Singapore says no rethink of biomed policy after criticism

Mia Shanley
07 Feb 07

The Singapore government shot back on Tuesday at recent criticism of its biomedical policy by the World Bank and a member of the country’s top political family, saying that it was not rethinking its research strategy.

Lee Wei Ling – whose brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has backed Singapore’s big push into scientific research – told Reuters in an interview last week that research resources were spread too widely and said a reassessment was needed.

The World Bank has also criticised Singapore’s biomedical policy, saying it stood only a 50/50 chance at succeeding.

At a news briefing, the government Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) said it welcomed views from Lee Wei Ling and others, but said biomedical sciences policy would not change course.

“The biomedical sciences initiative has been successful and there is no rethink or change” in government policy, A*STAR said in a statement. However, the government will continue to refine its strategies to ensure it remains on the right track.

Philip Yeo, who has headed A*STAR since 2001, said the government needed more time to build up the sector and to train specialists.

“This is not an instant business. It takes 10 to 15 years to train these people,” Yeo told reporters at his final biomedical briefing before he takes up a job as an economic adviser to the prime minister in April.

Yeo spent two decades at the helm of the government’s Economic Development Board, where he built up the key electronics, chemicals and pharmaceutical industries.

Defending his strategy of attracting top foreign scientists – whom he calls “big whales” – Yeo said they were essential for building up Singapore’s biomedical sector.

“I need the whales to take care of the guppies,” he said, pointing to posters of his young PhD students who are now studying in top universities in the United States and Europe.

Yeo said Singapore’s policy of turning the biomedical sector into a key pillar of the economy had succeeded on some fronts.

“Every major pharmaceutical company is in Singapore,” he said, although he added that “we are young compared to Boston or San Diego.”

Indeed, output in Singapore’s biomedical sector grew more than 30 percent in 2006 to S$23 billion ($15 billion), accounting for a quarter of value-added manufacturing output.

The share of production is not far behind the electronics sector, long the mainstay of Singapore’s export-driven growth, which makes up about one-third of total production.

But even so, most of those products were developed abroad. The World Bank has said that the billions the government has put into actual research has failed to yield any significant payoffs so far.

Sir David Lane, executive director of the government’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, addressed the World Bank’s criticism that Singapore-based foreign scientists were a footloose bunch who could pack up and leave overnight.

“Young people go where there is opportunity,” Lane said at the briefing, adding that Singapore had such an advantage.

And Singapore has done well in attracting and keeping top scientists such as Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, who arrived from the United States with an army of mice last September to continue their cancer research in Singapore.

“Neal and Nancy Copeland sold their house, quit their jobs and are committed to Singapore in a big way,” Lane said.

Lee Wei Ling told Reuters Singapore would be foolish if it tried to compete with scientific heavyweights in the west and failed to focus on diseases which commonly affect Asians such as hepatitis B.

Yeo said that Singapore should remain focused on more common diseases, adding the city-state was fast becoming a centre for cancer research. “Hepatitis is not relevant to us. All of the kids have been vaccinated,” he said.

Lim Chuan Poh, who takes over from Yeo in April, said policy was on the right track. “But you have to give it time,” he said

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