Clash of titans over biomed research

AT the centre of the sprawling S$500mil (RM1.15bil) Biopolis is a shining S$250,000 (RM575,000) sculpture of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus.  

Here, in the open air, researchers of all shades lounge with coffee cups in hand. The talk: the boxing match that had been playing out before them for the past week.  

There is a lot of money riding on the outcome of the bout, which has the feisty Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) chairman Philip Yeo in one corner and the equally outspoken National Neuroscience Institute head Dr Lee Wei Ling, in the other.  

Yeo, Singapore’s science salesman, has been leading the research charge – scouring the world for heavyweights and training the next generation of top scientists.  

Having made a hugely successful bet on the petrochemical industry, he is convinced that research “whales” are needed to take research in cancer and heart disease to a higher plane.  

Challenger Dr Lee wants Singapore to change direction in its multi-billion dollar biomedical sciences research drive, which she says has gone astray.  

“At the end of the day, I want biomedical research to benefit patients, and as a Singaporean, I do not want taxpayers’ money to go to waste,” she said.  

Among her criticisms: Biomedical resources were spread too thinly and that Singapore should focus on niche areas such as hepatitis B and head injuries, instead of competing with the West on big-name research.  

Both have come out arms swinging. Yeo noted that Dr Lee had never stepped into the Biopolis and did not understand that this was no short-term effort that would lead to swift returns.  

Dr Lee retorted that Yeo might be a successful salesman but he was no doctor, and therefore, not in touch with diseases that matter.  

Foreign researchers based in Singapore are understandably worried about descriptions of them as “footloose” scientists.  

Genome Institute of Singapore chief Edison Liu, a cancer expert from the United States National Institutes of Health, became a Singapore permanent resident on Friday, the day he turned 55.  

“I quit a permanent position in the US because I believed in Singapore’s vision, and I am committed to this country,” he said.  

“I am amazed at its development and I plan on staying.”  

He said he was puzzled by the controversy over medical relevance given that his institute focused on medical questions that were important in the republic, including key research that helped resolve the 2003 SARS crisis in Singapore.  

In cyberspace, opinion is divided, but talk centres on who will ultimately prevail in the heavyweight clash.  

That her examples of research that Singapore should pursue include areas the NNI are focused on have given rise to unkind comments that she covets funding for her own institute.  

No, says Dr Lee, she is fighting to promote all areas where Singapore has a competitive advantage and which are important, including liver, gastric and breast cancers.  

Researchers say that the daughter of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and sister of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong might well have enough persuasive powers to shift the tide. – The Straits Times / Asia News Network  

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