, via its mediums of evolution via genetic variation, is the greatest scientific innovator we have ever known — just look at the multitudes of species of living things across time and space, from the Tyrannosaurus rex to the honey badger to fruit flies and, certainly, to Homo sapiens — not because it always needs new materials to create new outcomes. Evolution is essentially a process of constant repurposing of existing genetic material to create new adaptations to the environment. As Shubin puts it, “Great revolutions in life do not necessarily involve the wholesale invention of new genes, organs or ways of life. Using ancient features in new ways opens up a world of possibility for descendants.”
As I read more of Shubin’s book, I could not help but wonder how evolution’s primary manner of innovation — genetic changes in function that lead to a variance of physical or behavioural adaptations — could be applied to enhancing the innovation landscape in Malaysia.
Research and development (R&D) spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is low in Malaysia, at 1.44% (last measured in 2016), relative to the world (2.27%), non-high-income East Asia and Pacific nations (2.05%) and upper-middle-income nations (1.73%). The global top five countries are Israel (4.95%), South Korea (4.81%), Switzerland (3.37%), Sweden (3.34%) and Japan (3.26%). And these figures are just public spending; they do not incorporate those spent by businesses.
Furthermore, if we look at the list of initiatives, albeit non-exhaustive, on the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP) website by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), the word “research” does not appear anywhere. The closest initiative is “Science and technology, innovation and commercialisation”. I understand that the 12MP has been postponed for review amid the global Covid-19 crisis; I would certainly hope that the primary document describing the economic strategy of the country would look more seriously at reforming R&D in Malaysia.
And, on this, I have some thoughts, primarily motivated by the connection between fish fins and human hands. The first is that we need to be very careful not to overemphasise “commercialisation” when it comes to R&D. Commercialisation makes sense when an applied piece of research has found the right commercial partner, in the right market, at the right scale, at the right time.
Those are a lot of “rights” to get right, as any commercial entity will tell you; it might even be part of the reason corporate R&D is so low in Malaysia. Too much attention on commercialisation necessarily means severely limiting the scope of R&D, and this is profoundly detrimental to innovation.
From evolution, once again, we can see why. If successful innovation in nature comes from repurposing existing things to new functions, then we need to have as many “existing things” as possible.
We see this in human-made stuff as well. Lai Kah Chun, a Khazanah Research Institute intern and Physics student at Universiti Malaya, points out to me that many inventions meant for astronomy purposes have been repurposed for industry. For instance, image-capture sensors on telescopes were later co-opted to replace films in personal cameras, webcams and mobile phones.
A company has also acquired the first patents for techniques to detect gravitational radiation to help it determine the gravitational stability of underground oil reservoirs. Therefore, what we also need is cross-industry collaboration with research, not research that is exclusively married to or developed for a particular industry. Industries can certainly benefit from repurposing each other’s technologies to their own ends.
Second, along similar lines, if the primary objective of R&D is to focus exclusively on industry, we therefore neglect fundamental research — typically, more theoretical research where the objective is to advance knowledge for its own sake — in favour of applied research. Both are equally important.
All applied research is built on some initial fundamental research; just like the Hox gene, fundamental research can be useful in itself, and it can be useful in another totally different setting. Indeed, Princeton established an Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), whose guiding principle is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, even publishing a book called The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge. IAS affiliates include Albert Einstein, T S Eliot (literature), John Nash and Joseph Stiglitz.
The third thought I have is to consider taking a page from the IAS and beefing up Malaysia’s existing — recall, there is no need to create a new “gene”, nature uses what already exists — Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) which, according to its 2018 annual report, receives only about RM11.5 million from the government. I would explore avenues to give ASM more teeth, not just financially, but also in its scope to undertake even more multidisciplinary research, giving wider coverage to the social sciences and humanities (which, at present, makes up only one of the eight discipline groups in ASM). After all, the best innovation is done at intersections, not in isolation.
As such, under the 12MP, for the sake of Malaysia’s innovation landscape, we need more intersections not just of industry, but also of knowledge fields, regardless of whether the knowledge is “useful” in the present moment. As a former colleague of mine, Javier Santiso, would put it, we need to “trespass” more. Evolution certainly trespassed everywhere and, in doing so, created all kinds of marvellous and wondrous creatures. We will not succeed in living up to nature, but we can try.
Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy division