S'porean core in science will matter

Much like artistic talent, scientific talent gravitates to centres of excellence where careers are made and performance calibre is constantly raised through collaboration and peer rivalry. Another attribute is assured institutional funding.

Although the United States, Germany and Scandinavia are magnets for global research talent, Asia has been drawing back expatriate PhDs in a reverse flow that will gather force as it grows strongly.

China, India and South Korea are gaining because these sojourners want to participate in their countries' rise, although tighter US visa rules are also a factor.

Singapore's plan to attract back its research brains could be seen in the light of the changing mobility of scarce manpower. Research gains made in the life sciences and technology applications are also an attraction.

But there is a significant difference compared with the big Asian economies.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) wants to develop a Singaporean backbone within the research and development ecosystem which, in the long run, will confer a competitive advantage as the security factor impinging on sensitive engineering and biomedical research will redefine the international distribution of scientists.

Singapore used to focus on engaging eminent foreign researchers. It need not abandon the star search, but experience has shown a need to be discerning. There have been successes but also misgivings in attracting big names.

Some could not adjust to the work culture. In seeking to develop an indigenous core, state sponsors should acknowledge that scientists are free spirits who thrive when bureaucratic interference is curbed. A flatter, less hierarchical management structure is recommended in a field where egos require delicate handling.

Excessive control and an emphasis on quick results that made some "whales" scatter could also turn Singaporean scientists off. That said, neither should the NRF pour precious funds into exotic basic research of uncertain outcomes.

A guide to consider is the US - two-thirds of its R & D activity is devoted to development, with the remainder shared between basic and applied research.

The NRF's plan calls for employment contracts as well as visiting fellowships, under which researchers will spend only a few weeks here. There will be no open applications, but suitable candidates will be approached.

Caution is evident here, perhaps because the NRF is unsure of the response. The outlook is more promising than the foundation gives itself credit for.

Singapore has been seeing a steady flow of accomplished returnees in diverse fields as controls are relaxed and intellectual ferment is in the air.

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