Sunday, 10 January 2016

Singapore commits record $19 billion to R&D

Budget over next five years an investment in talent, possibilities of science, says PM
By Chang Ai-Lien and Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

The nation's science and technology research budget will rise to a record $19 billion in the next five years, as the Government reaffirms its commitment to research here.

"It is an investment in our human talent, in the possibilities of science and what it can do to change our lives, and in our understanding of the world and human knowledge which can be applied in many areas over many, many years," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday. He was announcing the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan for up to 2020.

It aims to smash research silos by getting interdisciplinary groups to work together under broad groupings, increase competition for funding to get the best research, train people in the right areas and get the best out of them.

Resources will be prioritised in four key areas: advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and digital economy, and urban solutions and sustainability.

Competition will be revved up with researchers having to compete for about 40 per cent of their funding, double that of the previous five years. "You want to have predictability, because once you start a project you cannot just turn off the tap and say we changed our mind," said Mr Lee, who is also chairman of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) that is made up of Cabinet ministers and distinguished local and foreign businessmen and scientists.

"At the same time you also have to have accountability... So to make funding contestable forces that discipline, and makes sure that when we spend the money, we get good value out of it."

The near $4 billion given out each year is around 1 per cent of the nation's annual gross domestic product (GDP) and is comparable to what countries such as the United States spend.

Mr Lee was speaking at a press conference following the RIEC's ninth annual meeting.

There were areas that Singapore could do better in, PM Lee said, including how to commercialise discoveries and get value from R&D.

Also falling short was private sector investment, which had been predicted at 2.5 per cent of Singapore's GDP in the last five years, but reached only 1.5 per cent because of the global economic slowdown.

The Government hopes it will rise to 1.8 per cent in the next five years.

But overall, PM Lee noted: "Is it worth spending 1 per cent? Yes."

He added: "Overall, I would say we have got value, we will work harder at it, we will continue to maintain this level of investment."

RIEC members praised the plan, saying it was well thought out. One of them, Professor Richard Friend of the University of Cambridge, said: "In R&D, we have to take risks... And the best environment to take risks is one where there is great predictability about funding two, three, five years in the future."

More public money will go to projects that improve Singaporean lives, says NRF
By Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

In the next five years, more public money for research will flow to projects that make a difference to the lives of Singaporeans, on top of those that rev up the economy, said the man charting the nation's research direction.

National Research Foundation chief Low Teck Seng has $19 billion in hand. And of the roughly $10 billion that goes to public research institutions, researchers will have to compete for 40 per cent from now to 2020, an increase from about one-fifth between 2010 and last year.

Professor Low, aware that he is in charge of the biggest amount ever available for Singapore researchers, told The Straits Times: "In managing public funds, we must make sure we fund the right things, to be more focused and sharper.

"There is no place for mediocrity in this world today."

The new emphasis is key to ensuring Singapore attracts and retains the best people, and produces the best results, he added.

"There's no such thing as perpetual funding," he said, noting that a scientist may hitherto have produced excellent work, but someone even better could be out there. "We have a level of maturity that requires us to be cleverer in what we're doing," he added.

This means going beyond economically important areas, like advanced manufacturing, to fields that ensure the country's "societal, national and economic needs" are met - by helping the growing silver population age well or making Singapore more self-sufficient in food, for instance.

Citing water, Prof Low noted it was a national need served by research on desalination and membrane technology for water purification. No matter what, "we would fund it, because we need it to survive".

Also critical is the ability to respond effectively to emerging infectious diseases. When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in 2003, Singapore was caught off guard.

"Today, I think we would be able to respond in a much speedier and more knowledgeable fashion", as Singapore now has "a very established knowledge ecosystem" built up through years of research, he said. "With knowledge, there's no fear."

Acknowledging that the past funding regime could be improved in certain areas, he said care would be taken not to mire scientists in too much red tape when they applied for grants.

Still, "when you're big and growing, sometimes appropriate management structures become a necessity although we must ensure it's not too onerous".

But he added: "The more you can deliver, the more latitude you will be given in doing pet projects."

There is also $2.5 billion of "white space" funding set aside for unanticipated needs and opportunities.

One example is cyber security, which arose during the last funding cycle.

Talent is a critical ingredient in the research equation, said Prof Low, noting that top research hubs are characterised by their ability "to cream off the best in the world".

The National Research Foundation has more than 60 fellows, selected in a gruelling year-long process to get the most outstanding young scientists who can be leaders in local research institutions.

The Government has also introduced the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme to attract top-notch science brains abroad to return home.

It is the latest move in the public funding of science and technology, which began in earnest in 1991 with the first five-year plan, the National Technology Plan.

Twenty-five years and $40 billion later, Singapore has matured from using research and development to support industry needs, to developing world-class universities and institutes, and carrying out research that ranges from water purification to stomach cancer treatment.

As Prof Low put it: "Science and technology will be central to our strategies for building Singapore for the future."

Big push for science and tech research

In the next five years, $19 billion will be pumped into scientific and technological research under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan. Funding will be prioritised in four key areas where Singapore has a competitive edge or which meet national needs. The Straits Times looks at how these four areas will transform Singapore in the next five years.

Advanced manufacturing and engineering
By Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

Few may think that Singapore can match giants like China in manufacturing. But Singapore makes up for the lack of quantity with quality.

It has made big strides in manufacturing since independence, from labour-intensive operations in the 1960s to capital- and technology-intensive doctrines in the 1990s and today's knowledge- and innovation-intensive focus.

This rising trajectory will get a boost in the next five years, when $3.3 billion from the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 funding programme, announced yesterday by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will be allocated to develop cutting-edge manufacturing technology.

To capitalise on the broadest range of opportunities for future economic growth, eight key industries have been picked. They span a kaleidoscope of sectors, from aerospace and marine to medical technology and precision engineering.

For example, the funding will support the continuing development of Singapore's research and engineering capabilities in space, like satellite design and construction.

The launch of six Singapore-made satellites last month has validated the country's space capabilities, and will open more opportunities for local institutions to be a part of the high-growth global space industry.

The goal is to ensure that Singapore remains a partner of choice for companies developing products and services .

At the same time, there will be a greater drive to support companies - from local start-ups to multinational corporations - to commercialise research outputs while building a highly skilled work-force and generating good jobs for Singaporeans.

There will also be more emphasis on making strategic bets ahead of industry to develop potential game changers.

Health and biomedical sciences
By Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

In a medical emergency, every second counts. Having an ambulance near you can make the difference between life and death.

Singaporeans may soon benefit from reduced emergency response times, thanks to state-of-the-art computer modelling.

A collaboration between the Singapore General Hospital and Singapore Civil Defence Force has produced mathematical models that can predict locations where ambulances are more likely to be needed, potentially reducing response times by 10 per cent.

This is one example of the tangible improvements in healthcare that $4 billion of funding over the next five years aims to achieve.

This constitutes the largest slice of 21 per cent from the $19 billion Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 funding programme for the next five years.

Singaporeans can also look forward to increased chances of survival and recovery from a whole array of "top killers" such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

For example, the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium has developed state-of-the-art technology for the early detection and treatment of gastric cancer, which hits one in five Chinese men here.

Translating biomedical research into healthcare that saves the man on the street is a time-consuming process.

Singapore has come a long way, from the initial establishment of biomedical research capabilities in the early 2000s to more applied clinical research in subsequent years, and most recently towards engagement with industry to bring healthcare to the bedside.

Today, it enjoys an extensive biomedical and healthcare infrastructure, including research-intensive hospitals. RIE2020 will use this as a platform to foster even closer partnerships between research and healthcare institutions.

Services and digital economy
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

Automated technologies will become increasingly more pervasive in the next five years, and this will affect almost every aspect of daily living, from travel to work and play.

Self-driving "pods" - small, single- seater vehicles - may bridge the first and last mile from a commuter's home or workplace to the nearest train station and vice versa.

And getting a quick answer to a question from a company or government agency may be done through intelligent live chat and automated question-and-answer systems, where computer software can understand your question and provide an answer.

These are among the innovations that Singapore's services and digital economy sector will explore with the $400 million in funds it will receive from the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 plan.

Research in the sector will focus on urban mobility, healthcare infocommunication technology and services productivity.

These will support the Smart Nation programme and Infocomm Media 2025 masterplan that aims to improve daily living through the integration of technology.

Urban mobility research will supplement the Transport Ministry's efforts to produce a "car-lite" Singapore by improving the public transport system. And sensor-based systems and data analytics can help autonomous vehicles avoid jams and choose the quickest routes.

Further research and development into Internet-connected devices will also aid in healthcare and improve the lives of the elderly through sensors at home that monitor health or remind them to take medicine.

Advances in natural language processing, machine learning and media analytics could lead to real- time subtitling of live television shows in multiple languages.

Cyber-security research will be another key component of the services and digital economy sector.

Urban solutions and sustainability
By Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2016

A cooler Singapore, with temperatures below 30 deg C, may seem like an impossible dream.

Yet, it is one of the ambitious research goals in the urban solutions and sustainability sector, which will receive $900 million in funding in the next five years under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan.

The 13 lead agencies in the domain, including the Ministry of National Development, Energy Market Authority and national water agency PUB, will look into research on energy, land and water concerns.

The Land and Liveability National Innovation Challenge, launched in 2013, will carry on under the RIE2020.

The goal is for researchers to cut ambient temperature by 4 deg C in residential estates.

This could be through new building materials that absorb and convert excess heat for storage or other uses.

Research will also focus on developing new ways of creating space, such as underground facilities in basements and deep caverns, or through land reclamation and even large floating structures.

The sector is also tasked with maintaining the stability and reliability of the nation's power grid, and keeping energy prices affordable while developing an environmentally sustainable energy system.

To do so, the agencies will look at solar power and how to achieve greater energy efficiency with green building technologies.

For instance, air-conditioners - which account for nearly half the energy used in buildings - may one day be fitted with membranes rather than compressors that can significantly reduce power consumption.

Research will also be done to meet the expected doubling of demand for water by 2060, by lowering the energy consumption of desalination, leading to cost savings.

Singapore 'could be global innovation hub'
SMU don among many in research community excited about five-year $19b budget for R&D
By Carolyn Khew and Lin Yangchen, The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

The country's plan to pump $19 billion into science and technology over the next five years could "make Singapore a 'go to' destination as a global innovation and entrepreneurship hub".

This is the view of Professor Gerard George, dean and professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University (SMU).

Like him, many in the research community have reacted positively to Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020, which was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last Friday.

It will allocate $19 billion over the next five years towards developing Singapore as a knowledge-based, innovation-driven and future-ready economy and society. It is 18 per cent higher than the previous five-year budget of $16.1 million.

The plan will see researchers having to compete more for funding, as well as more being done to take discoveries to market. "I am pleased to see RIE2020 respond emphatically to calls for strengthening our entrepreneurial ecosystem and focus on commercialisation of technology and scaling it up for global markets," Prof George added.

Research institutions here are geared up to tap into the opportunities offered by the new plan.

For example, the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Engineering said its dean, Professor Chua Kee Chaing, has been "promoting greater collaboration between engineers, clinicians and scientists in partnership with the National University Health System since the early 2000s".

The collaboration fosters the development of innovative technological solutions to healthcare challenges, the kind of multidisciplinary applied research that would be very much at home in RIE2020.

The funding will focus on four core technological domains - advanced manufacturing and engineering; health and biomedical sciences; services and digital economy; and urban solutions and sustainability.

Beyond these, Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) chief of staff and vice-president of research, Professor Lam Khin Yong, highlighted the $2.5 billion set aside for the so-called white space - to look into previously unanticipated emerging topics.

Prof Lam said: "In the past few years, NTU has been actively scanning the horizon to identify new areas of growth." He gave examples of recent advances made by the university in areas such as satellite development, new materials for clean technology, and renewable energy.

In addition, Assistant Professor Cheong Siew Ann, deputy director of NTU's Complexity Institute, said that many of the challenges faced by Singapore are likely to be complex, and "the most obvious 'solutions' could lead to unintended consequences".

This, he said, is where the relatively new field of complexity science, which studies how things behave when they are interconnected with one another, could offer novel solutions. "I certainly hope to find opportunities within RIE2020 to grow and establish NTU as the complexity science hub in Asia," Prof Cheong added.

When asked about the impact RIE2020 would have on early- and mid-career researchers carrying the baton into the future, Professor Thomas Magnanti, president of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), said that youth has its advantages.

The relatively young faculty and researchers at SUTD, for example, are looking for innovative ways to establish their careers and are less anchored on traditional research domains. "Thus they are in a good position to move swiftly into the RIE-identified fields," he added.

Overseas experts also gave RIE2020 the thumbs up, particularly as the enhanced budget comes at a time when many other countries are cutting back on research spending.

Professor Robert Brown, president of Boston University and a member of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC), praised the Government's commitment to research and development.

He said: "The United States deals with one-year budgets and, in good years, we actually have a budget... The government (here) does a tremendous job trying to execute that plan and is very self-critical about when they succeed and when they do not."

PM Lee is chairman of the RIEC which is made up of Cabinet ministers and distinguished local and foreign businessmen and scientists.

R&D funds spurring world-class research in Singapore
By Samantha Boh, The Sunday Times, 10 Jan 2016

For decades, gastric cancer has been a silent killer, sneaking up on more than 700,000 unsuspecting victims in Asia every year and surfacing only when patients have little chance of recovery.

But in recent years, Singapore scientists have edged closer to uncovering the sinister cancer early.

One method - a simple blood test that could potentially detect the cancer even before symptoms start to surface, simply by measuring the levels of micro-RNA, which are the chemicals that help regulate genes.

Research into gastric cancer was on Friday highlighted as one of the bright stars in Singapore's research push, as the country's research funding body, the National Research Foundation (NRF), unveiled a record $19 billion budget for the next five years.

Over the past 25 years, $40 billion has been pumped into R&D here, and it has borne fruit, creating thousands of jobs and propelling Singapore to world-leader status in areas ranging from water treatment to eye and stomach cancer research, said the NRF in a review last month.

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University and National University Singapore, for one, have created membranes that mimic a protein found in all living things called aquaporin. It can purify water at lower pressures than is required for conventional polymeric membranes, making water treatment cheaper. At the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri), researchers discovered a method to put the brakes on myopia, which afflicts eight in 10 people here by the time they are adults, just through an eyedrop.

Professor Wong Tien Yin, former executive director of Seri and medical director of the Singapore National Eye Research Institute, said government funding has been critical in the success of eye research here in two ways: It helped set up Seri and build a pipeline of senior and junior clinician scientists.

"We hope there will continue to be sustained funding to the hospitals where the patients are and to where needs are identified," he said.

Associate Professor Yeoh Khay Guan from the National University Health System and a gastric cancer expert, said government grants enabled the Singapore Gastric Cancer Consortium (SGCC) to accelerate the pace of gastric cancer research as it allowed for studies of larger scope and scale that have potentially greater impact.

The SGCC was granted two five-year tranches of the NRF Translational and Clinical Research Flagship grant in 2007 and 2013.

"The long period of sustained grant funding has also allowed the SGCC to attract, train and, most importantly, retain research talent in the gastric cancer field," added Prof Yeoh, who is also lead principal investigator of the SGCC.

But the country's research funding body has acknowledged that there are some weak spots, including lacklustre private sector funding. Between 2011 and last year, the Government committed $16.1 billion to research, but private sector research spending fell short of its goal of hitting 2.5 per cent of the country's gross domestic product last year.

NRF chief Low Teck Seng had said it was partly because firms were more cautious about spending due to the slowdown in the global economy.

More also needs to be done to commercialise good research. Professor Low noted that Singapore faces the challenge of turning patents and knowledge from the universities and institutes into economic impact and solutions for national issues.

According to the NRF, this will be addressed through collaborative laboratories between major industry players and universities and institutes, and the transfer of talent from research to industry and vice versa.

Three top Singaporean scientists coming home
They will take up leadership positions under a scheme that gives generous grants
By Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 8 Jan 2016

Three prominent Singaporean scientists who built illustrious careers overseas are returning to continue their research here, joining the first recipient of a scheme which gives generous grants to those willing to take on leadership positions locally.

Giants in their fields of computer science, advanced electronics and plant molecular biology, they have been wooed home under the prestigious Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2013.

Professor Andrew Lim, Dr Aaron Thean and Professor Chua Nam Hai join Professor Ho Teck Hua, deputy president (research and technology) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Before the trio, Prof Ho was the only recipient under the scheme.

From today, Prof Lim, a computer scientist behind five successful companies, will head the department of industrial and systems engineering at the NUS engineering faculty, while Dr Thean, an engineer and prolific inventor with 50 patents, joins NUS as a professor of electrical engineering in May.

Prof Chua, a world-renowned biotechnology expert who has been based in New York since 1971, will continue in his roles at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) in Singapore - as deputy chairman of its management board and chairman of its research strategy committee.

"The three returning scientists developed their research careers over a long period of time, starting at a time when the research and development landscape in Singapore was less developed," said National Research Foundation (NRF) chief Low Teck Seng.

"By uprooting themselves from their established careers to return to Singapore, it shows their recognition that Singapore has become a major R&D (research and development) hub."

The target is to attract a total of 10 scientists to come back by 2019, said Professor Low. So far, the NRF has engaged over 20 scientists based overseas working in areas such as computer science, health and biomedical sciences. Only Singaporean scientists of the highest calibre qualify, Prof Low stressed.

To sweeten the deal, the NRF offers up to $7.5 million in research start-up grants for each scientist to continue his R&D work here, an enticement that comes at a time when private firms in Singapore are spending less on research, and research overseas is feeling the crunch.

But the recipients said the grant money, while generous, was not the main pull factor.

Prof Lim, 49, who left Singapore for Hong Kong and Jiangsu, China, 12 years ago because the computer science industry here was still in its infancy, said: "The money makes it easier, but even if another country were to offer the same amount, I wouldn't consider it. Singapore is home... My family, relatives and friends are here, and it is one of the best countries to live in."

Dr Thean was also thinking about coming home to look after his parents, who are in their 70s. "My dad and my mum have missed me and my family quite a bit, so I would like to spend more time with them," said the 44-year-old, who is currently with Imec, a nanoelectronic research institute based in Belgium.

Both are also looking forward to contributing to Singapore's smart nation efforts. Prof Lim, for instance, will be part of the NUS smart nation research cluster, an inter-disciplinary group that will look into areas such as data science and cyber security.

Prof Chua, 71, is also looking forward to coming back.

"Going forward, I will have more time to interact with younger principal investigators in TLL and provide mentorship if needed," he said.

Prof Ho, a behavioural sciences expert who took up his NUS position last June and is also Tan Chin Tuan Centennial Professor at the university, said one of his most meaningful tasks so far has been to create the new smart nation research cluster, which will involve more than 50 researchers from multiple disciplines.

And while top foreign scientists attracted here have been called "whales", their Singaporean counterparts could be seen as "lions", said Prof Ho. "They personify the courage of scientists to blaze new trails in science and technology in the Lion City."

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