NTU top in Asia for research impact

NTU top in Asia for research impact
(From left) NTU president Bertil Andersson has recruited top talent such as renowned earthquake geologist Kerry Sieh, geneticist Stephan Schuster and biologist Daniela Rhodes.

SINGAPORE - Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has emerged from the shadows of other Asian universities including the National University of Singapore, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Tokyo University to overtake them in research impact.

The 23-year-old university has produced the most amount of impactful research in recent years, making it the top Asian university in producing quality research.

Data from two companies that track research performance, New York-based Thomson Reuters and Amsterdam-based Elsevier, shows NTU has been on a trajectory surging ahead of Hong Kong, Korean and Japanese universities in Asia from 2007.

Research impact of universities is tracked by the number of times a research article is cited by other academics in the same field or related fields. The two databases trawl through thousands of journals to count how often a paper is cited.

Dr Wong Woei Fuh, managing director of intellectual property and science at Thomson Reuters, said it is a "remarkable achievement for a research university below the age of 50".

Another indication of NTU's transformation into a research powerhouse - the number of patents filed for inventions. Ten years ago, it had 14 patents under its name. This year, it has 329 active patents and 707 patent applications. NTU chairman Koh Boon Hwee said plans to build up the university into a world-class research institution were put in place as far back as 2005. The dons identified five areas where NTU had inherent strengths: water and energy sustainability; new media; future health care; innovation; and best of East and West. "Research is expensive, so you can't just shoot in the dark. You have to carefully pick some areas you can excel in and go all out," said Mr Koh.

The next step was drawing in academic talents who would drive research, he said, noting that one of them was Professor Bertil Andersson, NTU's president, who came in as provost in 2007. Having served as chief executive of the Strasburg-headquartered European Science Foundation, he was well-connected in the research community and was a "talent magnet" for NTU, recruiting more than 20 "star" professors into NTU in a short time.

They include Professor Kerry Sieh, a world-renowned earthquake geologist from the California Institute of Technology who now heads NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore; geneticist Stephan Schuster who is famous for his work in unravelling the genomic sequence of the woolly mammoth; and biologist Daniela Rhodes who heads an inter-disciplinary research team that last year clinched a research grant worth $23.8 million to study telomeres, the structures that cap the ends of human chromosomes.

Knowing how they work could lead to breakthroughs in the understanding of the molecular mechanisms of cancer propagation and human ageing.

Prof Andersson said NTU leveraged on the National Research Foundation (NRF), set up in 2006 to transform Singapore into a knowledge-intensive economy. Besides making available more funds for universities to tap, NRF also woos research talents from abroad with a fellowship scheme. He noted that 31 of the 61 fellows chose to pursue their research at NTU.

NTU also started its own scheme in 2007 called the Nanyang Assistant Professorship scheme to attract young research stars. Those selected stand to receive start-up research grants of up to $1 million each. NTU has so far received more than 2,800 applications worldwide, and given out about 50 assistant professorships Prof Andersson noted that last year alone, these young talents, who can also bid for external funds, and other NTU academics secured a record $522 million in research funds from external sources.

NRF chief executive officer Low Teck Seng agreed that NTU's rise as a research institution has been impressive, but stressed that going forward, both NUS and NTU have to ask themselves how their research can help propel Singapore towards becoming a knowledge economy.

"They would have served Singapore well if they come up with cutting-edge technology that will help our local companies grow, or if their research helps seed an Apple, Google or Cisco for Singapore or provides technological solutions for the issues facing us, such as in clean energy and climate change."

This article was first published on June 8, 2014.
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