Singapore biotech drive loses star Dolly-creator scientist

Daryl Loo
19 Dec 07\

British scientist Alan Colman, who helped clone Dolly the sheep, is leaving Singapore, dealing another blow to the city-state’s biotech ambitions.

Stem cell scientist Colman, who had been lured to the city-state with grants and research facilities, now heads a Singapore consortium in stem cell research. He will leave next May for the Stem Cell Centre at King’s College London, the city-state’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) said in a statement.

The latest move follows news in September that two other top British scientists, David and Birgitte Lane, will also leave next year, giving weight to the World Bank’s criticism that Singapore’s biotech drive was overly reliant on “footloose” scientists who could leave at short notice.

Over the last five years, Singapore has ploughed more than $2.1 billion into its biomedical sector, spending generously on start-ups, new labs and on luring top scientists such as Colman and the Lanes from the U.S. and Europe.

Colman, who came to Singapore in 2002, told Reuters in an separate email that he will be dividing his time between Singapore and London, spending about a quarter of his time in Singapore. “There will be scientific benefits to Singapore, I believe, from my move to London,” he told Reuters on Tuesday.

But that argument cut no ice with the most outspoken critic of Singapore’s biomedical policy: Lee Wei Ling, whose father Lee Kuan Yew founded modern Singapore and whose brother Lee Hsien Loong now runs the country as prime minister.

“How can you run research in Singapore on one-third or one-quarter of your time? You must be extremely efficient or not involved enough and so are not worth the money,” Lee told Reuters.

“No significant results”

Lee, a pediatrician who heads the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), said that it was an inevitable that foreign researchers “will go where there’s money available” as more Western universities raise funding for biomedical research.

She had earlier called for a reassessment of Singapore’s biotech strategy. She said that billions of dollars have been spent without achieving significant results.

“I stand by my earlier statements. The reason I spoke out was because I thought what was going on was very wrong, and I just hope my message sinks home with the policy makers,” Lee said.

Lee, 52, lives with her father Lee Kuan Yew, who still holds an influential position in his son’s cabinet with the title of “Minister Mentor”.

“I’m speaking out as “citizen Lee”, not as MM’s daughter, or PM’s sister, but as someone very close to the ground when it comes to research, so I know what’s relevant,” Lee said.

Asked if there were concerns about the growing exodus of foreign scientists, A*STAR Chairman Lim Chuan Poh told Reuters in an email: “We have always taken a pragmatic and flexible approach towards the hiring of top foreign scientists. The main focus is to find arrangements that enable them to be engaged in Singapore in a meaningful and impactful way.”

(Editing by Geert De Clercq)