Friday, February 12, 2010

Biopolis: The Science Factory

A*STAR's management of scientific research in Biopolis.

...To fuel this research, a Singapore government entity known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) offers everything a scientist’s heart could desire: 2 million square feet of space outfitted with flow cytometers, nuclear magnetic resonance instruments and X-ray crystallography equipment; a vast supply center; and the ability to draw from the nearly $10 billion set aside for scientific research and development between 2006 and 2010.

But there’s a catch, and some researchers say it’s major. In exchange for plum working conditions, scientists must satisfy a list of key performance indicators. Everyone agrees to write a specified number of papers and file a minimum number of patent applications by a stated deadline (requirements vary from person to person). Contracts last just three to five years, and if scientists don’t deliver, they’re asked to leave. Setting such conditions enables Singapore’s business-minded officials to get rid of what they see as dead weight and to churn out science on a strict, predetermined schedule.


Although traditional tenure-track jobs are on the decline in the United States, many senior researchers and team leaders at universities, the NIH and other scientific facilities still hold permanent positions. At Biopolis, by contrast, everyone is on a short contractual leash of three to five years.

...Even directors such as Jackie Ying, who was raised in Singapore and taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before returning to head the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at Biopolis, are subject to the rapidly ticking contract renewal clock. Ying says the system “leaves little room for deadwood.”


“In a university environment, research can be curiosity-driven,” says A*STAR chairman Lim Chuan Poh. “Here, it must align with A*STAR’s mission: the impact on the economy.”

The above article became the subject of part of a conversation I had with an American colleague in my lab when he was bemoaning the state of the poor job market:

Me: You should apply to Singapore. They are always hiring.

Friend: That's because they are always firing.

Me: It's not that much different from working in a profit-driven company, where employment is at will, and you still need perform well during the quarterly/annual staff performance appraisal.

Friend: Maybe I should look into joining the (US) Federal Government.

Me: LOL.

Hat tip: twasher

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