Friday, February 23, 2007

Know what you are getting into

I am sure many of takchek's visitors had already read this. If you have not, I strongly recommend it. :)

Below is part of a letter my senior had written to the powers to be (circa Jul 2005), as an honest feedback on the NSS program. Unsurprisingly (and unfortunately), it wasn't taken too kindly by a body allergic to criticisms and was dismissed unceremoniously.

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It is with great regret that I learned that the controversy surrounding scholarships and bond breaking has recently resurged. I hope you will allow me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the issue of scholarships and the cultivation of local scientific talent.

Having entered university at a time when government agencies failed to recognize the value of a doctorate, my contemporaries who discovered their latent passion for research during their undergraduate experiences were faced with the unenviable position of deciding between breaking their bonds or forgoing the pursuit of their newfound passion.

Prior to the introduction of doctoral scholarships, I had often counseled junior college students with a passion for scientific research to forgo the allure of a prestigious scholarship, and to stay at a local university to pursue their undergraduate education, and thereby retain the freedom to pursue a doctoral program. For those who aspired to an undergraduate degree overseas, I would encourage applying for financial aid, even when it had the potential to adversely affect the admissions decision.

I have always maintained that is foolish to deny one's passions and to deceive oneself into thinking that one will overcome any initial discomfiture with the idea of a bond, particularly when one has the financial means to support an overseas education. For a Singaporean student who is uncomfortable with the idea of a bond, the laissez-faire attitude that pervades most foreign universities would only serve to amplify such misgivings.

Predictably, in our prestige-conscious society, few students were willing to decline a scholarship for such intangibles as passion and job satisfaction, much to their and the nation's eventual regret.

With the advent of the National Science Talent Search and the National Science Scholarships instituted by A*STAR, I had high hopes that future generations of aspiring Singaporean scientists would not have to face the difficult decision that many of my contemporaries had to.

Regretfully, the many retroactively applied policy changes that characterized the last few years of the National Science Talent Search and National Science Scholarship program has tempered my initial enthusiasm. A particular case in point includes the decision to modify the terms of the scholarship associated with the National Science Talent Search to restrict the service obligation to an A*STAR research institute, as opposed to serving in any research facility in Singapore. Perhaps more widespread in terms of its impact for students currently serving national service was the decision to eliminate many of the top-tier universities from the list of approved undergraduate institutions.

While I agree that a scholarship agreement should not be undertaken lightly, and should be entered into in good faith, retroactively applied policy decisions put scholars in an awkward position, since alternative funding opportunities such as financial aid are no longer open to them midway through their education. Perhaps more importantly, such policy reversals serve to erode the credibility of A*STAR, which can have important consequences in terms of its ability to attract and retain scientific talent.

On a more practical note, might I suggest that in addition to the selected overseas institutions that are pre-approved, A*STAR should consider allowing potential scholars to pursue their education at another institution if they are able to provide a cogent argument about why their university of choice would provide scientific and intellectual opportunities that are unavailable at pre-approved institutions.

As for the issue of minimum GPA standards for the conversion of BS scholars to the PhD program, valid concerns have been raised about the issue of grade inflation, and the temptation to undertake a less challenging and rigorous program of study in order to adhere to the minimum GPA standards. Singaporean students are by nature risk-adverse, and this policy only serves to accentuate that behavior, which is an unfortunate trait to have in a research scientist.

Perhaps what frustrates me most about the situation is that I see great potential in terms of the significant investments in infrastructure that A*STAR has introduced into the Singaporean research and development community. But it behooves us to remember that as a nation-state, our greatest assets are our people, and bureaucratic policies that unnecessarily alienates our young scientists have no place in the agency charged with promoting research and development.

2 comments:

airdancer said...

Burning question unrelated to this post. I thought Du Shu sounds more like Tak Zhi than Tak Chek?

takchek said...

Tak Chek is how one says Du Shu in hokkien. At least in my family. I think there are several variations of hokkien around.