Majulah Singapura
From Fishing Village to Asia’s Biopolis (Pt II)

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 04/2013


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Let’s CREATE something special


The durian fruit – a Singaporean speciality. Its odour has been described by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace as “at first disagreeable” and by others as garbage, rotting fish, dead cats or “pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock”. No surprise that carrying it around in public is a punishable offence. Photo: www.publicdomainimages.net/Peter Griffin

The universities NUS and NTU also participate in the Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise (CREATE), which was just opened late last year. As a major international research campus and innovation hub, CREATE should facilitate collaborations between Singapore-based institutions from different sectors. The new 67,000 m2 building was recognised as Lab of the Year by the US-based R&D Magazine for its excellence in research lab design, planning and construction. It is a showpiece for future research institutions with respect to energy efficiency, not only locally but also worldwide.

CREATE is located at NUS University Town and able to host 1,200 researchers upon full operation. CREATE is home to the National Research Foundation, to three-to-five-year research projects by leading international universities and corporate labs, as well as to technology incubators and start-up companies. Research and technology development activities at CREATE are categorised into four broad categories: Human, Energy, Environment and Urban Systems. For example, the Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alliance on Research & Technology (SMART) Centre will house five interdisciplinary groups, including one on infectious diseases and one on biosystems and micromechanics. The Swiss ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability will focus on urban studies, while the Technical University of Munich (TUM) CREATE is dealing with electromobility in megacities. Collaborative research programmes led by the Israel Institute of Technology and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem address tissue engineering in cardiac restoration and inflammatory diseases, respectively. Other universities present include Cambridge University, Peking University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and UC Berkeley. Up to 50% of costs in temporary research projects with international units is provided by the Singaporean Government.

Not a perfect world

The US company Gallup conducted a poll in 140 countries, in which citizens were asked, if they experience emotions on a daily basis. Singapore turned out to be the most emotionless nation in the world. The story was run in international newspapers, in which it was reasoned that the willingness of Singaporeans to express themselves is lacking because individualism is not promoted during education. Others made the stress of modern urbanisation, including overcrowded public transport as well as insufficient housing conditions, responsible.

The inability to express oneself is, however, not restricted to domestics but extends also to some foreign scientists not willing to share their experiences in Singapore for this article. Many did not respond at all. Others told me that they prefer not to talk due to heavy travel in the following weeks or because they are on their way to tenure or in-between jobs.

Their wariness may have been triggered by the case of Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at NTU, who was denied tenure earlier this year. As a former journalist of Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, he has repeatedly criticised the governmental control of the media as well as policies of the ruling party in Singapore. George received support from some of his colleagues, who fear that the reputation of NTU is being seriously damaged by the presumed politically-motivated rejection and will have a negative impact on attracting academics from abroad in future.

Also, for the first time after communicating with hundreds of organisations over the last seven years, in the course of squeezing out some useful details for our readers, I was asked by a funding organisation to share my CV before my questions on funding programmes would be considered.

Isolated cases of scientific misconduct

At high-pressure places, where it is expected to put out high-profile papers on a regular basis, one would expect to find the one or other rotten apple. However, with the exception of the Melendez case, Singapore has, so far, not been involved in any major cases of scientific fraud and misconduct.

The immunologist, Alirio Melendez, who was employed at NUS in the early 2000s, was the key person in the most serious case. A full internal investigation leading to 21 suspicious papers started, when NUS officials received an anonymous email blaming Melendez for scientific fraud in two papers. Until now, about half of the indicated papers including a publication in Nature Immunology have been retracted or corrected. His co-authors were not accused of any wrongdoing.

Isolated reports on retracted papers involving researchers hosted by Singaporean institutions show up in the blog Retraction Watch, launched by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. One includes a paper in Nature Photonics on nanoelectrodes by scientists from various Singaporean research institutions, which was retracted due to a measurement error; another, a publication in the Journal of General Virology by scientists of NUS and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, for image enhancement and improper figure labelling.

Outlook

Singapore continues to invest in science and innovation and its investments have started to pay off. The rise of Singaporean R&D-performing institutions in global rankings and the growing engagement of multinationals into Singapore’s key areas are indications for the success of its strategy. Singapore’s dependence on research talent as well as on top-level scientists from abroad will not cease in the near future. However, the first gold digger wave of scientists from abroad has been abated. Scientists not willing to perform business-oriented research or having problems being a door-opener for companies and their investments into Singapore’s economy are out of place and may have problems to sustain a continuous funding stream for their research projects. The novel five-year national plan sets aside about €90 million a year for the PhD pipeline, so there are plenty of scholar- and fellowship opportunities for incoming talents. In addition, hundreds of job openings are advertised for scientists at different career stages. For example, in the A*STAR Career Section more than 300 job opportunities were listed at the middle of June.

Plenty peculiarities on daily life and the Singaporean research and higher education landscape have been introduced, so now it’s up to everyone to decide for themselves, whether they are willing to put up with them and give Singapore a try.

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