24 May 2008

Where are we now with stem cell research?

Private funding has dried up. The whole project is now virtually all government-funded, with great dollops of cash. Payback is at best decades away. Here's another long-term investment with public money, but also one with not much accountability. Full essay.


Anonymous said...

The Singapore government has imported research since 1985, when NUS's Institute of System Science set up a research division with IBM assignees; Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Institute of Microelectronics were started soon after. Recently a major activity was initiated in Quantum Computing. Most of the PhDs and PhD candidates that worked there were foreign.

An image of actively doing advanced R&D is economically useful in convincing investors that Singapore has the necessary infrastructure, and diplomatically useful in bringing prominent scientists for long or short periods as advisors/participants and establishing joint activities with top international universities. The economic planners are of course aware of the need to show results for such expensive activities. From time to time programmes were closed down for not meeting designated performace indicators.


Anonymous said...

"To get more PhD-qualified researchers, generous scholarships of S$1 million are now being provided to students to study overseas."

I think this is a particularly bad idea. Practically all science and engineering students, Singaporeans or otherwise, who study in American and European universities at the doctoral level do not have to pay for their education since foreign universities give them stipends and assistantships upon admission. Why should the Singapore government provide scholarships to overseas Singaporean PhD students, which essentially subsidizes these students from the viewpoint of foreign universities? Are Singaporean graduate students abroad unable to compete with students of other nationalities for assistantships in top foreign universities, necessitating Singapore government funding of their overseas studies?

I think the money would be much wiser spent if used to make local universities more attractive to Singaporeans. Perhaps a large increase in the number of (and stipend associated with) scholarships at local universities for Singaporeans is a good place to start. In addition, they should be offered larger stipends than what they could get abroad to make Singaporean universities comparatively attractive. Overseas, when I studied for a science-field PhD, my stipend (the one given to ALL science grad students at the university) was enough for me to rent a one-bedroom apartment on my own and pay all my living expenses, with tuition also covered. If the gov't expects good Singaporean undergraduates to stay, they must offer comparative packages. Undergraduates naturally wish to change schools to study for their PhD. In Singapore since there are really only two choices for science and engineering, Singaporean students prefer going overseas to broaden their education after their local undergraduate degree. They can try life in a new place, get a degree from a foreign university (which is more respected in Singapore too), not live with their parents, and may even get funding from the Singapore gov't! To keep Singaporeans in local universities, we must offer competitive packages to overcome these built-in disadvantages.

Top NUS and NTU undergraduates in a science/engineering field should be offered, without lengthy and overly bureaucratic application procedures, automatic admission to local graduate schools, generous stipends, a grant for the faculty under which the student wishes to study so that the student's research can be supported, conference travel support, and/or waiver of national service requirements for Singaporean students willing to go for local PhDs. (The latter would dramatically increase the applicant pool to local universities for graduate school without significantly reducing the manpower needed in NS...but I do understand that this is an "elitist" suggestion, but I offer it merely to show that there ARE obvious ways to increase the number of local PhDs.) The government should also stop harassing gay students and allow LGBT student advocacy groups to be formed on local campuses. It must stop censoring and banning things. It must allow freedom of assembly and protest. It must allow true freedom of speech and of the press. These all play a role when deciding where to study. No one wants a PhD from a university in a dictatorship, and many foreigners may view local universities in that sort of light.

Since government leaders are not willing to give ground on these issues, they must compensate with money. A lot more of it. That's why there are so few local Ph.D. students.

Anonymous said...

"A Bridge Too Far" - an apt description considering Spore's own R&D resources and the resources needed for Biomedical/Stem Cell research. "...Besides the instability of such movements of key people, there is also an overarching problem -- the great shortage of PhDs in Singapore. "The republic's educational system has not been geared toward creating the kind of creative-minded individuals for breakthroughs to occur," said Kirpal Singh, professor of creativity at the Singapore Management University.
The easy way out for Spore is to import "foreign talent" to kick start the process - but at what cost? Time after time, we have seen these foreign talents?[sic] set up shop in Spore, only to pull down the shutters a short time later. Non-transparency of these R&D funding process sets a veil from public scrutiny - however, one can guess it must be significant public tax dollars!
The sad thing about Spore or rather the govt is that they would rather throw money at the cause they are championing using foreign talent [mercenaries] instead of developing their own. This marginalising of our own people in evident everywhere throughout the nation.
Even in sports, Spore are adopting 3rd rate 3rd world athletes to compete on our nation's behalf. Why 3rd rate? - the 1st rate would be creamed off by the developed nations eg. Yao Ming (of Houston Rockets & NBA); 2nd rate would be retained by their own country. 3rd rate are the castoffs.
With such exclusionary govt policy in place, what hope do Sporeans have to rise above other nations? No wonder migration is a preferred option for those who can.

yuen said...

It is an unfortunate fact of life that singaporeans, both government and individuals, think of foreign talent as mercenaries; while many researchers are motivated by opportunities to pursue their own agenda, rather than just money, the Singapore Inc system leaves little room for individual agenda.

Anonymous said...

i like yuen's observation: "..the Singapore Inc system leaves little room for individual agenda."

on another point, it's interesting how on the one hand these taxpayer funded govt agencies hold their funding recipients accountable with milestones and such, but on the other hand they do not perceive themselves as accountable to taxpayers.

YEP Yunnan Team said...

To Anon who mentioned giving generous stipends to outstanding local graduates. The problem is, if SG students are outstanding, they don't stay in SG. They will go to US or UK for their PhD.

Those who really want to come back does so with a compelling reason. It might be family, it might be financial (e.g. ASTAR and NUS scholars are paid a regular salary throughout their PhD candidature; And for NUS scholars, they get to do a postdoc anywhere in the world, and get a guaranteed faculty position after that - good deal!)

And to another comment about not being able to pursue individual agenda- I think it is true... I hope it is less so in the NUS/NTU.. but in this world, everyone is using everyone... So for a fresh biomedical Assistant Professor, it would be smart to take up a faculty position at NUS for a few years, get research established and jump ship... In fact, ASTAR scholars can do the same thing - after 4 years in their RIs, jump ship (since nowadays it takes up to 4 years of postdoc before one can end up with a tenure track faculty position)

It is true that tenure track faculty position is currently the most highly coveted job for a PhD. If one is not landing on an Ivy, NUS is a pretty good place to start.

Anonymous said...

I once had a beer session with the head of an RI, who was also in the board advising on Science based (i.e. Physics, Maths, etc) learning at University level.

It's great how a few beer here and there open up the lips.

One thing I noted from him was that Science, as opposed to Engineering, is a very neglected field in NUS, the only institution to offer any Science based course of study. During the tenure of his executive ship at an RI in NTU, he noted how the NTU did not even have a specialised mathematics department to support the Engineering course.

From his perspective, it seemed that much of the Science and Technology courses was geared at applied knowledge learned. Research is not aimed at answering "why" something happens or for that matter understand answers to "why" and applying the knowledge to solve a problem.

The emphasis was very much "here is a problem, if somewhere there is a solution for this seemingly similar problem, copy it and apply" approach. Usually when it comes to research a problem, no attempt is to determine the exact nature of a problem.

Also he noted that culturally, there is this attitude that favours expediency, which is often mistaken in Singapore as efficiency. So what happens is that you get an attitude that throwing money at a problem will solve it. He often use this analogy to explain the attitude of Singaporean and, in particular, the attitude of his bosses:

"Imagine you have a car that has a wheel that keeps coming off. Before you start spending money on a new car, you will try to understand why the wheel keeps falling off. In my home country you will see people engaged in DIY in their spare times to do 'research' to find out why that is the case. In Singapore, people simply buy a new car!"

Is it any wonder why when it comes to doing thing that require long gestation period, such as Stem Cell Research, that you get:

(a) A lack of Singapore wanting to read for a PhD when one consider how long such a course would take?

(b) This attitude that you can somehow throw money at a problem?

He once try to point out to his boss that unless this fundamental "cultural" problem that he mentioned above is addressed, the effort of bring Bioscience, which is more "why" type research intensive activities than say engineering field, it would be hard to get anything going. His boss told him to shut up and mind his own business!

The head of the RI has left and is now a "valued" but part-time partner.

yuen said...

I was an NUS professor for 24 years, including 8 years as dept chair; I believe I speak with considerable knowledge and insight.

There is a general lack of respect for knowledge in Singapore. Both the people at the top and the public at large think knowledge is something you buy with money; therefore, money, and power which gives you control over money, are respected more than knowledge.

This "culture" explains why people believe all problems can be solved by throwing money at them, and even the topmost scientists would come as mercenaries given good enough deals; it also explains the low interest in doing PhDs, etc.

Singapore is a small country; it is reasonable that it prefers to import investment, talent, technology. etc; it is also reasonable that it makes great efforts to develop joint ventures with large multinationals and top world universities and to get famous people to come and say good things about it. Achievements along these lines are valued immediately, whereas developing new knowledge is both lengthy and uncertain.

Fox said...


"Singapore is a small country; it is reasonable that it prefers to import investment, talent, technology. etc; it is also reasonable that it makes great efforts to develop joint ventures with large multinationals and top world universities and to get famous people to come and say good things about it."

I hope you were being ironic.

The 'small country' argument invites a certain amount of skepticism. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Israel and Finland are also small countries about the size of Singapore. Yet in terms of science and technology, they are miles ahead of Singapore and more 'self-sufficent' in terms of their scientific workforce.

Anonymous said...

>I hope you were being ironic.

ambiguous maybe; humorous no

>Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Israel and Finland are also small countries about the size of Singapore

you mean population size similar; "country" sizes are not