Many top Singaporean researchers work abroad. What will bring them home — and at the same time help retain scientists who stayed on in the republic?
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, Prof 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 in the island-state, scientists who are Singapore citizens will get up to five years of research funding.
This comes out of the S$16.5bil (RM41.2bil) 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.
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 in the republic – to take up leadership positions.
That is the core idea. But how effective will it be?
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, Prof 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.
Assoc Prof 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 healthcare 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?
In some fields, the opportunities elsewhere are richer.
Assoc Prof 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”.
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.
Assoc Prof 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 United States 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 Prof 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 serve the country, and I’m excited to see conditions swinging in favour of this,” he added.