Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to foster good science in Singapore?

The institute in Germany where I'm studying was recently subject to an external review. Our staff and students got to mingle with the reviewers at a dinner in-house one evening, and while waiting in line at the buffet I started talking to someone who turned out to be a senior official in our research organization and also a practicing biologist.

I mentioned that I was from Singapore, and there was a look of recognition in his face. He asked me "ah, A-Star?" Like many others around the world who work in science, he knew about Singapore's big investment in research and technology, and of course also knew about Philip Yeo ("a very smart man"). But he also felt that the Singapore model had a few serious shortcomings, and after our conversation I thought it would be useful to share some of these observations, especially because they are held by someone who is himself a senior scientist and is responsible for administering a large scientific organization.

Singapore has been very successful at setting up the physical infrastructure for research, mobilizing plenty of money and political will to build new institutes and stock them with equipment and supplies. In terms of talent, which is the perennial Singaporean question, we've gone for a top-down approach: recruiting the "big names" in various fields, giving them very good salaries (the few scientists in the US whom I've talked about this before have all mentioned the attractive remuneration) and more importantly the funding to continue their projects in Singapore.

The official said that he didn't think this was the best way to build up a scientific community. What about the students? As he put it, if you're a senior scientist wanting to set up a lab in another institution, the first question you're going to ask is whether you're going to have good students (who of course do all the actual lab work). Unfortunately, Singapore seems to do a very good job of exporting its best students. They're sent overseas on fully-funded, prestigious scholarships to foreign institutions. In the case of A-Star's PhD scholarships, the recipients only make their way back to Singapore after about a decade of study abroad, and maybe even longer if they do a post-doctoral fellowship or two to gain additional experience. While they are overseas, they're not just learning but actively contributing to science. I think that most graduate students would agree that graduate school is not about learning at the feet of your professors, but is instead about finding one's own way in science, while being guided to independence. As a research student, you are actively making science while learning it.

My own experiences appear to bear this out. When I was studying in the US, it was (and is) common for undergrads to do active scientific research, usually mentored by graduate students or post-docs; this was something that was actively encouraged. When asked about undergraduate research opportunities, many professors would comment on how fortunate they themselves were to be in an institution where bright and motivated young people would come and ask to work with them. The professors are undoubtedly good at what they do, but they need good students to keep the research going at a high level, and they recognize this fact.

I explained to him that such scholarships are not limited to the sciences, but are also the most culturally prestigious means for recruitment to careers in public service. At that point I saw the general relevance of what he had said to this entire system of talent recruitment. It's not just about the money that's being spent on having these students shipped abroad and tutored far away from home. Prestige matters too. If the best students do not stay in the country, then it is difficult to develop local institutions to higher levels. Worse still, we are not building confidence in our own institutions.

The foregoing isn't meant to say that the research and graduate students in Singapore are not up to par. Several of my friends are doing science in Singapore, and they certainly have motivation and ability. The matter is whether, for the amount of resources we have poured into the project, we can build up a human infrastructure to match the physical infrastructure.

It's not about how many citations or high-impact papers we can garner. It's about whether we can build a self-sustaining research community that will renew itself by training new scientists. Instead of importing "big names" (the top-down model), let's find a better way to nurture the talent we already have (the bottom-up model).

Some other comments:

I myself am a participant in the (I hope, temporary) brain-drain, although I'm not on a state-funded scholarship. As I want to return home to work in Singapore in the future, I feel that I have to keep an eye on how science and research are developing there. I've also decided not to name the official that I talked to because I don't want it to seem like these are the official views of our organization, neither did I think at the time to ask him for his permission to share them publicly.

Also, the model for scientific training that I've described -- senior scientists leading labs training graduate students who also generate the scientific results and publications -- is causing serious problems in other developed countries, especially the US. Supply of newly-minted PhDs seriously outstrips demand, in terms of the number of new faculty positions opening up for them in academia. This is a well-recognized problem (see the careers pages of many recent issues of Nature and Science), and according to this perspective article in Science, the seeds for the current situation were sown in the 1940s with the recommendations of Vannevar Bush that led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation in the US. That's another unpleasant outcome that we have to avoid.

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