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Can Singapore support Basic & Social Sciences?

Can Singapore support basic and social sciences? This is an archived article which I have written for the old Singapore Angle blog.

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.

[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.