15 February 2007

Research controversy risks Singapore's credibility

Biomedical research has to be a long term investment. To change course so soon after persuading scientists to relocate here, and even before our own PhD candidates sent abroad have returned, will signal an unacceptable degree of fickleness. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

I admire Prof Lee Wei Ling's whistle blowing at rather ambiguous issues on whether the government has been taken for a ride in its biomedical investments. The fiasco with Johns Hopkins seems to have indicated that our relationships with these global brand names are less than equal. We must remember that Prof Lee also exposed the dodgy practices of her ex-boss, a reputed foreign neurologist that the government stood in awe of. She had also criticised the attempts to separate Siamese twins here as enhancing the surgeons' and hospitals profile rather than out of altruistic reasons.

But having said that, no other director of a medical institution would dare to raise such issues in public, nor would she/he be accorded the same limelight. I think she is aware of such considerations that YB has raised. I was slightly shocked when she said that she has consulted her father in the latest debate.

however, I do give her the benefit of the doubt that she knows her limits when she has been confining her debates to medical controveries rather than broader public issues.

Of course, her restraint should not detract us from gauging the extent of influence the lee family has in Singapore

Liew Kai Khiun

Anonymous said...

Lee Hsien Yang is leaving Singtel; maybe he also wants to comment on issues he knows about, like his sister just did.

Anonymous said...

the other interesting question is why her comments, published by ST in Nov 2006, went noticed till overseas news outfits picked it up
(I confess I do not read ST carefully)

Anonymous said...

The spat between Lee Wei Ling (LWL) and Philip Yeo (PY) highlights two issues. One of which is, to put it in a dramatic fashion, raises questions about our government-led industrial policies and the other a subtext or portent of what is to come if a power struggle in PAP is to ensue after LKY has left the scene.

Let's start with the industrial policy questions. This issue of whether the current approach is a good or bad one is as long as a piece of string. In short, my analysis suggests a constants that goes backs to our birth as a nation and quite possibly PAP's thought processes.

For those who might have thought A*STAR or its predecessor National Science and Technology Board (NSTB) was setup to address science or research, they will be sadly mistaken.

Under PAP, pure science as opposed to applied science or technology, is often seen as a luxury. Much like subjects such as literatures or the arts. A cursory examination of the state of our tertiary level eductional establishment should be revealing. For those in the know, it will come not as a surprise that our Physics, Chemistry, Biology and even Mathematics departments are geared towards training "science" teachers. Not for the advancement of Science or to gain Nobel Price.

As for A*STAR, which is a branch of the Ministry of Trade, and not Minstry of Science, it would hardly be surprising that their modus operandi would hardly be much more different from EDB and coupled with PY's background.

Strip away words, like Science and Research, A*STAR policies is no different from EDB. Both EDB and A*STAR role is essentially about attracting foreign investment. In the context of the bio investment, it is fairly easy to gleam from the way money is spent, the aims of A*Star. Clearly, it is not about spending on Research, which probably explains why LWL is so peeve off.

Generally, speaking A*STAR unlike, similar organisations, such as ESPRIT in EU or NSF in US, where you have a science and go over to them as asked for money and they help you develop your science. With A*STAR, your science have to be turned into a business before you get any consideration. Even then A*STAR will only fund you in-kind, for example, they will send you their PhD researchers.

If my analysis is right, A*STAR's investment in biotech seemed to be aimed at infrastructure (i.e. Biopolis, etc) and manpower development. Even in manpower development it is also very focus on very specific kind of expertise. No different from what EDB does. In anycase, I suspect the A*STAR people that are running the agencies are probably quite risk adverse, so it is no surprising that would be the case.

As for biotech manufacturers, I suspect the motivation for coming to Singapore is not so much the quality of our research or for that matter, the kind of research luminaries that we can attrack. I suspect, the formular is somewhat more mundane like tax and subsidies. As for the research luminaries, if I may be so bold, I believe they are nothing more than orniments for A*STAR to showcase. Having said that, I am sure they are doing good work but they have probably become pawns in high stake game.

Now A*STAR defence that biotech and for that matter all R&d (small d) investment are long term by nature, which on face value is very true. But, if my analysis of A*STAR's focus on infrastructure and manpower development is right, then one has to question whether that kind of investment is indeed for the long term?

What competitive edge can one get from investment in infrastructure, when we can easily be undercut by others?

What about manpower, I understand, that quite a substantial sum of money ($10mil) has been spent on training a small pool of people (less than 10)?

Would it not be cheaper to have our people study abroad, subsidies them and who knows build a biotech firm and then lure them back?

I think these are the kind of questions that ought to have been asked. If it takes a person of LWL status to ask that so be it. However, from the kind of questions raised by LWL, which seemed to coincide with her special research interest, I wondered if there were another dynamics at play.

All this brings me to the second issue about the post LKY era. As I see it, it the PAP were to split, I suspect it would play along the fault lines being developed similar to the case LWL vs PY.

Some of my friends, feels that if any alternative political voice were to develop in Singapore it would be from a PAP split, which they think would be in the form of "liberal" vs "conservative" wings. I suppose by liberal they mean not the status quo. My reading is that the split would be a case of that between a class of "did not haves" and a class of "people that have it".

In the LWL vs PY case, we see both LWL and PY essentially advocating the same approach picking winners. LWL, based on her argument, seemed to be all about where funding should go. No different from PY. In PY's case, he is the people that have it -- i.e. control of the money.

LWL argument is not about whether, the investment is yelding inherent value. For example, if you invest in an EPL club, the investment is likely to stay in England and cannot be moved. That is to say EPL has an inherent value to the country and cannot be easily replicated.

LWL's argument seemed somewhat narrow. She seemed to suggest that just because we are Asian, we can somehow have a competitive advantage. Mind you there is a tropical disease institute that is of world class standing based in the most tropical of places, London. The specifics of her argument is not what I want to debate but it reinforces the distribution of funds I highlighted earlier on.

In time to come, I can see more of such in-fighting over distribution of largees to dorminate the PAP. The LWL vs PY show is just the template of what could be. As for the "have-nots" in society, I am afraid, it would not be about them.

twasher said...

anonymous: I think your analysis of Astar's strategy is essentially correct. The big-name foreign scientists and the overachieving scholars are just the poster boys and girls to attract foreign investment. And I too think there is something paradoxical in PY claiming that Astar needs more time to prove its success and their focus only on research with short-term gains.

Anonymous said...

Dear Alex, your article is outstanding and in this whole "Biomedical Debate" the best piece I have read in the local "Media". Sadly, most Singaporeans wouldn't ever see it. You are looking at the issue from a broader angle, independent of the detailed arguments exchanged previously. Truly enlightening, and I love your conclusion!

The 4th comment of equal lenght made equally good points, and I to throw in a few points here.

My first issue is the "area of focus" Singapore should invest in. Clearly, trying to get a small slice of a huge cake is a better idea than focussing on diseases that do not even show up in the top ten within Singapore, or the "Western" world (which is not much different in that respect). Simply put, the market for Diabetes, cancer or heart disease is so huge that even if we manage to get a 1% slice, then we are ok. On the contrary, many countries in our immediate neighbourhood (Thailand in particular) focus on treatment-based developments, hospital business etc, and they are much cheaper, bigger, and the slice of the cake in this case is much smaller. Its an obvious choice.

My second question is: what is an "Asian Disease"? Surely not head injury or hepatitis B. If at all, it is the alcohol dehydrogenase polymorphism (or vulgo: Asians get tipsy quite quickly) - THAT is uniquely Asian. How big is the market? Seriously, if anyone would convice me that there is any particular "Asian" disease, and Singapore would have any advantage here JUST because it is located in Asia, great - yet I havent seen it. Examples please.

I want thirdly to comment on the FT issue here, and the good point Anonymus 4 made asking "What about manpower, I understand, that quite a substantial sum of money ($10mil) has been spent on training a small pool of people (less than 10)?" My point here is a bit money-minded and simplstic, yet I think significant: many Singaporeans have problems with the blatant FT import policies, and I believe quite understandably. Yet noone has considered that in most Western countires, education is free or largely sponsored. For instance, the full education of PhD Scientist costs the tax payer in Europe many 100,000s Sin$$, probably a million. Then these FT come here to Singapore to work, of course for a decent salary but not for an obscene salary (other areas like banking etc pay much better), and they will probably never pay tax in their country of origin. The fact that so many come came here shows something - we are somehow attractive and got their brains "for free"!

Reading more international rather than local media, I strongly disagree though with the first Anonymus postings' point about the former head of NNI, Prof. Shovron who is now a professor back in London University College. Please mind that Singapore officials spent considerable amount of money trying to sue the British medical council in tis paprticular case (!!!!, this is like... I cant even find a appropiate analogy, sorry), with the only result that they got debunked and lost in high court. This issue has been elaborated on in the scientific Journal NATURE (http://www.nature.com/news/2006/061218/full/061218-15.html).
The whole episode did great damage to the carefully crafted recent academic credibility, as described in another good article (http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=349&Itemid=31).

What I really dont understand is why this debate stays in this shallow waters in our local medium (except in YAWNINGBREAD), and why Singapore dares to risk the signficant and overall successfull investment in this important growth area.

Anonymous said...

If you want to attract top, world-class talent to come to Singapore, you cannot dictate what branch of research they are required to do.

In Lee Wei Ling's approach, she wants researchers to do subjects that she chooses - that's not the way to get top talents. The talents that she gets will necessarily by second-rate, talents who are prepared to continue to bend to her bureaucratic management.

Philip Yeo's way seems to be to let his talents do what they want. This approach must be quite alien to anyone bred in Singapore's stifling climate, but ultimately this is recognised universally as the way to nurture true creativity.

There is nothing really wrong with Lee Wei Ling's seeking support for the fields that she identified, only that's not the function of A*Star, so get some other organisations to do that.

Robert L

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I trust LWL's motivation. It strikes me more as a little turf war going on.

I just want to correct some mis-conception on how research funding is usually allocated. Even overseas, "world-class talent" (what a loaded phrase) does not get to do whatever they want.

First, of all, nobody gives funding with the aim of winning a Nobel Prize. We should take a deep breath and FORGET THE NOBEL PRIZE. If you want to win a Nobel Prize, you not only have to be good in science (math and engineering don't count), you also have to be a good politician. Nobel prizes are nice kudos for a working scientist, but nobody is going to base their retirement plan on it. :)

Secondly, no-strings-attached pure research funding is extremely rare, even overseas. The overwhelming funds are for research that has application potential. Often, basic research (Nobel prize quality) is done within such a context. The ability to be innovative using limited means, is the hallmark of a great scientist.

This model of funding is a proven method overseas, and that is how Astar/DSTA is going about it. Results are already beginning to show. Recent indices on the quality of academic research shows that NUS/NTU is improving fast. No surprise there, as we are getting a lot of good people from overseas (relatively cheaply too as has been pointed out).

But its not only about importing people. Singaporean students are being funded to go overseas or to work with the FTs locally. If you consider the average time it takes to build expertise (10 yrs), then, everyone just has to be patient and wait.

The critical mass of R&D is coming. The only question is will Singaporeans be patient enough?

Anonymous said...

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which provides some independent perspective