Sunday, 3 January 2016

R&D will remain key pillar of Singapore

As Singapore enters its 51st year today, Lin Yangchen looks at how science and technology shaped the nation's first 50 years, and what the future holds.
By Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times, 1 Jan 2016

Science is an important part of the collective human knowledge that has made us so successful as a species. It has enabled us to understand and contemplate our impact on the world, even to explore worlds beyond Earth.

As Singaporeans usher in the next 50 years of nationhood, it is perhaps timely to appraise the country's history of science, to draw inspiration from those who set the ball rolling and to spur the new generation to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

R&D's importance was recognised early on, even as fledgling Singapore was busy building the economy, public infrastructure and defence. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1966: "It is of the utmost importance that, in the field of science and technology, we should lead the field in this part of the world."

The following year, the Science Council was established to nurture human resources in various aspects of R&D, including training and relations with scientific organisations.

And in 1968, Dr Toh Chin Chye was appointed Minister for Science and Technology.

To stimulate interest in science among people of all ages, the Singapore Science Centre opened in 1977. It soon became a popular destination for many Generation-Y children. Researchers also received a boost from government programmes and infrastructure.

In 1991, the National Science and Technology Board, now the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), was set up to further enhance Singapore's capabilities and establish future directions in science and technology.

Today, A*Star straddles academia and industry, promoting innovative research that benefits the economy and society, and offering awards and scholarships.

In 2000, Singapore's biomedical revolution began with the launch of the Biomedical Sciences Initiative, laying the foundation of yet another pillar of Singapore's economy.

The science and technology sector received yet another fillip in 2006 when the National Research Foundation was created under the Prime Minister's Office to develop strategies and policies, coordinate research efforts across agencies and provide research funding.

In 2013, the Government went on a global drive to attract top Singaporean scientists back home, with PM Lee Hsien Loong announcing the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme.

They can choose to work in numerous institutions: In academia such as the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore University of Technology and Design, or in academic-industrial outfits like the Biopolis and Fusionopolis research hubs for corporate laboratories.

The well-known lack of women in science was also not overlooked in Singapore. To counter this "potential waste of human talent" - as was described in the academic journal Nature (about the worldwide dearth of woman scientists) - the L'Oreal Singapore for Women in Science National Fellowships were created in 2009 to support early-career women in a wide range of scientific disciplines.

These measures have propelled Singapore into the "First World" of science and technology - academically and in industry, in fields as varied as medicine and engineering.

But even more crucial now is the task of grooming the next generation of home-grown scientists to make the discoveries of tomorrow.

To help meet this goal, the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science opened in 2005.

In addition, Singapore held its first National Science Experiment last year, when over 43,000 students from primary and secondary schools as well as junior colleges collected and analysed data on their daily travel patterns.

People in general are encouraged to take an interest, too. The new SG50 book Singapore's Scientific Pioneers, available free online, tells of the remarkable politicians and scientists who steered Singapore through its first 50 years of science.

Currently, there is an exhibition at the ArtScience Museum of Nobel Prize-winning ideas that transformed the world, and of the Large Hadron Collider that facilitated the discovery of the Higgs boson, or "God particle". There are few things more remote from our everyday lives than the "God particle", but it represents what really makes us human - the desire to get to the bottom of the mysteries of our universe.

And this might just be what is needed to keep the momentum going in the long run - the so-called blue sky research.

Research in Singapore in the past half-century has focused largely on getting economic returns. While this approach has served the country well, basic or blue sky research should not be forsaken.

Such research may seem to offer little in the way of tangible benefit to the economy or society, but we should not forget that iPhones would not be possible without the discovery of the electron.

Inundated with centuries of knowledge accumulated by mankind, the scientist of today may struggle to invent or discover something as revolutionary as Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines or Newton's laws of motion.

But be it pushing the frontiers of space or taking on the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change, the next 50 years of exploration and discovery offer plenty of opportunities, and an even greater presence for Singapore on the world stage of science.

5 high points of science in history

1. Singapore's 'Sputnik'

Coming out of 2015, as 50 years of independence drew to a close yesterday, Singapore's scientific exploits are showing no signs of letting up.

Among the most recent achievements were the successful space launches of Singapore's first "home-made" satellites, built through collaborations among universities, defence agencies and private firms based in Singapore.

X-Sat, Singapore's very own "Sputnik", blasted off in 2011, marking the dawn of Singapore's space age.

To date, the "little satellite that could" has voyaged a distance equivalent to about 1,000 return trips to the moon.

No fewer than six new satellites followed in X-Sat's footsteps last year, the largest weighing a hefty 400kg.

2. First cancer drug to reach clinical trials

Down on Earth, Singapore's pursuit of research that benefits society has been equally strong.

Among the top contenders is the first cancer drug, ETC-159, to reach clinical trials. It was developed by researchers at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.

Conceived, made and tested in Singapore in the initial stages, the drug has been dubbed "a Singapore baby" by one of the lead scientists involved, Professor Alex Matter, CEO of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre.

Now undergoing clinical trials, ETC-159 offers hope for patients afflicted by a variety of cancers, including stomach and pancreatic cancer.

This, and other breakthroughs in science and medicine, are testimony to the long way the country has come and the diversity and versatility of its R&D capabilities.

3. Climate change champion

Associate Professor Wong Poh Poh was the only Singaporean on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, alongside former US vice-president and environmentalist Al Gore.

Prof Wong's journey began as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore's Department of Geography in the 1960s. After further studies, he returned to the place that had nurtured him. By the time he retiredrecently, he was widely recognised as an authority on the coastal geography of Singapore.

This is one arena in which Singapore has made a disproportionately big contribution to global efforts to combat climate change - offering the perspectives of a small and highly populated island, on which ingenuity is the way forward in mitigating the effects of sea-level rise.

4. Internet innovator still connecting

When the world entered the Internet Age, Singapore was at the cutting edge.

In the early 1990s, biochemist Tan Tin Wee came on the scene, and his new "afternoon job" with the National University of Singapore Computer Centre during those years "was to build the Internet for Singapore", according to reports.

Dr Tan pioneered numerous innovations, including a program that displayed Chinese and Tamil characters in browsers, allowing millions of Chinese and Tamil speakers in Asia to exploit the riches of the Internet for the first time.

His passion for helping the disabled led to the Singapore School for the Deaf being the first primary school with Internet access.

In 2012, he was inducted into the Internet Society's Hall of Fame in Geneva, Switzerland.

He is still at it, helping people connect online in new and powerful ways.

5. Immortalising national flower

One of the early innovations in local science and technology was a gold-plated orchid developed by Dr Lee Kum Tatt, founding chairman of the Science Council.

Dr Lee's wife, Engeline, had said she wished that orchids could last forever. He obliged.

At first, he experimented at home using makeshift equipment. The technique was perfected after he got a grant from the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research to acquire proper laboratory facilities.

The intricate beauty of Singapore's signature blooms could now be captured in a form that defies wilting or rusting. His work resulted in one of the first patents from Singapore.

The earliest prototype was presented to Singapore's then First Lady, Mrs Benjamin Sheares, in 1975.

This uniquely Singapore branded souvenir has travelled, and continues to travel, the world in the pockets of countless delighted visitors to the tropical island-state.

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