Speeches

Speech by Mrs Tan Ching Yee, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, at the Launch of Mechanobiology Institute, on Wednesday, 6 October 2010, 2010 at the T-Lab Building, Level 10 Lobby, National University of Singapore at 12.30 pm.

Mr Koh Cher Siang
Chairman of the Governing Board of the Mechanobiology Institute

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan
President, National University of Singapore

Professor Tan Eng Chye
Provost, National University of Singapore

Prof Michael Sheetz
Distinguished Professor in Biological Sciences and
Director of the Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Good afternoon

I am pleased to join you at the official launch of the Mechanobiology Institute, Singapore (or MBI), Singapore’s 4th Research Centre of Excellence.

Research Centres of Excellence Programme

The RCE programme was introduced by MOE and NRF to catapult our universities’ research to an international level by drawing in top talents in their field to undertake cutting edge research. We have set up five RCEs in NUS and NTU. Although every one is still young, each has begun to make its presence felt.

Take the oldest, the Centre for Quantum Technology (CQT) which is 3 years old. Three of its researchers have proved, for the first time, that quantum entanglements exist. CQT has also produced the Bose Einstein condensate—performed only by a handful of top research institutes around the world. But this is also what it takes to put Singapore in the premier league of experimental atomic physics.

In the Cancer Science Institute, a team of internationally-renowned scientists have found a way to halve the cost of chemotherapy by combining the use of an inexpensive antifungal drug with an expensive chemotherapy drug.

Our RCEs have not only excelled in scientific discoveries. At the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), researchers are pairing up with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management at NTU to investigate risk characteristics of disasters. This will certainly help the region to be better prepared for the inevitable earthquakes and tsunamis. The modeling will also have direct applications in the insurance industry.

Besides research, EOS has also made its impact felt on the education sector. It was engaged in a number of school programmes, with activities ranging from earth science lectures tailored for students and piloting a teaching module at secondary level. Even the public may be familiar with EOS, when its Director Kerry Sieh shares through the media his analysis on say, the Padang earthquakes back in 2009.

I am gratified that our RCEs do not just focus on research, but understand the need to contribute towards developments in school education, the nurturing of a scientifically literate citizenry, and in the broader economic and social impact of their work.

MBI Research Objectives

This is an impressive family that MBI belongs to, and will be expected to measure against. But I am confident that the choice of research focus for the MBI holds great promise.

Already, there have been some breakthroughs at the MBI even before its official opening. I note with interest Prof. Jay Groves’ work on membrane chips and its large-scale production at MBI. As the biggest operation like this in the world for “drone” cells, this would surely draw talent to NUS and widen the impact of MBI research from basic research to drug discovery.

I am pleased that Prof Sheetz and Co-Director Prof Matsudaira has already assembled a team of excellent researchers, co-investigators, research staff and external collaborators within the first year of operation. The Principal Investigators have expertise in biology, physics, engineering and computational sciences and with academic affiliations in the Faculties of Science, Medicine, and Engineering from both NUS and NTU. The diversity of research expertise and technologies covering life sciences, physical and engineering sciences will distinguish MBI from others.

Some of the MBI scientists are also working closely with clinicians from the Cancer Science Institute. This collaboration will certainly contribute towards better understanding the basic functions of both healthy and diseased cells, which will eventually translate to better treatment in the clinics.

Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2015 Plan

The welcoming of a new addition to the family is an opportune time to review how far we have come in our research and development plans, and what we can look forward to.

Singapore’s investment in R&D started modestly, with the establishment of the Science Council in 1967. It coordinated a modest research budget that was measured in tens of thousands of dollars. R&D only took off in a big way with the creation of the National Science and Technology Board in 1991, which produced the $2 billion National Technology Plan for the period 1991-1995. Over successive Science and Technology plans under the National Science and Technology Board, which later became A*STAR, Singapore began to grow a R&D system, comprising players in both the public and private sectors.

Academic research in our universities was given a boost in 1998, when the then Minister in charge of the Universities, Dr Tony Tan, announced a target of doubling the number of postgraduate students at NUS and NTU from 1,000 to 2,000 by the year 2000. The first Academic Research Fund was set up with a budget of $96 million from 1994-1996. From then till 2005, the Academic Research Fund stabilized at $110M per year.

Thereafter was a frenetic pace of growth. The Science and Technology Plan 2010 was a $14 billion plan designed to uplift Singapore’s R&D capabilities. Key goals included an increase in gross expenditure on R&D or GERD from 2.3% in 2005 to 3% by 2010, an increase in the number of RSEs per 10,000 population from 90 in 2005 to over 100 by 2010, and a public/private share in GERD of 1:2. It was under this backdrop that the Academic Research Fund reached its current level of around $250M per year.

Whether it is the S&T Plan 2010 or its predecessors, our nation’s investment in R&D has always been driven by the need to position our economy to take advantage of new opportunities. The need for R&D to contribute towards the nation’s overall development, economic and social, is clear.

Although 2010 has not ended, we can say with pride that we have met or even surpassed our targets. The national gross expenditure on R&D (GERD) has been steadily increasing, with $6.2 billion spent on R&D in 2009. This represents a compound growth rate (CAGR) of 8.3% over 2000-2009. More R&D jobs have been created in Singapore, and there has been a steady expansion of the talent base available to perform excellent research. The number of research scientists and engineers (RSEs) employed in the public and private sector has more than doubled over 2000-2009.

Our universities have played a major part in this remarkable achievement. Not only have they contributed to the training of researchers, the universities have also increased their research quality and quantity. For the period 2004-2008, NUS has increased its overall number of citations by 14% to 97,560, and NTU by 25% to 30,693, when compared with 2003-2007. Both NTU and NUS are also amongst the top 10 universities in the world in Engineering citations .

On 17 September 2010, the Prime Minister announced Singapore’s new strategies in research, innovation and enterprise for the next five-year period 2011 to 2015. Our long term goal is to be among the most research-intensive, innovative and entrepreneurial economies in the world. We are doing this because of a conviction that research and innovation underpins the competitiveness of our industries and can transform our economy. This would in turn create high value jobs and prosperity for Singaporeans.

Over the five years, Government will set aside S$16.1 billion for R&D funding. This is a 20% increase over the current five-year tranche, ending 2010. Coming at a time of fiscal tightness across the world and deep cuts in spending in higher education and research, it demonstrates Singapore’s continued commitment to invest in top quality scientific research in a sustained manner over the long term.

How will researchers in the universities and RCEs fare under the new plan? In my view, quite well, thank you. Let me explain the ways in which you can do quite well. Provided you continue to work hard, show excellence in your work, and through your work, contribute towards the development of capabilities for Singapore.

First, there is continued commitment to invest in sustaining core capabilities and investigator-led research. The Ministry of Education’s Academic Research Fund (AcRF) will be expanded by 15% to support postgraduate training, and to fund investigator-led grants under Tier 1 and Tier 2.

In addition, there will be a new Tier 3 component in the AcRF, to fund worthy interdisciplinary and collaborative research programmes in the universities. Research teams in the existing RCEs will have the opportunity to bid for funding from the AcRF Tiers 2 and 3.

Some of you may worry that 15% is less than the overall increase of 20%. Let me now turn to the other components.

Second, the pool of competitive funding available for bidding will increase by 30% from $2.2 billion in the current 5-year period to $2.8 billion in the next 5-year period.

This focus on more competitive funding is timely as our entire research landscape has matured, with strong capabilities built up through past funding across many disciplines. Based on data which MOE has studied, the universities have traditionally done well to win external competitive grants and I have confidence that the universities’ R&D will continue to thrive in this new environment.

Some of you may be busy calculating market shares, to see how much of the $2.8 billion you will attract to your universities. My advice would be to collaborate with the best in the country to write proposals, even if some members need to be drawn from other universities or organisations. Going for excellence, not guarding institutional boundaries, is what will keep the funding coming.

Third, there is a new type of funding that the universities should start positioning themselves to bid from. This is the Industry Alignment Fund. This seeks to synergise the efforts of researchers in the public and private sectors and encourage knowledge creation that translates to economic outcomes. This increased emphasis on R&D with economic outcomes, is a logical evolution of a R&D system that has benefited from past and present investment in the nurturing of capabilities.

Again, this is something which the university sector has shown itself capable of excelling in. Take clean technology, or cleantech, as an example. Many global players recognise the value of research at our universities, and have set up corporate labs at their campuses. GE Water has set up a $130 million R&D centre in NUS, while Bosch is investing $30 million in a lab looking at organo-photovoltaics in NTU.

All in, researchers working in Singapore have much to be appreciative of in the next 5 years, not least of them the unequivocal and sustained commitment to investing in R&D. For our colleagues in the universities, the next 5 years will also bring more funding, some ring-fenced for you and lots more that you can bid for.

Conclusion

When the RCE programme was invented, its inventors did not know what areas the RCEs would be engaged in. All they knew was that they wanted to build truly excellent centres where the best talents would come from around the world and do the best science. By pushing the boundaries of cutting edge research, the RCEs will lead the drive in creating useful knowledge for the world, and tangible applications and value for Singapore.

I congratulate MBI on your official launch and look forward to fame and fortune emanating from MBI in the years to come.

Thank you.