[Paleopsych] CHE: Singapore's Regeneration

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Singapore's Regeneration
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.11.11

    With an open checkbook, the tiny city-state draws top scientists



    Cao Tong, a professor at the National University of Singapore, admits
    that he is essentially a pawn of the government. And he could not be
    more thrilled.

    "Nowhere else could I have just walked in and started a program from
    ground zero," says Dr. Cao, a professor of dentistry who was awarded a
    half-million-dollar grant to back his oral-tissue-regeneration
    project. "Within one year I was set up."

    The young Chinese-born researcher is using embryonic stem cells to try
    to generate new dental tissue and bone cells. It is a risky
    proposition in a field that is prone to more failures than successes.
    But this is precisely the kind of research that Singapore believes
    will make it a world leader in biotechnology.

    "I'm part of the government plan," laughs Dr. Cao, flashing a smile.
    "And that's fine with me."

    Dr. Cao is not alone. In the past five years, thousands of
    researchers, many of them in the biomedical sciences, have been lured
    to Singapore with promises of state-of-the-art laboratories and blank
    checks with few strings attached. Singapore's support for stem-cell
    research has attracted researchers who might otherwise never have
    imagined working in the tiny city-state off the tip of Malaysia.

    "There's an infectious enthusiasm here," says Alan Colman, a member of
    the team that cloned Dolly, the sheep. Mr. Colman was recruited to
    Singapore from Britain in 2002 with offers of research money and, more
    importantly, unfettered access to embryonic stem cells.

    "They have decided to make biomedical science work," says Mr. Colman,
    who is investigating how stem cells might treat diabetes, "and they'll
    do what is necessary to make it happen."

    Determined to transform Singapore into a life-sciences hub that would
    attract research and industry, the government has sunk billions into
    developing its biotechnology facilities. Last year Singapore opened
    Biopolis, a $300-million "science city" that is to be central to the
    development effort. The 500-acre glass-and-steel science complex, with
    state-of-the-art laboratories, lecture halls, and computer rooms,
    feels like a college campus. The buildings have been given futuristic
    names, such as Helios, Nanos, and Proteos, and the talking elevators
    are emblazoned with the words "invent" and "research."

    Scientists here have relatively easy access to mass spectrometers and
    DNA-sequence analyzers -- each costing around half a million dollars.
    Below ground are animal laboratories, including a vivarium, which is
    designed to hold a quarter of a million mice. Above ground are
    day-care facilities, restaurants, a pub, and a fitness center. But
    along with the glossy architecture and the money behind it come some
    drawbacks: A lack of political freedom and a cultural tendency not to
    question authority, which can cut down on the new ideas that junior
    researchers in a laboratory generate.

    Many have questioned whether Singapore, a tropical island with a
    handful of universities and a fledgling scientific community, could
    attract and keep the kind of talent needed to transform the country
    into a bioengineering leader. Even if the money and the facilities
    were there, would scientists, who thrive best in creative and
    permissive environments, move to an autocratic nation better known
    among some for its policy of caning and for banning chewing gum?

    Some academics are clearly bothered by the city-state's repressive
    political climate, where criticizing the government can land you in
    jail. The U.S. State Department, in its February 2005 human-rights
    report on Singapore, said the government had used its powers to
    handicap political opposition and "to restrict significantly freedom
    of speech and freedom of the press." Last month the University of
    Warwick, in England, announced that concerns about academic freedom
    were one of the reasons it had decided not to open a campus in

    But it appears that scientists who are looking for a safe and
    well-ordered environment in which to conduct their research are not
    put off by restrictions on their freedoms. So what if we can't chew
    gum without a doctor's prescription, joked several scientists who were
    interviewed for this article. Singapore may be the ultimate "nanny
    state," some of those who have moved here say, but it is a small price
    to pay to live in a pristine, practically crime-free city, with good
    schools and cheap hired help.

    While the lack of homegrown talent concerns some scientists and
    government officials, Singapore's limitations have so far not affected
    its ability to attract top foreign researchers.

    "Five years ago we weren't on the map," says Barry Halliwell,
    executive director of the National University of Singapore's Graduate
    School for Integrative Science and Engineering. Mr. Halliwell,
    formerly of the University of California and the University of London,
    now recruits staff for Singapore's life-science projects. "It was hard
    to convince people to come. Now if there is someone I want, I can get
    them. I just poached a professor from Yale," says Mr. Halliwell,
    referring to Markus R. Wenk, who was hired as an assistant professor
    by the department of biochemistry.

    America's Loss, Singapore's Gain

    The United States and Britain have been at the forefront of stem-cell
    research ever since scientists in the 1980s discovered that embryonic
    cells are able to develop into nearly every different cell type.
    Because of the versatility of these cells, it is believed that they
    can be directed, as they divide, to develop into specific types of
    cells -- such as heart, lung, or pancreas cells -- which could then be
    used to replace damaged or diseased tissue, revolutionizing medicine.
    But now it is widely believed that the United States, which has placed
    strict limits on federally financed stem-cell research, is losing out
    to Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and now Singapore.

    Researchers are nervous about the future financing of stem-cell
    research in the United States, says Ian McNiece, director of the
    division of biomedical sciences at the Johns Hopkins U. in Singapore,
    the university's only biomedical research facility outside of the
    United States. His own work is in compliance with U.S. guidelines and
    uses only federally approved colonies, or lines, of stem cells. (Mr.
    McNiece is free to use any cell lines but at the moment he prefers to
    use those approved by the NIH because they are provided at no cost.)
    Yet his Singapore lab is not subject to the whims of American
    politics, such as lawsuits intended to block research that already has
    federal or state approval.

    As he shows off his state-of-the-art lab in Biopolis, with its
    centrifuges and subzero storage units that have all been underwritten
    by the Singaporean government, Mr. McNiece says he is not worried
    about competition from places such as California. Last year voters
    there passed Proposition 71, which approved $3-billion for stem-cell
    research. Even spread out over 10 years, it dwarfs anything Singapore
    is doing. But Mr. McNiece says it won't be the panacea some in the
    United States are hoping for.

    "The money isn't there yet," says Mr. McNiece, echoing the opinions of
    other managers here, who are wary that California money could lure
    away some of the talent they have worked so hard to land. Lawsuits
    have prevented the state from releasing the money so far.

    Aside from financial concerns, scientists in the United States also
    worry that stem-cell research is becoming a political football, with
    new bills being introduced at the state and federal levels seemingly
    every month. Singapore, on the other hand, is seen as a safe haven.
    The government has banned "reproductive cloning" which could
    conceivably lead to a new human being. But "therapeutic cloning," in
    which stem cells are harvested from embryos no older than 14 days, is
    permitted. Perhaps most importantly, with no real organized opposition
    to this kind of research, there is no climate of fear among

    "Unlike in the United States, 'embryonic stem cells' are not dirty
    words here," says Ariff Bongso, director of in vitro fertilization and
    andrology at the National University of Singapore. "You'd be shocked
    to hear politicians talking about stem-cell research in parliament.
    It's heaven for a scientist here."

    This freedom has allowed Sri Lankan-born Dr. Bongso, who some
    scientists credit with having been the first person to successfully
    isolate human embryonic stem cells, to develop new cell lines, or
    groups of cells isolated from a single embryo. All the cell lines
    approved by the U.S. government are grown in a medium of mouse cells,
    which increases the chance of contamination once the cells are
    implanted back into humans. New lines are needed, he says, if
    researchers hope to use their discoveries to cure diseases.

    At a time when governments around the world are cutting their science
    budgets, Singapore's pockets remain deep. Though it could take decades
    to see significant returns from its investment, the government just
    announced it will spend $7-billion on biotechnology over the next five
    years, up from the almost $4-billion it spent between 2000 and 2005.

    "For a company like ours, you need venture capital," which Singapore
    has been happy to provide, says Soren Müller Bested, the Danish chief
    technical officer of CordLife. His company, which collects and stores
    stem cells from umbilical cords, has received 11 grants from the
    government to set up shop here. "Money can't buy you everything, but
    it helps a lot."

    Mr. Bested and others acknowledge that one hole in Singapore's plan
    may be the lack of skilled manpower. CordLife has had a difficult time
    finding Singaporeans to hire. They have had to recruit much of their
    staff from abroad.

    "I can build a lab anywhere," says Mr. Bested. "But if I can't find
    people with suitable skills, then it is useless."

    Officials here acknowledge that the country still suffers from a
    shortage of senior scientists. And it is costly to bring in people
    from the outside. While it is willing to foot the bill for now, the
    tiny city-state must eventually produce homegrown talent for its plan
    to be viable.

    The government is in an all-out push to ensure that Singaporeans will
    be ready. In addition to sending people overseas for advanced degrees
    in the sciences, the National University of Singapore has expanded
    significantly in the past decade. Competitive hiring and admissions
    have raised its international profile. The administration has adopted
    more American-style educational practices, emphasizing analysis and
    inquiry rather than rote learning. Ph.D. students, for example, must
    now defend their dissertations.

    This year the Times Higher Education Supplement, in London, named the
    National University of Singapore one of the top 25 universities in the

    As part of its strategy, Singapore is investing millions in order to
    become an education hub, or, as officials like to say, a "Global
    Schoolhouse." They understand that the city-state needs to raise its
    international stature as an incubator of ideas and entrepreneurship if
    it is going to continue to attract and keep senior scientists and
    biomedical companies.

    But an added benefit is that eventually fewer Singaporeans will have
    to go abroad to get a quality education.

    The University of Warwick notwithstanding, the government's initiative
    has been remarkably successful. In the past ten years, Singapore has
    convinced prestigious institutions such as the University of Chicago
    and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish programs
    here. Duke University recently agreed to help set up a graduate
    medical school here. The Singaporean government will underwrite the
    $310-million cost.

    Still, there are some issues that may stand in the way of Singapore's
    future as a research powerhouse.

    There is nervousness among some that the city-state has become too
    successful too fast and thus its citizens, now that they enjoy one of
    the highest living standards in Asia, are growing complacent.

    In a speech delivered to senior government officials two years ago,
    Shih Choon Fong, president of the National University of Singapore,
    questioned whether the country, with its homogeneous pursuits and
    aspirations, had grown sluggish.

    Moreover, scientific breakthroughs require risk taking, which many
    here are adverse to. And the act of challenging conventional ideas,
    which is fundamental to new discoveries, is considered a sign of

    "There is still this Asian problem of unquestioning belief, that
    elders have all the wisdom," says Mr. Colman, of sheep-cloning fame,
    who is now the chief executive of ES Cell International, a partnership
    between the Singaporean government and scientists at Australia's
    Monash University. "The society is a very compliant one. That is
    changing but there is a long ways to go."

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