Let's hear it for scientists in Singapore

Let's hear it for scientists in Singapore
(From left) Associate professor Lim Tit Meng, 54, chief executive of Science Centre Singapore, Professor Leo Tan, 69, Director (Special Projects) at the Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore (NUS); Professor Ling San, 50, Dean at the Nanyang Technological University College of Science, and Professor Andrew Wee, 51, director at the National University of Singapore Surface Science Labratory, pictured on 23 May, 2014.

SINGAPORE - Collectively, they make up the scientific brains of Singapore. Now the body which represents them wants more heft in shaping science policy, education, research and funding in Singapore, just like its counterparts the world over.

With more than 2,000 scientists in all areas of expertise, the Singapore National Academy of Science (SNAS) feels it is well placed to provide informed, independent advice.

"With the rapid development of science and technology in Singapore, the time is ripe to expand the academy's role by taking on additional responsibilities such as administering research fellowships and selected grants, offering advice to the Government, and fostering international research contact and cooperation," said SNAS president Andrew Wee.

"Over the past two to three decades, the country has grown a generation of internationally recognised scientists, many of them citizens or permanent residents, who can be called upon for their scientific expertise and opinions."

Researchers here have long pointed out that in Singapore, decisions have been driven by international boards, whales (a term to describe top foreign scientists recruited here) and technocrats.

But to take science to the next level, local and Singapore-based scientists need a louder voice, they say.

Prof Wee pointed to various groups overseas which have a far bigger role. In the United States, for instance, its National Academy of Sciences gives independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology. Its experts volunteer their time to produce reports that have led to significant and lasting improvements in health, education and welfare, and the academy's service to the government has become so essential that Congress and the White House have issued legislation and executive orders over the years that reaffirm its unique role.

In Britain, the Royal Society supports researchers through its career, innovation and industry schemes, does independent policy work, promotes science education, and helps in communication with the public.

Closer to home, the Academy of Sciences Malaysia strives to be the "think-tank" of the nation for matters related to science, engineering, technology and innovation.

Prof Wee, who is also vice-president (university and global relations) at the National University of Singapore, added that SNAS, which has 20 fellows - outstanding Singapore-based scientists who have contributed to science and research education here - is expanding this pool of scientific leaders to 100.

So it has the experts to weigh in, whether Singapore is mulling over which form of alternative energy to pump money into, if a particular spot should be gazetted as a nature reserve, or who should be awarded the nation's top honour.

"We also need such local role models whom our students can relate to," he said.

He is talking to several agencies and government bodies about the possibility of funding SNAS to do selected policy or technical papers, which would help develop local expertise and could be more cost-effective than inviting international panels to do so, he added.

SNAS' past president, Professor Leo Tan, noted that the younger generation was often sceptical when it came to taking advice from the Government. "Since we came together in 1969, we have resisted being subsumed under a government agency because although funding would come easily, it would come at the cost of being an independent body," said Prof Tan, who is director of special projects at the NUS Faculty of Science.

With its independence intact, the academy can be a bridge between Government and civil society. "If a nature group is calling for the cross-island MRT to be scrapped, for instance, we can be the informed, neutral voice."

The dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Science and SNAS vice-president, Professor Ling San, said areas in which the academy's members can contribute include science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, promotion and communication, as well as looking at how science can contribute to challenges in areas such as the environment, energy, food, health and security.

Science Centre Singapore's chief executive and SNAS' vice-president, Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, said: "We can advise on expert domain topics as well as relevant policy matters, education and manpower training, and safety and ethics issues arising from science advancement... Our scientific community has reached a stage where it can contribute constructively to Singapore."

This article was first published on June 1, 2014.
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