Sunday 27 October 2013

Scheme to woo home Singapore's top scientists

Plan to anchor research capabilities, grow Singaporean core in R&D: PM Lee
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE wants to woo home its top scientists working overseas, with measures such as full funding support for research work and help to set up labs at universities here.

Announcing the initiative, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said The Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme is to "anchor research capabilities and grow the Singaporean core in R&D".

PM Lee made the announcement after the high-level National Research Foundation's (NRF) Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council met yesterday afternoon.

Chaired by PM Lee, the council comprises Cabinet ministers, local and foreign business leaders and science experts.

It was formed in 2006 to guide national research and development strategy.

While Singapore has strong research capabilities and a pipeline of researchers, PM Lee said: "To make further progress, we'll need good people, good research programmes and then we'll be able to get good research outcomes."

PM Lee also unveiled $330 million worth of programmes to boost the nation's cybersecurity R&D and innovation capabilities in four emerging areas.

The Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme will provide funding for research conducted here by Singaporean scientists coming back from overseas. These scientists, who are head-hunted by local research institutes and universities here, are likely to take on leadership positions such as heads of laboratories or institutes.

The NRF said it has not set aside a fixed budget nor a time limit for the scheme, which was quickly welcomed by the scientific community here.

Professor Ling San, dean of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) College of Science, said: "This looks like a good scheme that can probably help to attract some Singaporeans to return and work here in Singapore.

"Perhaps a similar scheme for locally based Singaporean researchers, or inclusion of them in the grant part of the scheme, would be appreciated by those already back home."

NTU mathematician Chua Chek Beng, who had left a tenure-track post at the University of Waterloo in Canada in 2006, said the scheme could benefit scientists who want to have a say in new R&D programmes.

He returned to take up a position at NTU's then new School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

Yesterday, PM Lee also announced a $130-million, five-year National Cybersecurity R&D programme to enhance Singapore's capability to combat internal and external threats by bolstering its supporting systems and infrastructure.

And $200 million has been allocated to "innovation clusters": infrastructure- and skills-building to help shepherd new technologies to market.

To begin with, the funds will be used to build clusters in four areas that Singapore is already strong in: diagnostics, speech and language technologies, membranes, and additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing.

The $330 million worth of programmes will come from the Government's $16.1 billion of public R&D spending that it has committed between 2011 and 2015.

By 2015, Singapore aims to spend 3.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, with public R&D spending amounting to 1 per cent of GDP.

Singapore's cyber defence firepower gets $130m boost
Funds will support research to make networks, IT systems more secure
By Grace Chng, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

SINGAPORE yesterday unveiled a $130 million plan to enhance the nation's cybersecurity firepower in the face of a rising tide of global cyberattacks.

The funds, to be spent over five years, will support research efforts to make computer networks and other information technology systems more secure, reliable and resilient.

These efforts will also boost the pool of qualified personnel able to combat increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.

The move was spurred by increasing cyberattacks which could threaten government agencies and critical services such as banks and utility firms.

Bolstering cybersecurity research was a major recommendation made yesterday by the high-level Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council chaired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Other key areas are a programme to attract expatriate senior scientists to return to Singapore, and developing innovation clusters around technologies such as 3-D printing and diagnostics.

Speaking at a press conference to announce the research areas, Mr Lee said: "If we can develop ideas and solutions which reduce cyber risks, I think that can save us a lot of trouble.

"All you need is one bad cyberattack averted and you pay back all the research you put in there. I think nobody can say that our system is safe and that there is no need to secure it, or that nobody can break it. All over the world, these are matters that are taken very seriously."

The cybersecurity programme will be jointly funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Security Coordinating Secretariat.

The NRF will be inviting applications from local and international communities for research grants in seven areas.

They include cyberforensic techniques, combating insider threats, identifying the source of attacks, and making computer hardware, software and electronics more reliable and resilient.

This will be complemented by studies into cyberspace governance and policy research.

Studies will seek to better understand human behaviour to develop programmes to educate business users and consumers on how to protect their companies and themselves against cyberattacks.

According to research company Ponemon Institute, the average annualised cost of cybercrime incurred per organisation this year worldwide was US$11.56 million (S$14.3 million), a 26 per cent jump over last year.

NRF chief executive, Professor Low Teck Seng, said at a media briefing earlier this week that this initiative enhances national security interest and helps businesses.

It is also addresses other tech sectors such as data centres and cloud computing.

Critically, the research comes amid a global shortage of highly skilled IT security professionals, said NRF director (physical sciences and engineering) George Loh.

"As of 2011, there were only 1,500 IT security specialists in Singapore, just 1 per cent of the total infocomm industry manpower," he said.

The types of cyberthreats facing Singapore are extremely challenging. Malicious software, or malware, can disrupt online services, deface websites and steal personal data, identity or intellectual property, he said.

New threats, such as cyberespionage operations and sophisticated advanced persistent threats (APTs), or targeted attacks, are also rising, he said.

No IT infrastructure or smartphone is safe today from cyberattacks, said Mr Chong Rong Hwa, senior malware researcher with software security firm FireEye. As long as users are online, hackers will try to steal information anywhere in the world and Singapore is no exception.

"APTs can be sent by hackers through software programs like Word or even embed them in Internet browsers. As soon as a user opens the Word file or surfs the Internet, his phone or computer is infected," he said.

Malware can steal identities, corporate secrets or credit card numbers. He added that software tools to combat cyberattacks are only part of the solution. Trained personnel are vital in learning how to take precautions against online attacks and to recognise when they have been infected.

Ageing issues next on research agenda?
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2013

NEXT on the research agenda could be issues relating to Singapore's ageing population, said two members of the National Research Foundation's (NRF) high-level Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council following the council's annual meeting yesterday.

Speaking to the media after the meeting, council member Wilhelm Krull noted that there are already some "islands of excellence" that focus on various aspects of ageing here, such as technology to help people adapt to ageing.

As a "front runner" in this area, Singapore could transfer its expertise to help solve ageing issues confronted by megacities, for instance. "I can't think of any other economy already dealing with this at great length," said Dr Krull, who is secretary-general of the Volks-wagen Foundation, a private German research foundation.

Singapore has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the world: In 20 years' time, one in four Singaporeans will be over the age of 65, up from about one in 10 now.

Lord Ernest Ronald Oxburgh, a geophysicist by training and a member of Britain's House of Lords, noted that a focus on this research area poses an opportunity to deal with the social implications of ageing.

For instance, the NRF council member said, people who are in their 60s and 70s remain healthy and could continue to contribute to the workforce but that might be seen as a challenge to younger workers.

The council members also commented on announcements made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

On the announcement about the Returning Singaporean Scientists scheme, Dr Krull pointed out that in the hunt for talent all over the world, a nurturing, creative research environment is as important as competitive salaries.

When asked what improvements Singapore could make to its research and innovation investments, Lord Oxburgh urged patience.

"In Singapore, everyone expects everything to happen tomorrow," he said.

"You can't expect instant businesses to be sustainable."
He pointed out that Singapore is already punching above its weight in the area of new knowledge creation.

Will a red carpet draw Singaporean scientists back...

... without making those who remain turn green? Many top Singaporean researchers work abroad. What will bring them home - and at the same time help retain scientists who stayed on here?
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 14 Nov 2013

FOUR decades ago, armed with a newly minted doctorate from Cambridge University, a young Malaysian neuro- anatomy researcher arrived to work at the then University of Singapore.

Having come back to South- east Asia to be closer to his family, Professor Ling Eng Ang found a research landscape "like a Third World country". Research funding was scarce; the lab had to buy and breed its own rats for studies, and there was no budget to publish papers in top journals that sought fees from researchers.

When the university began hiring scientists from the rich West, who had lengthy publication records, "how could we compete?" he recalled.

Singaporean researchers left for countries with a more developed culture of science and richer funding. Later, others went and stayed, seeking to grow their careers.

Now, Singapore wants to woo this diaspora home, particularly those who have excelled in their fields. Once they are headhunted by universities and research institutes here, scientists who are Singapore citizens will get up to five years of research funding.

This comes out of the $16.5 billion pot earmarked for R&D between 2011 and 2015, while their salaries are paid by the institute that employs them.

"By doing so, we hope to anchor the research capabilities and grow the Singapore core," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month when he announced the scheme.

PM Lee explained it was "worthwhile to make an extra effort". "These are the people who might not be otherwise thinking of coming back," he said. "They have already set up their careers, settled in and have challenging and exciting jobs. wherever they are in the world. We say: come back, we would like to have this link with you, either come back to visit or come back to relocate."

This seems like a good idea in principle.

As the popular narrative goes, Singapore has very deliberately been bootstrapping itself up to the head of the class in engineering, physical and biomedical sciences over the past two decades, a process jump-started by importing big-name scientists from the West.

Now, it's time to groom Singaporeans - who presumably will have a vision for science here - to take up leadership positions.

That is the core idea. But how effective will it be?

Singaporean stars

THE National Research Foundation (NRF) does not keep tabs on how many Singapore scientists are abroad, but it said it was building a database of those overseas.

However, it is known that some are outstanding in their fields. For example, Professor Peh Li-Shiuan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's electrical engineering and computer science department studies ways to boost the computing power of computer chips.

Associate Professor Wong Chee Wei at Columbia University manipulates light to study tiny nanostructures. Last month, he was named a Fellow of the Optical Society of America.

Another Singaporean, Dr Desney Tan, is a principal researcher at Microsoft's research division, where he studies human-computer interaction, mobile computing, and health-care applications.

Even if Singapore could track all its expatriate scientists down, drawing them back is a different matter. Choosing where to live and work are very personal decisions.

Singapore presents itself as a vibrant, well-funded destination for science research. If this is the case, why do Singaporean scientists need an extra carrot to come home?

Better opportunities abroad

IN SOME fields, the opportunities elsewhere are richer. Associate Professor Leonard Lee of Columbia Business School, whose PhD in marketing was from MIT, said the opportunity to learn from his field's best minds was "too great to miss". But he keeps a foot in each country, giving seminars at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and other Singapore universities.

And Microsoft's Dr Tan said the firm offered him support to build a "dream team". He was also drawn by the chance to "conduct scientific research with the very best and then to translate that research into commercial products that get used by millions of people", he added.

Over time, many put down roots overseas. Some have married non-Singaporeans and live in their spouse's home country. Some like the economies of scale in the research environment at, say, Harvard.

The truth is, people sometimes leave because they are simply dissatisfied with the level of bureaucracy or pressure for quick results. The latter has also been known to turn off some of the big names lured from overseas.

NRF might be more successful if it understood what draws Singaporeans home.

Family is a major reason: Nanyang Technological University (NTU) mathematician Chua Chek Beng gave up a tenure-track post at the University of Waterloo in Canada in 2006 because he and his wife wanted to be closer to their parents in Singapore.

It helped that he was offered the chance to work at NTU's brand-new school of physical and mathematical sciences, too.

Associate Professor Too Heng-Phon of NUS' biochemistry department, who is Malaysian and a permanent resident here but whose wife and son are Singaporean, said he came back to the region to be closer to family as well.

Grants can help. When she received a Clinician Scientist Award grant from the National Medical Research Council, cardiologist Carolyn Lam returned from Mayo Clinic in the US to practise and do research at the National University Hospital (NUH), where she focuses on women's heart health.

Great teachers are another draw. NUS' Prof Ling said that while the conditions were spartan back in the 1970s, the late Professor Ragunathar Kanagasuntheram was a great mentor. He also stayed in Singapore out of a sense of duty. "We were almost like the 'pioneers' and we helped build up this place both in teaching and research. If we don't, who else?"

As Singapore builds up its research ecosystem and draws other leading minds, those who come home may themselves become a draw for younger academics looking for mentors.

Prof Ling, for instance, has trained generations of medical students. And collaborations like the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology allow those like Prof Peh to guide younger scientists in both Singapore and their home university.

While Singapore draws its own home and attracts foreign researchers, it also ought to recognise those who have long served here. It should treat equally those who have gone abroad and those who have stayed. Researchers like Prof Ling, Prof Lee and NTU dean of science Prof Ling San agreed on this point. The NRF carrot could help to retain outstanding Singaporean scientists too.

At the same time, the move to woo back Singaporean scientists can also be seen as an exhortation to young scientists to go forth, grow their careers wherever they wish, then come home. They will not be considered quitters, but valuable returnees.

Dr Wilhelm Krull, secretary- general of Germany's private Volkswagen Foundation and a member of Singapore's high-level Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council, suggested it was "time to think more in terms of circulation rather than brain drain or brain gain".

Dr Tan of Microsoft noted that the new scheme signalled a strong commitment to top local talent, a change from previous years.

When he completed his PhD in 2004, he felt Singapore favoured foreign hires with more attention and fat relocation packages. To draw him home, Singapore would have to replicate the "excitement, unfettered support and commitment" of his current conditions.

"There is no cookie cutter formula for this. What will work for one domain and individual, may not work for another... But if done right, I believe top talent will choose to jump back in from their presumably fulfilling positions outside of Singapore and to embrace the challenge. In general, I think many Singaporeans would love to return home and to serve the country, and I'm excited to see conditions swinging in favour of this," he added.

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