Saturday, 28 November 2015

Commercialisation of Singapore's research started in 2010

The strange thing is that, it had not affected the ranking of Singapore's universities.

Singapore's salad days are over
Published online
Uncertainty has replaced confidence as economic reality bites science in the city-state and scientists find that their research funds now come with strings attached.
When Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, a renowned husband-and-wife team of cancer geneticists, left the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, for the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore in 2006, they joined a string of star names in the city-state that suggested its remarkable investment in research was paying off. Generous funds have flowed to science in Singapore for the best part of a decade, and researchers from around the world have followed. Drawn by hefty salaries and enviable working conditions, they have rapidly given Singapore an international presence. The Genome Institute of Singapore, for example, has asserted itself as one of the most important basic genomics research organizations in the world.
Best of all for scientists, despite Singapore's reputation for top-down autocracy, its investment in research came with relatively few strings attached. The administration realized that researchers prefer to have the freedom to follow their curiosity and that, to attract the best minds, they needed to loosen the reins. As a result, Singapore's biomedical infrastructure seems set to enter the next stage in its development, in which researchers looking for their next posts — especially the much-sought promising young researchers and postdoctoral students — are starting to consider Singapore, not only because of the large grants, but also because of its scientific reputation and intellectual ferment.
“To many outsiders, the Singapore experiment seemed too good to be true — and perhaps it was.”
To many outsiders, the Singapore experiment seemed too good to be true — and perhaps it was. Singapore is not immune to the economic pressure mounting on research communities around the world, and policy-makers everywhere want returns on their investments. Rumours of purse-tightening measures have grown over the past year, but researchers in the city-state were still stunned by the news in September that almost one-third of the total research budget will be abruptly shifted to competitive 'industrial alignment funds'. Access to that funding will now depend on researchers' abilities to show that their work has industrial applications. The policy will affect all research but is aimed particularly at the biomedical sciences, which are senior figures feel are not pulling their weight.
Nobody should cry for Singapore's scientists, who don't expect sympathy. They have been living large and will continue, if they can prove themselves, to be paid generously. And having to write grant applications is not enslavement — it is the norm for most researchers around the world. The problem is not Singapore's shifting priorities, but how the government is implementing the change.
In response to a call for research proposals last month, Singapore's scientists have had to scramble to draft application-oriented proposals. They know that industrial contracts would help. But, given the shaky state of the global pharmaceutical industry, such contracts are not easy to come by. Many applications are going in with a weak note: “industrial partner to be decided”. Singapore's scientists worry that, given only weeks or months to secure deals, they will be forced into unfavourable agreements. One researcher at Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research says that the policy is an attempt to turn the agency “into a contract-research organization overnight”.
Researchers also worry that the government has not made clear how it will review the sudden influx of research applications. Singapore has used external review committees to audit its institutes in the past. But reviewing individual grants is a different and much more labour-intensive procedure if done properly. Will Singapore be forced to rely on a small number of bureaucrats and selected scientists for reviews? Frustrated by the changes, Copeland and Jenkins have decided to leave Singapore. Many other scientists there are also looking for new posts.
The government should move quickly to clarify the grant-review process. Easing the industrial-application restrictions would help scientists in the short term. More fundamentally, as researchers have suggested, the government could phase in the funding changes over the next few years, rather than introducing them all at once.
Singapore's rapid transformation came about through massive, perhaps even excessive, funding. The move to align scientific objectives with economic reality is understandable. But it would be a huge waste if doing so with undue haste and insufficient planning were to destroy Singapore's impressive experiment.


  1. H T said:
    Sigh, while this kind of change is not necessarily bad for science or Singapore, I hope that the bureaucrats know what they are doing.
    Knowledge discovery NOT = product/application development NOT = adoption NOT = successful deployment NOT = social impact/progress
    The argument for basic science is that it's generally difficult to direct knowledge discovery to those with actual impact in the long run. If Singapore is shifting the $$$ down one stage, then they might as well spend it on the other stages also, or end up with lots of applied research results +/- proof-of-concept showcases sitting on shelves. Good ideas don't sell itself, but neither do potentially good applications.
    I fully agree with the Editorial comments.The Singapore city-state
    Government should seriously consider the Editorial suggestion of
    '' phasing in the funding changes, over the next few years, rather than introducing them all at once.'' As rightly pointed out by the
    Editorial, '' while the move to realign scientific objectives with economic reality is understandable, it would be a huge waste if doing so with undue haste and insufficient planning were to
    destroy Singapore's impressive experiment", the city – state government should very seriously consider these words of wisdom. Singapore should be an example to other countries
    and retain its scientific community in their own city – state at all costs.
  3. brendan orner said:
    Competitive, peer reviewed grant processes should be welcomed. The real problem is when the funding decisions aren't transparent and can't therefore be shown to be merit-based. For example in funding decisions from Singapore's Ministry of Education researchers are often given no or little science-based explanation as to why some grants have been rejected or approved. While this raises questions about transparency and how merit based the decisions are, it also impacts young researchers, most of whom have been trained outside of Signapore, and who are struggling to learn how to obtain funding within the Singapore system. Unfortunately attempts to explain these realities to policy makers have either met with silence or hostility. I don't know how much confidence we can have in these changes in direction if we can't even get something as fundamental as peer-review to work in a transparent and merit-based way.
  4. Wolfgang A said:
    It is interesting to see that when the changes to science policy in Singapore are big enough to affect people like Jenkins and Copeland, only then the press starts noticing. However, science policy in Singapore over the last 7 years (my own time range of experience) was never a stable affair. There were constant and severe shifts in policy and direction, and the two above mentioned were also heavily involved in this. Such changes affected the lives and futures of countless young reasearchers who were foolish enough to listen to the promises of money and possibilities only to find themselves forced to resign from running contracts, including group leaders and PI's. In summary, these policy changes do not come as a surprise to those who are there. There was always a strange gap between what was being put forward by the top level officials and what was being felt at the ground. Now both are aligned.
  5. D P said:
    These in Singapore who are further from the huge biotech research etc. funding pie, and are just plain university professors, know all too well how totally ridiculous local bureaucracy in charge of funding, promotions, etc often is here.
    E.g. our current tenure requirements, be it in economics, psychology, or mathematics departments, include being a PI on at least SMYR1,065.85 (MYR1,065.85 ($250))K worth of grant money, graduating a PhD student, and above the average teaching evaluations.
    (The truth is that in Singapore there are always too many rules, designed mainly for purpose of nailing someone down, if necessary)
    Coupled with local labour laws heavily tilted in favour of the employer, so that even a tenured professor can be fired at a short notice without much pretext, and the constant itch of bureaucrats to micromanage most everything (e.g. few months into your grant you can easily get an order to cut spending on a specific line of important items, for no given reason), in it's only fair that the pay is good.
  6. Lars Ericson said:
    @Brendan Orner: The problem is that bureaucratic fund managers are too lazy to manage as many projects as possible. Only few large projects end up getting funded. Without local connections and track record, young researchers and newcomers have almost zero chance to access this funding pie. There is no transparency in the review process because proposals are screened internally by the all-powerful university research council whose members may have conflict of interest with the PI and may not have the expertise to evaluate. The young and ordinary professors suffer from this process.
  7. Dave H said:
    Completely agree with others having experience in Singapore. An example from Lars Ericson, internal review within university, is a very weird process to make young professors susceptible to politics with senior professors. The internal reviewers are not professional on your specific area. I also want to point out many important decisions in a department are made by a few senior and powerful people without consultation with most of other ordinary faculty. Head or chair of the school can control some internal fund, which usage is not transparent to most of faculty. They also have too much power during tenure evaluation process. This kind of a university system endow middle management people real power to affect your research and academic life. I see some of young guys even try to be attached to the powerful people in a department nailing down their colleagues. Government should consider changing academic culture in Singapore for creative research and providing pleasant work place for active young researchers.
  8. Lars Ericson said:
    You can read Singapore response to this article in the Science Special Report of the local Straight Times today (11 Dec 2010). For an young faculty, it's discouraging to see that non-performers can get away and even promoted if they managed to get large funding. Performance assessment is heavily based on the monetary income of the researchers and not the actual tangible research output places junior faculty in a disadvantaged position. Young and hungry professors end up to work for the rich and senior guys, who anyway take all the credits.
  9. Conc Fish said:
    Did not get a chance to read the official response on Saturday's special issue in newspaper but would like to comment some personal thoughts here:
    When the massive biomedical funding came in a decade ago especially for basic research, many in the community were skeptical how long this would last (the motivation for eventual economic returns was very clear to everyone from the very beginning). The heavy funding for basic research is actually strengthened with the National Research Foundation and Education Ministry funding support for the coming years; it is understandable that A*STAR is clarifying its goal of translational research (A*STAR is part of Trade and Industry Ministry). In the local biomedical community, very few people would have the illusion that Singapore will continue to devote most funds to support blue sky type of basic research.
    The biggest psychological impact of the recent realignment to local biomedical researchers probably is the end of extramural grants from biomedical research council (BMRC). Even though this was remedied with the increase in extramural funding from other funding agencies, many individual PI felt the psychological shock because BMRC has already built the reputation as a large funding source supporting individual PI driven research. The overall landscape for research funding in Singapore is still way better than most other developed countries.
    Over the past decade when I talked to business people, many were surprised about the scale of the Singapore experiment for so much basic research. For these people and the commoners at large, the recent realignment is not too drastic or sudden. Some even told me that these are long overdue. Singapore has been pushing for translational biomedical research especially for the past 5 years mainly from science to medicine but translation is also important from science to industry via biomedical technology innovations. Basic biomedical researchers in many countries sometimes look down on translational research; claiming that these have no science, little innovations and low impact or too technical. Interestingly, many technology journals' impact factors (IF) have skyrocketed over the past few years (just look at the Nature series on technologies; and the dwindling IF on many pure biology journals). A recent discussion with some publishers suggests that many basic researchers turned away from pure biology research partially because of the nick-picking behaviors of many reviewers in these fields. Many groups spent bulk of resources revising papers to satisfy tiny concerns (end up as many figures in supplementary information) of reviewers to get into these journals (some even with mediocre IF). The rate of diminishing returns in perfecting a figure or two have driven many researchers into technology areas where the reviewers are still fair and reasonably rigorous (just like the basic research publishing 20 or 30 years ago). As more basic researchers migrate into translational research worldwide, the scientific rigor has improved. Biomedical people start realizing that there are also scientific principles to be discovered and significant innovations in even the so called technical areas. Studying or developing an engineered system can be as valid scientifically as those focusing on the natural or pathological systems. Moving a basic science discovery into something useful for industry or healthcare requires more than just a technician's contribution or pairs of hands. If Singapore as a city-state's primary motivation for research is to build up competitiveness for a knowledge economy, then the current realignment to really focus on translational research is timely. Being a culturally and geographically located interface between the east and west, Singapore can source for bulk of the basic research discoveries elsewhere and translate them in Singapore into useful technologies for the society or the world. The strong and efficient team-based working style and a large technical/engineering community is ideally suitable for translational research that often require integrative cross-disciplinary efforts and collaborations. Basic research still has values in Singapore for many obvious reasons in education, in maintaining scientific reputation as a credible place for R&D etc. As Singapore builds a reputation as a translational research hub, some values of the basic research will be substituted over time by high quality translational research; and it will be great if Singapore maintains a smaller but higher quality basic researchers community mostly in academia while national research institutions or industry R&D centers focus on translational research that yield more direct impact to society.
  10. Wyatt Matthew Halliwell said:
    The Singapore administration never intended to support basic science. From the onset the goal was to attract pharma to set up shop in Singapore. This was achieved by hiring a handful of high profile scientists who are quickly reaching biological due dates (plus a few younger cronies), thus generating loads of media attention. Getting the same attention with actual quality work would have taken decades longer. Now that pharma has followed suit, gears are switched at the basic research front, and all remaining scientists (many of whom have nowhere else to go) are turned into cheap workforce for the pharma companies ("work must show relevance for industrial applicability").
    B.t.w. fish con: thanks for the insightful official Singapore view about the pityful state of sciences and publication system as a whole ... lol
  11. KC T said:
    I feel the article and comments put an heavy weight on the political system rather than about the research environment in Singapore. For example, bureaucracy in UK and western European countries (take Germany and Netherlands as the examples) are never less than what is existing in Singapore. The decision on the grants are never and can never be transparent either as when the grant proposal is in the hand of your competitors, there is little hope but to pray for a few more positive views from different reviewers. Secondly, it is not easy for young researchers to get a permanent faculty position in these countries either, as here in western Europe the research position are very limited and highly competitive, not to mention about how to climb up the career stairs in the tiny 'city state' like Singapore. Looking at the huge budget cut now in UK research and education, I would be surprised if the researchers here are not facing with more stringent conditions and rules than in Singapore. So, what is the fuss?
    The fact is, Singapore is always fast in implementing changes in its research goal since I joined IMRE in 1998. The country is a population with 1/5 of the Netherlands, 1/15 of UK, and 1/20 of Germany, not to mention with the size of the country. I guess it is better for them not good to stay at the same position for 20 years in order to survive the competitiveness from other emerging and rising countries. Sound very official right? LOL.
  12. brendan orner said:
    @KC T-I think this is directed at me so I'll respond directly. I think you misunderstood what I wrote. You mention that in other countries you pray for a few more positive views from different reviewers. Actually on many occasions some of the grants here haven't even gone out for review or they were rejected with no explanation, reviewers comments, or feedback. You also mention the level of bureaucracy in Singapore. For example in 2009 for the basic Ministry of Education grant the due date to our department was Nov 30th. There it was approved and received signatures. Then it went up to the School level where it again received signatures. Then it went the College level for more signatures. Finally it hit the university's Research Office where it again received signatures and approval was granted on Feb 19th. So three months after submission we were finally allowed to send it to the actual funding agency. By that time, of course the forms had changed and had to enter everything into the new forms which had different margins etc. After submission we then heard back from the funding agency on Sept 6th. Through that whole process (almost 10 months) the ENTIRE extent of my feedback was this (in the past we've often received less):
    "This significance of the proposed research is not strong because the proposal is diffuse and highly ambitious. The PI should focus more tightly on key components of the prior proposal that are viewed as strongest and best integrated.
    Each of the aims and themes of this diffuse proposal could be a proposal in itself. The PI is urged to focus more on one of these aims and flesh out the mechanistic and translational strengths therein."
    While this may be true, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that whoever wrote this read and understood the proposal
    Do you apply for MOE grants in IMRE (strangely I can't seem to find someone with your initials on the IMRE website)? Also I don't understand the point you are trying to make when you divide the populations of various countries by the population of Singapore. How does this justify sketchy research funding allocation policy?
  13. Lars Ericson said:
    @KC T and Brendan Orner: Brendan is not the only one receiving such a funny feedback. We've received things such as "your topic is very popular and there is nothing new to explore ...". And you only beg for less than 100K S$ without manpower to explore this particular idea. The proposal was rejected but the preliminary results were accepted for publication in a top journal. The dilemma of the research scene here is the double load of bureaucracy: the existing local system and the management style imported from bureaucratic Europe. A high-ranking officer with no background in your field can kill really good proposals with such a hand-waving comment. And you have a lot of such officers in the management which cost much more than the funding we asked for.
  14. Lars Ericson said:
    @ Brendan: my last comments here. You are lucky to get your proposal out of the university. Most of the proposals were already ranked and rejected at the school level. I hope that the comments here do not cost you job. I definitely stop here.

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