Remaking Singapore's R&D

Remaking Singapore's R&D

Low Teck Seng's gait is relaxed, and his greeting cheerful, as he strides into the meeting room in his office at the University Town in National University of Singapore (NUS). His breezy demeanour belies a frantic schedule that had reached a peak the Friday before when the next five-year plan for Singapore's R&D thrust was unveiled by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, for which S$19 billion would be set aside, is still making newspaper headlines and on the tip of many tongues the Monday morning we meet.

As head honcho at the agency responsible for setting and steering the country's direction for R&D, Prof Low is very much at the centre of the buzz.

Asked to give an assessment of where Singapore stands in the R&D world today, the chief executive of the National Research Foundation, an agency within the Prime Minister's Office, is unequivocal in his praise for the sector.

Despite having started R&D efforts only 25 years ago - the first RIE plan was launched in 1991 - Singapore today stands among the best in the world in the research scene, he believes.

The country has a "very vibrant knowledge ecosystem" comprising the three legs of people, facilities and infrastructure, says Prof Low.

"We are a magnet for people. And with people, infrastructure and funding, we are able to produce intellectual property and knowledge," he says. "That's where we stand today. By any measure - university ranking, effectiveness of research institute, the value placed on our institutions by our companies - I think we stand very high."

The verdict by Prof Low comes as the country looks to retool itself for a shift in its economy, from the decades-old strategy of attracting foreign multinationals to growing an indigenous pool of startups and large firms that can create value in which a strong R&D sector is critical.

Best, and relevant, science

For the RIE 2020 plan, the government is setting aside a record S$19 billion. Funding priority would be given to areas where Singapore has a competitive advantage or important national needs: advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical services, services and digital economy and urban solutions and sustainability.

The sum is a record figure and nearly a fifth higher than the previous budget of S$16.1 billion under RIE 2015. The very first plan had only a budget of S$2 billion. This was doubled to S$4 billion in the second five-year plan, and then increased to S$6 billion in the third and S$13.6 billion in the fourth.

But the days when R&D funding would grow by such leaps and bounds are over, says Prof Low, as the country has met its goal of spending one per cent of its GDP on R&D each year, and as its economy matures to a slower rate of growth.

Yet, investment in the sciences must continue to be made, in order for new knowledge to be unearthed and new intellectual property to be created.

"Given this scenario, it means that if we want to invest in new science and technology areas to capture the opportunities that these technologies promise, we need to know how to tail off areas that may have lost their relevance or we're not so good at. So this dynamic for renewal is very important," he says.

And there will be no sacred cows, as evinced by the example he cited - the Magnetics Technology Centre which he started in 1992, later renamed Data Storage Institute.

At that time, Singapore was the world's largest manufacturer of disk drives. It was important that the research institute was created to support the growth of the industry in the country, he says.

"Today, no single disk drive is manufactured in Singapore anymore. So even if we do excellent science in technologies related to disk drive, its relevance for us is diminished. As such, we need to move on to other areas of science." The expertise that has been cultivated earlier can be harnessed for new areas such as solid stick memory used in thumbdrives. "So it's an opportunity that we can capitalise on, riding on the investments and expertise we've developed for ourselves," says Prof Low. "There are many examples."

To remain dynamic, Singapore will have to keep evaluating the research ecosystem it has, and to update certain areas where necessary. "Even if we move on to new areas, we will make sure that what we do in these new areas is excellent."

And it is not just a matter of tapering off areas of research no longer relevant for Singapore, he adds. "That alone is insufficient."

"We now must be cleverer and sharper in our strategies to capture value from our investments. That is another shift we want to see." Which is why the proportion of the budget set aside for competitive and open funding has been doubled to 40 per cent under RIE 2020.

Competitive funding allows the country to fund the best science, says Prof Low.

"In this place and age, there is no place for mediocrity. For funding agencies, one of the biggest fears is funding mediocrity. For us, it's about funding the best science, but not only that, it's funding best science with relevance. Because Singapore is a small place."

Even in areas where Singapore may not have the best science, but that are strategic and critical for the country, "we will fund it and drive excellence for ourselves in it".

He quotes the example of Singapore's research in water. "We embarked on it because it was critical for Singapore. But having done so we worked hard to ensure that we bring the best people here, that we partner the best institutions internationally so that we have for ourselves an ecosystem that is best in the world."

Both NUS and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have been ranked as the top two universities in the world for water-related research.

The other component of Singapore's R&D strategy lies in its people. "We want to ensure that we continue to be the best place and most attractive place for scientists, so that we can cream off the best from the world," says Prof Low. "At the same time, we must continue to try to attract our young people and get them excited about science and the possibilities of science," he adds, his voice rising in excitement. "We also want to build this core, so that we can have a good blend of locals and international people." That engineering has lost its lustre among the young is a well-known and age-old problem, and one that has received fresh attention in recent weeks. The government announced earlier this month that it will hire 1,000 engineers this year, and PM Lee, in a recent visit to Silicon Valley, called for Singapore to rethink the concept of engineering.

Engineering's reduced appeal, in Prof Low's view, is a natural result of Singapore's developed status today.

"Traditionally, all around the world, when a country is developing, a lot of people are very excited about science and technology. One of the reasons is that there are many new projects to engage in. So in many developing countries, the choice of engineer as an ambition for young people is very, very high. This diminishes as a country develops.

"But I think the world today is quite different. The application of science and technology is not (only) in the engineering profession, not in the building of roads and buildings. It's about the application of science in a wide spectrum of areas - medicine, finance, commerce."

Promotion of science

Even while there are new areas of application for science today, the traditional areas of engineering are also becoming "very, very exciting", Prof Low, an electrical engineer by training, points out.

"We're building the tallest building in the world. We're looking to see how we can use underground spaces. We're seeing how we can send satellites and rockets up into the space to do different things for us, for example, to support communications, understand the weather."

Thus far, the responsibility of drawing the young into sciences has been placed with the Ministry of Education, the universities and polytechnics, A*Star and NRF.

The professional organisations - Institute of Engineers Singapore, Professional Engineers Board, and Singapore National Academy of Sciences - should also be roped in, Prof Low says.

"Moving forward, there's an intention to see whether we need an organised body to coordinate all these different organisations in the promotion of science. It is a challenge not only for us, but also for many countries around the world."

There are nonetheless green shoots of interest already emerging among the young today as the buzz in the startup scene gains traction, adding a new entrepreneurial dimension to Singapore's economy.

The startup community is very critical, Prof Low says. Singapore has grown in the past 50 years mainly through foreign direct investment and the growth of a few large local enterprises that dominate in certain products, such as Keppel Corporation and Sembcorp Industries in jack-up rigs.

"Going into the future, the ability to tap on our indigenous technology for the development of new corporations is going to be very important."

The government has always encouraged startups, but only in recent years has this borne fruit. These changes have been made possible because of Singapore's current state of development, he believes, drawing from his own experience.

After returning from the UK where he graduated from the University of Southhampton with first class honours, Prof Low had started a company in 1984 with two other friends to develop welding technology for the marine and offshore sector. The business, however, didn't take off, so he sold his share to the other founders.

A second venture in 1988 was more succesful. Called Semicaps Corporation, it reportedly has the best technology in scanning optical microscopy now.

Thinking back, Prof Low says his ability to take on risk at that time was "very much lower".

"It would not be possible for me to leave my job and to run a company. Essentially, I need a steady income to support my mother who spent all her money to send me to university."

On the other hand, many of the younger generation today have parents who are self-sufficient.

If his two sons, aged 20 and 21, decide to become entrepreneurs, Prof Low would gladly give them his blessings. "In fact they can do anything they want, because I would not need to depend on them to support me," he says.

"In reality today, the Singapore society is more amenable to accepting failures. It's a privilege that the young have that we, 30 years ago, did not have. And that's because of the state of development as a country, as a society."

The value of research

Aside from being a two-time entrepreneur, a former dean of engineering at NUS, and CEO of Parkway Education, a subsidiary of Parkway Health Group for a while, Prof Low was also, at one point, the founding principal of Republic Polytechnic.

It is little surprise then, that when asked about measuring the results of R&D funding, he compares it to investing in education. While there are tangible outcomes that can be measured, such as what research institutes do with the small and medium enterprises and the large local enterprises, the underlying benefits are wider, he says.

"If we live in a world where knowledge is valued, then Singapore has a tremendous positioning in the global network of R&D hubs."

The investment in science and technology also provides Singapore three things, he adds: the ability to support local firms and position the country for future industries, societal benefits from improved technology, and solutions to national issues.

Still, the challenge of translating research into practical applications is one that the NRF is striving to work on.

The closest country that Singapore can compare itself with is Switzerland, says Prof Low, as the latter, like Singapore, has many foreign scientists working in its R&D sector.

Yet, it is different as it has deep-rooted and strong industries that are able to make good use of its research.

Says Prof Low: "And we, in due course, hope that we can have that ecosystem: vibrant MNCs that continue to invest in high value-added research; large local enterprises that address the global market with strength and technology developments that allow them to renew themselves effectively; SMEs that are strong very much like the Mittelstands of Germany; startups that are able to utilise new ideas and new science and work on them and hopefully grow into exciting companies."

"In a sense, we want to have our cake and eat it," he says, adding with a chuckle, "but that's Singapore".

LOW TECK SENG

CEO, National Research Foundation

ACADEMIC

1978 BSc Engineering, Hons First Class, University of Southhampton, UK

1979 Research Assistant, University of Southampton

1982 PhD, University of Southampton, UK

1983 Lecturer, National University of Singapore (NUS)

1993 Associate Professor, NUS

1998 Professor, NUS

2009 Conferred Honorary Doctor of Science by Southampton University for contributions to Singapore and his profession internationally, in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

2010 Senior Adviser to President, Nanyang Technological University (NTU)

2014 Senior Adviser to Provost, NTU

Since 2012 Tenured Professor, NUS

RESEARCH AND CORPORATE

1992 Director, Magnetics Technology Centre (later renamed Data Storage Institute)

2002 Project Director and later Principal/CEO, Republic Polytechnic

2008 CEO, Parkway Education

2009 Deputy Managing Director (Research), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star)

2010 Managing Director, A*Star

Since 2012 CEO, National Research Foundation


This article was first published on Feb 27, 2016.
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