Who should fund basic science?

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?

Is Social Engineering still appropriate for Singapore?

Recently, I was at the annual National Science and Technology Awards 2006, where awards are given to scientists who have contributed significantly for their scientific pursuits in Singapore. Of course, the night was filled with good food and entertaining speeches from both Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports & 2nd Minister for Trade and Industry) and Dr Sydney Brenner, a Nobel laureate (who won the Science and Technology medal this year for contributing to the research and development in Singapore).

In this commentary, we draw a few interesting points briefly from Sydney Brenner’s speech and piece together some earlier thoughts of mine on the life sciences conundrum to answer whether social engineering is appropriate in Singapore. The essay will address how the removal of social engineering can help to remove the locals’ animosity towards foreign talent.

In essence, Sydney Brenner’s speech centred on his role as a catalyst in the research and development scene and some interesting points about the culture of Singapore. For those who might not know this, the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology was formed in 1987 at the National University of Singapore before it becomes a research institute under the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). It should be interesting to note that he pitched the idea originally to Dr Goh Keng Swee, our former deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. Paraphrasing his words and his tribute to Dr Goh, Dr Goh thought that Singapore’s success at that point (in the 1980s) would not be sustainable in the future and it would be important to transit from a “nation of technicians” to knowledge based economy. Even in its transition, he remarked that it was impatience in Singaporeans that drove the research and development for the past five years (which I preferred to attribute to the establishment rather than the people). It helps to wonder whether that comment is a sarcastic one but it is preferred to be taken as a positive note. Of course, he brought up the point about a generation of young Singaporean scholars who will become the foundation to the next stage of growth in our biopolis. Of course, we can only take a crystal ball and wait for ten years later to see whether they will prove the current critics (including myself) wrong.

His comments are reinforced by an earlier analysis (see Elia Diodati) from an economic perspective. In Krugman’s “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle“,

“Singapore’s growth has been based largely on one-time changes in behavior that cannot be repeated. Over the past generation the percentage of people employed has almost doubled; it cannot double again. A half-educated work force has been replaced by one in which the bulk of workers has high school diplomas; it is unlikely that a generation from now most Singaporeans will have Ph.D’s….”

Of course, the interesting conclusion is that the inputs rather than increasing efficiency contributed to the growth of Singapore at that point. This now ties in to the central theme of this commentary.

Social engineering of the workforce is one of the dominant forces in Singapore economy. For the past thirty years, our government has launched various drives in different periods of time to encourage young students to study engineering, IT and life sciences. During each cycle, there were great promises and subsequently lead to great debacle. Most of the people who went into each hypes from engineering, IT to life sciences ended up in becoming insurance agents, salesman, stock brokers or jobs which they did not envision themselves to be in. The quotas for the intake to the field of study during that hype will be increased suddenly. It is obvious that the establishment (or the group behind the social engineering) believes in the theory of supply economics that if you increase the supply to fulfil a demand, you can achieve the critical mass that might result in a boom for that industry. This theory is successful for a manufacturing economy where you need to train workers in a collective for mass production of goods. Once this process is replicated to areas that demand research, innovation and creativity (in the Arts), it will start to break down. Thinking without innovation is useless and innovation without thinking is of course, dangerous.

Year after year, the accumulation of the failures in the social engineering experiments leads to a disgruntled nation. Those who refuse to adhere to the social engineering process in their student days become the role models until their expertise become fashionable in the interests of the nation. Social engineering can produce many workers and that is the only advantage of such an approach. However, in research and innovation, the success of one maverick invention outweighs twenty patents created.

To engineer creativity and innovation is human (and mediocre) but to create an invention that will take the nation’s enlightment to another level is divine. No matter how the establishment tries to wiggle their way out with the conventional excuses of creating jobs for the nation, they cannot run away that these created jobs will not translate the billion dollars boom. In our current approach, social engineering will churn out small and medium size level enterprises, but not a Google. If you want a better example than this, Creative Technologies demonstrated that their one achievement outweighs all the Singapore enterprises or government holding companies.

Another good and current example is in digital media where a local Singaporean went to the US to pursue his dreams and eventually end up producing movies like the Matrix. Here is an interesting anecdote about my foreign colleagues and bosses who found it difficult to understand Singaporeans for being materialistic and lack of vision. Actually, they are clearly mistaken that Singaporeans possess no vision or dreams but they just want to pursue what they love. Ironically, that is a western value which my colleagues claim that they champion. They only appreciate the current drive by the higher powers to change things but they lack the historical perspective that the young workers (who they are here to educate) realized that they were statistics for the social engineering process and not pursuing something that might be of interest to them. The deep seeded anger cannot be subdued by just welfare but rather the prospects of growth in the job. If they truly understand the rule of value proposition, there must exist future prospects of growth (from pay to promotion opportunities, i.e. find ways to turn an outstanding honours or masters research assistant into PhD), otherwise, the issues will be there, no matter how many years they stay.

If our nation is thinking of going beyond a nation of technicians, we need to curb the “impatience” within us and cultivate the passion of Singaporeans to think of greater heights. A brilliant invention takes time. If the establishment want to use that as an excuse to continue the same social engineering, they have to accept the repercussions of a nation who are growing to hate that they are the “statistics” rather than the shareholders of this homeland they belong to. Returning to the question of this essay, there are two answers to the question. Social engineering is appropriate to help the working classes in addressing healthcare, security and domestic problems. However, the approach is useless in the research and development circle. To control research and innovation is like curbing an artist to take his art beyond his level. A balance needs to be struck rather than tend to go to either extreme (too much maverick and too much control). They can still stick to the current approach perhaps for manufacturing industry and that ensures our future prosperity. That is the economic reality based on our size as a little red dot. However, to show our mettle as a little red dot of research, creativity and innovation, we need to allow Singaporeans to pursue their passion (even if their alignment of research interests differ from the superstars which they hire from abroad). Ultimately, that bet to move beyond social engineering will open the space, foster at least a moderate “making a difference” bunch and perhaps the less animosity between Singaporeans and foreign talent.

Can Singapore support Basic & Social Sciences?

The Singapore government has poured S$13.75B into research and development. Of that sum of money, S$5B will go to the new Research Enterprise and Innovation Council (REIC), chaired by Dr Tony Tan. The rest will be channelled to the Agency of Science, Technology and Research to fund the current ongoing projects in the physical and biomedical sciences. It has appeared that the new REIC has decided to recreate the wheel to fund applied sciences rather than basic sciences. This article provides some perspective on both basic and social sciences in Singapore and suggests a model for funding such academic enterprise.

How do we foster a Singaporean culture respecting the achievements in sciences and arts? That is the question that we want to address in this section. We used the concept of academic enterprise, which defines specifically for the whole of higher education and research. Since there is a plethora of fields of study in the world of academia, I will like to focus on two marginalized groups: natural sciences (physics, biology and chemistry) and social sciences (economics, sociology and history).

Science and technology dominate the whole of the 20th century and will continue to play an important role in the 21st century. From the invention of a light bulb by Edison to the launch of the first commercial viable spaceflight (SpaceShipOne), new technologies will provide the next thrust in taking the stable financial infrastructure to the next step. These technologies will create an emerging market and subsequently substituted by another emerging technology that will either replace it or compatible with that. However, unlike the manufacturing and industrial revolution that took place between 1960-1990, it is difficult to predict the evolution of scientific progress. Scientific research, as most academics would agree, is 99% frustration and 1% ecstasy. Discovery of a new idea or innovating a exist technology to become a better product are essential to the scientific enterprise.

There has been a strong focus in research and development particularly in the life sciences during the past five years with the emergence of the Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A-STAR) [1]. Most of the research institutes are focussed on the following areas: materials sciences, data storage, communications, cell and molecular biology particularly in stem cells and cancer research. With a strong and stable funding in these institutes, Singapore has attracted global talent from all over the world. The fruits of the work by A-STAR will surface in the next couple of years, most likely in the form of being a respected life sciences centre in the world with strong publication records and new technological innovations. For example, in Genome Institute of Singapore, the research has already produced publications in Nature Genetics and Cell (which are first tier high impact science journals) and solicited a big grant from the Encode project. For a five years old research institute, it is considered a feat that we can be proud of. Of course we need to do more. On the other hand, the two major universities, National University of Singapore [2] and Nanyang Technological University [2] will be granted greater autonomy in their management and strategic directions. Setting this as a background, we provide additional insight that can complement with the resources allocated to the current development.

To facilitate my argument, it is essential to separate sciences into two categories: basic (or theoretical) and applied sciences. To close the gap for the current development, the research institutions need a paradigm change on their view of basic sciences and humanities. Basic sciences revolve around areas that are esoteric, for example high-energy physics, quantum computation and evolutionary biology. Most of the time, it is difficult to gauge the potential applications of new ideas generated by basic sciences to technology. The realization of the technology from these theoretical results usually take a longer period of time, for example, the transistor is developed in 1960s from the ideas of quantum theory rooted in the 1920s. Since it is hard to set a deadline to a breakthrough for such ideas, it is therefore not practical to fund this kind of research from the government’s perspective. Analogous to theoretical sciences, economics, literature, history and sociology suffer from the same problem at times.

On another hand, there has been an increasing trend on using theoretical concepts from physical sciences to apply to social sciences, particularly psychology, economics and sociology. Since the trend of research has become increasingly multi-disciplinary (for e.g. neurobiology uses areas like cognitive computer science, psychology and biology), it is therefore necessary to change the evaluation of academics’ performance based on how much they produce in their primary area of research. It is becoming easier for physicists and mathematicians to work in economics, finance and biology because they transfer a different skill set and infuse new energy for the development of the social sciences.

Given these constraints and thoughts, it is right to ask why Singapore has not seen a Nobel Prize winner (or equivalently Fields Medal, Pulitzer Prize). To cross-examine this question, we review how Japan came to become a hotbed in innovation with at least five homegrown Nobel Prize winners (see ref [3]). In the 1930s, Klein Nishina went to Copahagen Institute to study under Niels Bohr, a leading physicist in quantum theory. He returned to Japan between 1931-1933, delivering a series of lectures on quantum theory, which inspired two physicists Yukawa and Tomanaga. These two physicists eventually won the Nobel prizes in physics for developing theoretical models on quantum theory of the nucleus and electrons respectively. In that era, Japan started its militarization and theoretical sciences are not respected. A lot of effort was spent on developing the technologies, and during the period of time, Yukawa and Tomanaga developed the theory while working on radar sciences for the Japanese military. Through a letter to Oppenheimer in the United States after the war, their work became recognized and subsequently they were credited with the Nobel Prize. They become role models for young Japanese scientists to go for theoretical sciences first and then to engineering sciences. That triggered a culture of innovation and creativity in the Japanese society. Singapore’s evolution was totally from the opposite angle taking the focus on applied technologies but there are possible implementations to develop towards a nation of creativity with the basic sciences and the humanities.

We put forward a couple of recommendations to encourage academic enterprise based on our existing resources

    1. Establishing research funds for basic sciences and humanities thru private sector and charity foundations. Working with the various charity foundations and Singapore International Foundation, we suggest setting up a research fund through private sector funding for basic sciences and humanities similar to the charity foundations in the United States. It is difficult to fund basic sciences and humanities research through government because of tangible target evaluation. To solve that problem, we can adopt the model used by charitable foundations in the US and UK, for e.g. William and Melinda Gates Foundation and Royal Society, to fund such research. Alternatively, we can get private foundations to set up professor chairs to attract talent from these fields of study. This might be how the Universities and research institutes in Singapore can attract prominent Singaporean scientists working in these esoteric areas overseas to come back to Singapore.
    2. Encourage multi-disciplinary research in the Universities and also in research institutes. It is essential to change the view that if you are a biologist, you should do only biological research. Academic freedom will be encouraged if a scientist from one area is provided a fair evaluation by contributing in another field of research. We recommend evaluation of tenure track or performance of professors based on whether they have contributed in other fields of knowledge.
    3. Encouraging young Singaporeans to aspire for greater heights such as Nobel Prize or Booker Prize. Perhaps, it is interesting to encourage young Singaporeans to dream for higher heights. Passion and competitiveness are the cornerstones for the Singapore identity in taking Singapore into the next stage as suggested by the Remaking Singapore committee. The current education system is already making changes to allow more individual thinking and also changing society’s view on failure.

With these recommendations, I will leave you to decide whether Singapore can support basic and social sciences.

by Bernard Leong of SG Entrepreneurs

Author’s Note: The opinions here expressed are strictly his own, and do not represent the organizations he works for.

[1] Agency of Science, Technology and Research, http://www.a-star.edu.sg/
[2] National University of Singapore, http://www.nus.edu.sg and Nanyang Technological University, http://www.ntu.edu.sg
[3] S. S. Schweber, “QED and the men who made it”, Princeton University Press, 1994.

Author’s note: This blog post is extracted from an essay entitled “Forging Singapore Identity thru Academic and Student Enterprise”. I submitted the paper and it’s published for the Singapore Oxford Forum 2005. For the full paper, you can download it here.