Elia Diodati presented a critical view on Singapore being a research hub that was summarized from Cao Cong’s critical letter which was published in the Science magazine, that dissected the challenges facing “the Singaporean government’s ambitions to turn the city-state into a world-class hub of biomedical research”.

Since I am in the area of biomedical research, perhaps I can give a cent or two of my personal views.

Quoting from Elia Diodati’s blog, Cao’s criticisms are summarized as follows:

Research is risky. A breakthrough can take a long time to achieve, and profitable applications are far from guaranteed. Cao writes, tellingly, that “It remains to be seen whether Singaporeans are ready to embrace uncertainties and tolerate failures.”

Indeed, research is a risky business, and the danger lies in that it is not possible to predict milestones in some cases. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which I would consider to be deterministic, most experiments or projects that involves the discovery of new genes or medicine is not obtained overnight. Neither is it possible to extrapolate from current findings on when the next cure for, say, Dengue Type II, is going to come to light. Because we do not fully understand the entire genetic makeup (despite having an entire database of genetic sequences) of human beings or other organisms for that matter, we are not able to come up with a deterministic method of doing things. Knowing and understanding are two different things. Until today, I am still not able to understand the mechanisms of malaria, despite knowing the entire genetic sequence of the disease. This is probably the state of things currently.

Singapore lacks talent. Despite the A*STAR scheme and others, it will take at least 10 years to train properly educated, prominent researchers fresh out of high school. Cao questions the willingness of young Singaporeans to pursue “tedious benchwork” when more financially rewarding careers exists, and also writes “[I]n contrast to the United States, where the biotech industry has benefited from strong entrepreneurial efforts by academic scientists, their counterparts in Singapore, as civil servants, operate in a highly rigid, hierarchical system where moves between academia and industry are rare.” In other words, the civil service culture works actively against the cultivation of a biotech industry, which has survived in the US mostly because of, not despite, strong ties with entrepreneurial academics.

Many a times, I have questioned myself on my aims of moving into research. In fact, a lot of professors and professionals from other areas of biomedical research have also commented that it’s quite rare for a Singaporean to go into research. Passion, as cliche as it may sound, is really important for someone to seriously consider doing research – in Singapore or anywhere else in the world.

Diverging a little, there are 3 ways in which a graduate can move into research:

  1. Take on a university research assistantship/scholarship scheme to do full-time research, leading to a M.Eng./Ph.D. The student will be guided by a professor in a field or area that he/she is interested in. It will usually last 3 to 4 years, with the first 1-1/2 years doing some amount of coursework and passing a qualifying examination while the rest of the remaining years are spent on research. The professor is usually there to guide the student, but most of the work has to come from him/her. There is an expected end result, but this may change from time to time depending on what is feasible. There is usually no bond attached and the student may move on to take on an Assistant Professorship scheme where he will remain in an institution of education/research to further pursue his/her research and teach.
  2. Take on an external scholarship, also leading to a postgraduate degree. External scholarship from the perspective of the institution of education. An example of this would be the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS) or other forms of local or overseas research scholarship. Depending on who is really forking out your stipend and research costs, the student is expected to complete some modules for some academic credit while doing research. This may either be concurrent or consecutive, depending on his/her supervisor. He/She may also be located here or overseas if it is a joint scholarship. There is usually a 2-6 year bond to this. Excellent academic capability is a must.
  3. Pay for your own research. Well, not literally. But if the student is interested in doing research and is unable to secure his/her own scholarship, she can opt to be a paying student while doing research leading to a M.Sc./M.Eng./Ph.D. Do note that students in this group are not at the bottom of the scale. Some students are acutally holding full-time jobs in institutes of research or government agencies that is able to provide them the tools they need for their research. As research in a university is usually academic-based while that in an external organization (again, any company/agency not from the university is considered external) emphasizes more on commercial viability, there is a difference in doing research in these 2 places. More groundwork is expected from an academic-based research, and this may provide the working student an opportunity to produce a more sounding research paper. Another reason for a student to fall into this group is because of financial viability. Stipends in university may not always match the pay of a researcher, although it is known that this may be as high as S$3500, with the lowest being about S$1400.

Back to Cao’s statement of the “willingness of young Singaporeans to pursue ‘tedious benchwork’ when more financially rewarding careers exists”, it can be quite apparent, judging from the number of Singaporeans, or lackthereof, in the lab I am in. I can count them with my fingers, single-handedly. If we look at #3 above, the stipend of a research student starts from S$1400 (or S$1500 from AY 07/08, NUS/NTU), which is gradually increased to S$2000 after he/she passes the qualifying exams. Taking on teaching assistantship positions, he/she may earn up to S$1000 more, but this is just a ballpark figure. Jobs are not guaranteed after graduation, and it depends heavily on your area of research and the results that you have obtained. Besides the consideration of receiving a lower paycheck (officially, it’s an allowance), there’s also an opportunity cost that has to be factored in while considering the prospects of doing (biomedical) research.

Having given my 2 cents worth of thoughts, I have also understood why my professor is envisioning the commercial viability of my research project. It is indeed rare for an academia-industrial crossover, which is why the local universities are proactive about setting up incubation companies where students and professors can give a shot at commercializing their research product.

The average Singaporean is ill-informed about the ethical aspects of current research. The recent growth in Singaporean research is at least partly opportunistic, in the sense that tough rules proscribing the extent of stem cell and cloning research in the US and other developed nations has help attract talent to Singapore. Obviously, the permissive Singaporean laws would attract talent that would directly benefit from it. But Cao writes, and this is worth quoting in full:

[S]ingapore’s advantage may not last if the research environment becomes more open in other countries. More importantly, there should be better opportunities for civil society in Singapore to debate the issues related to biotech research. Citizens have the right to know much more about the risks and benefits associated with the biomedical sciences conducted in Singapore than they do now. Public understanding is at least as important as deep pockets and a deep talent pool.

The ethical aspect is quite a touchy issue. Take for instance, genetic profiling, which is a process where a sample from a patient can be used to determine his/her propensities to diseases, can be easily done today, and it is a tool where numbers count. This means the more data we have, the more accurate the statistical analysis and the more efficient and effective the profiling we can get. But in order to attain this state of specificity and sensitivity, the genetic privacy of many individuals would be lost in the process. This is partly why the Bioethics Advisory Committee was established by the Singapore Cabinet in December 2000 to address the ethical, legal and social issues arising from biomedical sciences research in Singapore. Hence, while Singapore is attracting talents from all over the place, it is also tiptoeing on the edges of ethics.

I am not entirely sure how much Singaporeans know about biomedical research in Singapore, but what I do hope is that every Singapore should be educated on the pros and cons of taking a genetic test, should the day that such tests are readily available come.

Ed: This is just my personal opinion and does not represent the views of the universities or agencies mentioned within this entry. If there is any inaccuracy, kindly leave a comment and I will attend to it immediately.

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