Who should fund basic science?

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Recently, William Brody mentioned that Singapore should invest in funding basic sciences rather than applied sciences in an interview. (see ‘Tip to Singapore: Change R&D approach’, Straits Times, Jan 11). A/Prof Lee Wei Ling, the executive director of National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), pointed out in a ST forum letter that the government needs to exhibit prudence in spending on biomedical research and advocate that funding should concentrate on improving human health and confined to areas of research specifically relevant to Asia. In principle, I agree with her reasoning on why government funding cannot be used to fund the basic sciences. The government should fund projects that can yield tangible returns that benefit the people in the short term.

However, that does not mean that there is no way to fund basic science in Singapore. The scientists working in basic sciences should look at other possible sources of funding. An alternative solution to government funding is to seek research grants from private foundations from philanthropists. For example, in the UK, basic science research pertaining to genome sequencing is funded by the Wellcome Trust, while in the US, the Sloan Foundation has funded fellowships and grants in the esoteric areas of astrophysics. The scientists dabbling in basic sciences should approach the various foundations or the rich & wealthy to secure new funds for their obscure research areas, for example, particle physics and string theory.

Ultimately, basic scientific research is essential to the development of Singapore as a knowledge based economy. The real challenge is whether the workers in the basic sciences are ready to walk out of their ivory towers and start lobbying for their own cause.

Related Links:
BL, Can Singapore support basic sciences and humanities?

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist