Singapore feature: money talks

By Iain Scott
Monday, 02 September, 2002

The next time you start to worry about the drain of Australian scientific talent leaving town for better opportunities overseas, it might pay to remember the words of the director of Singapore's Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Chris Tan. Tan shrugs off such worries to opine that in Singapore's case, "Ideally, we'd be a 15-year revolving door."

Of course, it's easier for Tan to have such an opinion than, say, his Australian counterparts. More than three-quarters of the researchers at Singapore's increasingly cashed-up research institutes come from overseas.

When the Singaporean government identified the life sciences as the fourth major pillar of its manufacturing industry, recruitment became a key issue, according to the authors of a recent report by global market analysts IDC. In The Merlion Roars Back: Singapore's Bio-Ecosystem, published last month, IDC claims that the Singaporean government's efforts to develop the Island State as a scientific powerhouse have started down a promising road.

When pursuing scientific glory, one of the best places to start is with a big barrel of cash. Singapore has pledged $US3.8 billion to the life sciences over the next three years, something IDC believes is an eloquent statement of intent. "IDC also believes it important to realise that for modern science ingenuity is not everything that money cannot replace," the report says.

IDC Asia-Pacific's Sydney-based director of bio-IT and life sciences research, Phil Fersht, says that with enough money and a couple of moderately smart scientists, dollars can speak volumes. "Modern technologies, such as machines that can sequence the human genome, or machines that can test hundreds or thousands of compounds each day can make up for intelligence," he says.

"It used to be that one would sit, think and then come up with a sound idea. Now, a common theory can be exploited by a variety of different groups using the brute force approach, whereby heavy investments in state-of-the-art IT can enable R&D processes to be dramatically accelerated."

That "brute force" approach can work for Singapore, the report says. It posits that one important role for Singapore, and Asia-Pacific biotech generally, is in assisting global pharma to circumvent patent restrictions in the US and Europe and speed the path to drug discovery.

"Supposing Company A discovers a new drug receptor in the brain that could be critically important for Alzheimer's disease [and] has locked down the patent position on this novel receptor in the United States, Germany, England and France," it says. "If another competing company, Company B, recognises this receptor as something for which it may have drugs, the company may want to screen its chemical libraries to test whether they may have something of value. It can arrange to screen its drugs in Singapore, or Italy; places where the patents from other countries do not stand, and patents will not be filed for a while."

Government funding is crucial to biotech worldwide, but particularly in countries like Singapore, the report says, because of inadequacies in the country's private sector.

"For example in Taiwan, two-thirds of its [$US5 billion needed for biotech] will be pump-primed by the private sector with the government mainly offering only deals with tax breaks and research incentives," the report says. "The Singapore government, on the other hand, is taking on the bulk of biotechnology funding because of the shortfall in private venture capital.

"The lack of private entrepreneurs is also another factor, which makes government efforts and funding more critical to the life sciences industry. "There are, however, several multinational companies, most notably in the pharmaceutical sectors, which have put in substantial amounts of infrastructure investments by setting up manufacturing facilities in Singapore."

But money and infrastructure will still need to be augmented by research talent, the report argues.

"The one weakness is that Singapore still needs at some brains to 'steer the ship'," it says. "Although infrastructure is highly advanced in Singapore, the shortage of highly skilled life sciences professionals remains a crippling problem. Even more so is the retention of the foreign skilled professionals is a problem."

More than three-quarters of the researchers at public institutes are foreigners, the report points out, but too many researchers view Singapore as a temporary stopover, which does not allow Singapore to reap the full benefits of its investments in science.

"Learning curves are being restarted over and over again," the report claims. "Much of the advanced infrastructure and equipment are underutilised as a result of a limited number of people having the expertise to use it."

Not only that, but "Many foreign researchers cannot get used to the hierarchical and political nature of the Singapore administration," the report says. "Their concerns are centered on the fact that the tiered establishment stifles initiative and creativity, both of which are values that govern innovation."

But there's no discounting the bullish optimism that seems to pervade the Singapore biomedical sector. "Five to 10 years down the line, there will be no shortage of talent," says Louis Lim, the executive of the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC).

And as IDC's Fersht points out, Singapore has the IT base, infrastructure and resources to succeed in life sciences. "What Singapore needs is imported scientific talent combined with the integration with US, Japanese, Australian and European life sciences ecosystems to develop itself to the stage where it can compete on a global basis," Fersht says. "In addition, Singapore life sciences organisations need to consolidate ties with developing bioenvironments closer to home, namely India, Korea, Taiwan and China."

* IDC is a sister company of IDG Communications, the publisher of Australian Biotechnology News.

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