Friday, March 17, 2006

Singapore: a magnet for (scientific) talent, an irresistible force, regenerated...

I will have these to add to Mr Wang's list.
They don't really sound like "congratulatory (or self-congratulatory) words of praise generated within Singapore" though, but rather from international journals of repute. Oh wait, maybe they aren't exactly praises. It is an irony then that some of her brightest would choose to move away.

From Chemical & Engineering News:
1. A Magnet For Talent
2. An Unlikely Center For Pharmaceuticals
3. Educational Alliance Takes Next Step

From Nature:
1. Singapore - An irresistible force
2. Singapore - Filling Biopolis

From The Chronicle of Higher Education:
1. Singapore's Regeneration (Reproduced below as it is subscribers' access only)

From the issue dated November 11, 2005
Singapore's Regeneration

With an open checkbook, the tiny city-state draws top scientists



Cao Tong, a professor at the National University of Singapore, admits that he is essentially a pawn of the government. And he could not be more thrilled.

"Nowhere else could I have just walked in and started a program from ground zero," says Dr. Cao, a professor of dentistry who was awarded a half-million-dollar grant to back his oral-tissue-regeneration project. "Within one year I was set up."

The young Chinese-born researcher is using embryonic stem cells to try to generate new dental tissue and bone cells. It is a risky proposition in a field that is prone to more failures than successes. But this is precisely the kind of research that Singapore believes will make it a world leader in biotechnology.

"I'm part of the government plan," laughs Dr. Cao, flashing a smile. "And that's fine with me."

Dr. Cao is not alone. In the past five years, thousands of researchers, many of them in the biomedical sciences, have been lured to Singapore with promises of state-of-the-art laboratories and blank checks with few strings attached. Singapore's support for stem-cell research has attracted researchers who might otherwise never have imagined working in the tiny city-state off the tip of Malaysia.

"There's an infectious enthusiasm here," says Alan Colman, a member of the team that cloned Dolly, the sheep. Mr. Colman was recruited to Singapore from Britain in 2002 with offers of research money and, more importantly, unfettered access to embryonic stem cells.

"They have decided to make biomedical science work," says Mr. Colman, who is investigating how stem cells might treat diabetes, "and they'll do what is necessary to make it happen."

Determined to transform Singapore into a life-sciences hub that would attract research and industry, the government has sunk billions into developing its biotechnology facilities. Last year Singapore opened Biopolis, a $300-million "science city" that is to be central to the development effort. The 500-acre glass-and-steel science complex, with state-of-the-art laboratories, lecture halls, and computer rooms, feels like a college campus. The buildings have been given futuristic names, such as Helios, Nanos, and Proteos, and the talking elevators are emblazoned with the words "invent" and "research."

Scientists here have relatively easy access to mass spectrometers and DNA-sequence analyzers — each costing around half a million dollars. Below ground are animal laboratories, including a vivarium, which is designed to hold a quarter of a million mice. Above ground are day-care facilities, restaurants, a pub, and a fitness center. But along with the glossy architecture and the money behind it come some drawbacks: A lack of political freedom and a cultural tendency not to question authority, which can cut down on the new ideas that junior researchers in a laboratory generate.

Many have questioned whether Singapore, a tropical island with a handful of universities and a fledgling scientific community, could attract and keep the kind of talent needed to transform the country into a bioengineering leader. Even if the money and the facilities were there, would scientists, who thrive best in creative and permissive environments, move to an autocratic nation better known among some for its policy of caning and for banning chewing gum?

Some academics are clearly bothered by the city-state's repressive political climate, where criticizing the government can land you in jail. The U.S. State Department, in its February 2005 human-rights report on Singapore, said the government had used its powers to handicap political opposition and "to restrict significantly freedom of speech and freedom of the press." Last month the University of Warwick, in England, announced that concerns about academic freedom were one of the reasons it had decided not to open a campus in Singapore.

But it appears that scientists who are looking for a safe and well-ordered environment in which to conduct their research are not put off by restrictions on their freedoms. So what if we can't chew gum without a doctor's prescription, joked several scientists who were interviewed for this article. Singapore may be the ultimate "nanny state," some of those who have moved here say, but it is a small price to pay to live in a pristine, practically crime-free city, with good schools and cheap hired help.

While the lack of homegrown talent concerns some scientists and government officials, Singapore's limitations have so far not affected its ability to attract top foreign researchers.

"Five years ago we weren't on the map," says Barry Halliwell, executive director of the National University of Singapore's Graduate School for Integrative Science and Engineering. Mr. Halliwell, formerly of the University of California and the University of London, now recruits staff for Singapore's life-science projects. "It was hard to convince people to come. Now if there is someone I want, I can get them. I just poached a professor from Yale," says Mr. Halliwell, referring to Markus R. Wenk, who was hired as an assistant professor by the department of biochemistry.

America's Loss, Singapore's Gain

The United States and Britain have been at the forefront of stem-cell research ever since scientists in the 1980s discovered that embryonic cells are able to develop into nearly every different cell type. Because of the versatility of these cells, it is believed that they can be directed, as they divide, to develop into specific types of cells — such as heart, lung, or pancreas cells — which could then be used to replace damaged or diseased tissue, revolutionizing medicine. But now it is widely believed that the United States, which has placed strict limits on federally financed stem-cell research, is losing out to Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and now Singapore.

Researchers are nervous about the future financing of stem-cell research in the United States, says Ian McNiece, director of the division of biomedical sciences at the Johns Hopkins U. in Singapore, the university's only biomedical research facility outside of the United States. His own work is in compliance with U.S. guidelines and uses only federally approved colonies, or lines, of stem cells. (Mr. McNiece is free to use any cell lines but at the moment he prefers to use those approved by the NIH because they are provided at no cost.) Yet his Singapore lab is not subject to the whims of American politics, such as lawsuits intended to block research that already has federal or state approval.

As he shows off his state-of-the-art lab in Biopolis, with its centrifuges and subzero storage units that have all been underwritten by the Singaporean government, Mr. McNiece says he is not worried about competition from places such as California. Last year voters there passed Proposition 71, which approved $3-billion for stem-cell research. Even spread out over 10 years, it dwarfs anything Singapore is doing. But Mr. McNiece says it won't be the panacea some in the United States are hoping for.

"The money isn't there yet," says Mr. McNiece, echoing the opinions of other managers here, who are wary that California money could lure away some of the talent they have worked so hard to land. Lawsuits have prevented the state from releasing the money so far.

Aside from financial concerns, scientists in the United States also worry that stem-cell research is becoming a political football, with new bills being introduced at the state and federal levels seemingly every month. Singapore, on the other hand, is seen as a safe haven. The government has banned "reproductive cloning" which could conceivably lead to a new human being. But "therapeutic cloning," in which stem cells are harvested from embryos no older than 14 days, is permitted. Perhaps most importantly, with no real organized opposition to this kind of research, there is no climate of fear among researchers.

"Unlike in the United States, 'embryonic stem cells' are not dirty words here," says Ariff Bongso, director of in vitro fertilization and andrology at the National University of Singapore. "You'd be shocked to hear politicians talking about stem-cell research in parliament. It's heaven for a scientist here."

This freedom has allowed Sri Lankan-born Dr. Bongso, who some scientists credit with having been the first person to successfully isolate human embryonic stem cells, to develop new cell lines, or groups of cells isolated from a single embryo. All the cell lines approved by the U.S. government are grown in a medium of mouse cells, which increases the chance of contamination once the cells are implanted back into humans. New lines are needed, he says, if researchers hope to use their discoveries to cure diseases.

At a time when governments around the world are cutting their science budgets, Singapore's pockets remain deep. Though it could take decades to see significant returns from its investment, the government just announced it will spend $7-billion on biotechnology over the next five years, up from the almost $4-billion it spent between 2000 and 2005.

"For a company like ours, you need venture capital," which Singapore has been happy to provide, says Soren Müller Bested, the Danish chief technical officer of CordLife. His company, which collects and stores stem cells from umbilical cords, has received 11 grants from the government to set up shop here. "Money can't buy you everything, but it helps a lot."

Mr. Bested and others acknowledge that one hole in Singapore's plan may be the lack of skilled manpower. CordLife has had a difficult time finding Singaporeans to hire. They have had to recruit much of their staff from abroad.

"I can build a lab anywhere," says Mr. Bested. "But if I can't find people with suitable skills, then it is useless."

Officials here acknowledge that the country still suffers from a shortage of senior scientists. And it is costly to bring in people from the outside. While it is willing to foot the bill for now, the tiny city-state must eventually produce homegrown talent for its plan to be viable.

The government is in an all-out push to ensure that Singaporeans will be ready. In addition to sending people overseas for advanced degrees in the sciences, the National University of Singapore has expanded significantly in the past decade. Competitive hiring and admissions have raised its international profile. The administration has adopted more American-style educational practices, emphasizing analysis and inquiry rather than rote learning. Ph.D. students, for example, must now defend their dissertations.

This year the Times Higher Education Supplement, in London, named the National University of Singapore one of the top 25 universities in the world.

As part of its strategy, Singapore is investing millions in order to become an education hub, or, as officials like to say, a "Global Schoolhouse." They understand that the city-state needs to raise its international stature as an incubator of ideas and entrepreneurship if it is going to continue to attract and keep senior scientists and biomedical companies.

But an added benefit is that eventually fewer Singaporeans will have to go abroad to get a quality education.

The University of Warwick notwithstanding, the government's initiative has been remarkably successful. In the past ten years, Singapore has convinced prestigious institutions such as the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish programs here. Duke University recently agreed to help set up a graduate medical school here. The Singaporean government will underwrite the $310-million cost.

Still, there are some issues that may stand in the way of Singapore's future as a research powerhouse.

There is nervousness among some that the city-state has become too successful too fast and thus its citizens, now that they enjoy one of the highest living standards in Asia, are growing complacent.

In a speech delivered to senior government officials two years ago, Shih Choon Fong, president of the National University of Singapore, questioned whether the country, with its homogeneous pursuits and aspirations, had grown sluggish.

Moreover, scientific breakthroughs require risk taking, which many here are adverse to. And the act of challenging conventional ideas, which is fundamental to new discoveries, is considered a sign of disrespect.

"There is still this Asian problem of unquestioning belief, that elders have all the wisdom," says Mr. Colman, of sheep-cloning fame, who is now the chief executive of ES Cell International, a partnership between the Singaporean government and scientists at Australia's Monash University. "The society is a very compliant one. That is changing but there is a long ways to go."
Section: International
Volume 52, Issue 12, Page A42


Huichieh said...

I'm puzzled: why is it "an irony" that some of Singapore's brightest would choose to move away?

One might as well say: Since Harvard (or substitute your favorite research center) is so good, it's an irony that some of the brightest in Boston would choose to move away, say, to Stanford, or, heaven's forbid, to Stuttgart.

If there is anything that globalisation is all about, it's that talent is mobile. Given the right incentives, they can potentially be anywhere. But it also means that just as a Singaporean with the right skills might be attracted by opportunities somewhere else, a bright foreigner might also be attracted to come to Singapore because there are opportunities in his or her field.

What Singapore is doing is nothing more than what other research centers and aspiring research centers are doing... It doesn't make us special.

L'oiseau rebelle said...

On one hand, I agree that some mobile and talented people have the "right" skills for opportunities outside of Singapore.

On the other hand, there are the issues raised in the last two paragraphs of the Chronicle article, which are a huge deal for some people. You really don't want to see your dreams potentially destroyed as you get unquestioningly shuffled around like a statistic.

KnightofPentacles said...

"With an open checkbook" - the headline says it all.

I think I have blogged on this before. About breeding passion versus hiring mercernaries.

Top scientists are also human. They relocate for many reasons. But what happens if (when) the money starts to dry up?

Huichieh said...

But what happens if (when) the money starts to dry up?

They move elsewhere. Again, nothing to write home about.

Take any city in the US with about the same population as Singapore. Nobody makes a fuss because some talented person from home town--say, New York--goes somewhere else--say, LA--to pursue an opportunity. And no one will bat an eyelid when the money drys up in LA and the same talented person moves to London instead. And maybe much later, opportunities arise in LA again, who knows.

By the way, it's not a simple matter of--I can make lots of money at X rather than Y, hence I go to X. This is where passion comes in. Suppose a Singaporean is passionate about Mayan archeology. He goes to where the opportunites are--say, some US university with an active program. That program exist because money exist to fund it--so, in one sense, he went where the money is, but he's not just there for the money.

Or take another Malaysian who is into computer animination--he goes to where the money is, at Pixar. Is he necessarily there for the money? Or is he there, because given the money there, he can pursue his passion?

So likewise, there are all these scientists who have big ideas about stem cells, and what-not. They will go where the money is--including Singapore. But don't be too quick to assume that they are there for the money. Rather, because there is money in Singapore, they can pursue their passion of doing research into stem cells and whatnot.

Passion, by it's very nature, cannot be breed by conscious policy. I take that back, any 'passion' that is the outcome of a conscious national policy will probably not be something that free-spirits will take to.

It works both ways. If Singapore wants a slice of the global research pie, it much be prepared to pour money into it and be willing to hire the best that money can hire from around the world. This is a necessary even if not sufficient condition. The outcome will necessarily be that there will be a lot of non-Singaporeans that we have to hire--not because Singaproeans are not smart, but because of math. If your selection pool is 40, nay, 400 million, how many will come from one particular corner of 4 million called Singapore? On the other hand, if you restrict your pool to that corner, then you forgo the access to what the other 396 million can offer.

Conversely, Singaporeans with a passion for something should likewise not be looked upon as mercenaries or quiters just because they go somewhere else to pursue an opportunity that does not exist at home.

Huichieh said...

Needless to say, I'm abstracting from other considerations. It is not always easy--psychologically, emotionally--for someone to leave home to pursue an opportunity elsewhere.

Nor am I denying that for some Singaporeans who left, it's not just a matter of opportunities, but because they felt that somehow Singapore is oppressive, bad, etc., etc. It's their right to feel that way and I wish them the best as they seek better pastures.