Will a red carpet draw S'porean scientists back?

Will a red carpet draw S'porean scientists back?
Prof Ling Eng Ang, who has taught at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine since 1972, has trained generations of medical students.

Will a red carpet draw S'porean scientists backmwithout making those who remain turn green? Many top Singaporean researchers work abroad. What will bring them home - and at the same time help retain scientists who stayed on here?

Four decades ago, armed with a newly minted doctorate from Cambridge University, a young Malaysian neuro- anatomy researcher arrived to work at the then University of Singapore.

Having come back to South- east Asia to be closer to his family, Professor Ling Eng Ang found a research landscape "like a Third World country". Research funding was scarce; the lab had to buy and breed its own rats for studies, and there was no budget to publish papers in top journals that sought fees from researchers.

When the university began hiring scientists from the rich West, who had lengthy publication records, "how could we compete?" he recalled.

Singaporean researchers left for countries with a more developed culture of science and richer funding. Later, others went and stayed, seeking to grow their careers.

Now, Singapore wants to woo this diaspora home, particularly those who have excelled in their fields. Once they are headhunted by universities and research institutes here, scientists who are Singapore citizens will get up to five years of research funding.

This comes out of the $16.5 billion pot earmarked for R&D between 2011 and 2015, while their salaries are paid by the institute that employs them.

"By doing so, we hope to anchor the research capabilities and grow the Singapore core," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last month when he announced the scheme.

PM Lee explained it was "worthwhile to make an extra effort". "These are the people who might not be otherwise thinking of coming back," he said. "They have already set up their careers, settled in and have challenging and exciting jobs. wherever they are in the world. We say: come back, we would like to have this link with you, either come back to visit or come back to relocate."

This seems like a good idea in principle.

As the popular narrative goes, Singapore has very deliberately been bootstrapping itself up to the head of the class in engineering, physical and biomedical sciences over the past two decades, a process jump-started by importing big-name scientists from the West.

Now, it's time to groom Singaporeans - who presumably will have a vision for science here - to take up leadership positions.

That is the core idea. But how effective will it be?

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