Strategic and focused investments in Singapore

Helene Halkjær Jensen, editor, eBioZoom, postdoc, Aalborg University,

Interview: Rohan Williams, Head, Integrative Analysis Unit, Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), National University of Singapore,

In South East Asia, the Republic of Singapore has made a massive investment in their higher education and research from the mid-1990s onwards, building on their established university sector dating from the early decades of the 20th century. This investment has paid off dramatically, with universities such as the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) now being highly ranked globally. This expansion also involved the creation of a series of autonomous research institutes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE), a research precinct for international partner institutions, among other developments in the higher education and research sector. These investments and planning have led to Singapore becoming a dynamic international centre in the life sciences.

Singapore and Denmark
Although slightly smaller than the Danish island Lolland, Singapore has a similar population to Denmark: 5.6 million people in Singapore versus 5.8 million in Denmark. Both countries have a gross domestic product around 324 billion US$. Currently, Singapore invests 19 billion US$ in research and development in its five year economic planning period – corresponding to approx. 20 billion DKK per year (1). For comparison, 4 billion DKK was awarded for research from public foundations in Denmark in 2017 (2). In Singapore, 7,850 PhDs graduate every year (1), whereas 2,400 are admitted into the Danish PhD programmes (3).

SCELSE: Strategic world class research
Being a city state with almost no natural resources and surrounded by water, Singapore has had a strong focus on technology, water treatment, and the environment, and has invested heavily in strengthening these areas. New institutes were started, such as Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), with the aim of connecting normally disparate disciplines and investigators to create research communities of international high standard and with potential to solve challenges of the future, including the active involvement of the private sector and government agency partners in large budget, multi-PI research programmes.

“Singapore is an extremely stimulating place to live and work as a scientist and I am also excited about a lot of regional developments and challenges in this part of the world” says Rohan Williams, Head of the SCELSE Integrative Analysis Unit (Figure 1). He has worked in Singapore since 2011 when he relocated from the Australian National University in Canberra. SCELSE was established to specifically study biofilms and microbial communities, and Williams’s work as a computational biologist fits very well with this topic. With him, a number of other leading scientists were recruited from around the world in areas such as basic and applied microbiology, environmental engineering and genomics.

Figure 1: Rohan Williams (middle) and his group walking in Bukit Chandu, Singapore.

The Asian science scene
These developments in Singapore anticipated an expansion of the research and development sector across parts of Asia, including China and mainland and maritime South East Asia, highlighting the increasing influence that this region will play on the scientific landscape of this century: “This is a fascinating arena to observe coupled human-natural ecosystems, and to work with regional colleagues to solving problems directly relevant to sustainable development and climate variability,” says Williams.

Coming from a western country involves adaptation of one’s work style and culture. “Communication styles here tend to different to Western workplaces,” Williams explains, “where people will quite openly raise their concerns if they are unhappy with a situation or outcome, often quite forthrightly. In contrast, such opinions are transmitted here far more discreetly, often privately and obliquely”. Readjusting working styles can take some time. “There is often a lot of one-on-one communication to resolve problems before things go public, which took some adjustments.” In many research groups each member may be from a different ethnic or national background. Williams continues: “This forces you to actually do things differently and to create some new ground in communication and working styles. I really feel this positively impacts scientific and technical thinking”.

Benefits of a long term outlook
The strengths of this multicultural science hot spot have also been recognized by a number of companies in pharmaceutics and life sciences. Eight of the 10 biggest players in life science instrument industry have activity there (4). With further investments in research and development, Singapore hopes to further expand their position in the world scene. “I think the strength in this system is the long term thinking, which really is trying to plan decades ahead, combined with a rigorous pragmatism and the willingness to try out new ways of doing things.” For example, SCELSE’s organisational structure, rather than being on individual research groups, was established as a matrix-model with multi-PI work groups, distributed across the two partner Universities, in order to work together on multi-disciplinary problems. “This was a really exciting ‘organisational experiment’ to implement, and a rare opportunity to build something completely new from the ground up” says Williams “and this structure has let us develop many research collaborations with industry and government agencies.”

Figure 2: The Merlion fountain sculpture is a famous landmark of Singapore and located at the water front, close to the busy city centre and viewing the buzzing harbour area.

Future prospects
Singapore continues their intense focus on education, research and technology development with their “RIE2020 plan” (Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan) (1). With this plan, Singapore invests heavily in selected areas that are of importance to the city state, but that may also pay off in terms of public-private collaborations, start-ups and innovative products that may be of interest to the world market. Such areas include biomedical sciences, urban sustainability, and digital economy.






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