Monday, December 20, 2010

Singapore research changing gears

Singapore is aiming high, and backing this up with serious cash, if the preponderance of ads from A-Star, Singapore's main science research agency, in top science journals like Nature and Science are anything to go by. Going by various metrics, Singapore is rapidly becoming one of the best cities in the world for science. What it has been particularly good at is picking up high-profile researchers to set up labs and to head local institutes, among them the Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who was also made an Honorary Citizen in 2003.

According to a recent editorial in Nature, however, the unusually generous terms on which science has been funded here may soon change:

"Rumours of purse-tightening measures have grown over the past year, but researchers in the city-state were still stunned by the news in September that almost one-third of the total research budget will be abruptly shifted to competitive 'industrial alignment funds'. Access to that funding will now depend on researchers' abilities to show that their work has industrial applications. The policy will affect all research but is aimed particularly at the biomedical sciences, which are senior figures feel are not pulling their weight."

It's clearly not the case that the money is drying up; in fact, A-Star claims to be planning to spend more on R&D. Instead, the new structure is intended to stimulate competition and, understandably for the pragmatist, economy-driven policy worldview that Singapore's government favors, show that the investment is bringing in results.

What's interesting to read are the comments to that editorial. Criticisms and general grievances include: policy changes implemented without warning, bureaucracy that is difficult to navigate, only a few big projects being funded at the expense of early-career researchers or small-scale projects, and review process that is opaque. On the other hand, other commentators point out that: basic research funding is actually being increased, what's being changed are the rules for translational research, which has always been about the bottom line, and also that the situation for researchers in Singapore is still very good compared to most developed countries, e.g. with the upcoming funding cuts to universities in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

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