Budget 2018 announcements came and went with arguably less earth-shaking changes than anticipated. The much feared tax raises would only be brought in at the earliest 3 years later and the worst hikes were seen in the sin tax area instead. In lieu of the discussions on tax and finances, what does the budget of a tiny tropical nation state have to learn from the words of the late Stephen Hawking?
Let me elaborate.
A predominant theme running through Minister Heng Swee Keat’s speech on reinvigorating homegrown businesses and the economy was this idea of pervasive innovation. Pervasive innovation meant embracing disruption, of traditional industries “learning, unlearning and relearning”. This extended to the marketing of inventions such as the revolutionary cement pioneered by Pan United, suddenly having been thrust forward into the limelight through its 30 seconds of glory in parliament. More firms were encouraged to follow suit by tapping on funding schemes and research already being carried out at the various hubs within Singapore. The stereotypes of us merely replicating and not reinventing must be broken was the resounding call for action that one could gather from his pitch.
Yet, more often than not, firms like Grab and Pan United appear to be the anomaly rather than the norm. Despite the billions ($19 billion in the year 2016 to be exact) being pumped into R&D, the response from the ground seems to be muted. Further, there seems to be a certain disjoint that has become apparent in the research industry as well. As the government and agencies such as A*Star continue to laud themselves on money well spent through the investment in R&D, researchers are increasingly becoming disillusioned to meeting key performance indicators (KPIs) and producing results in the minimum time possible in order to secure the continuation of grants. It almost appears to be a vicious cycle. Funders set targets and intended outcomes of the research studies and researchers follow suit to meet these aims. It falls in line with the general outcome driven approach that Singapore has taken to validate its investments and ventures over the years.
Is this then the best way forward for creative enterprise in our sunny state?
This is where I bring in the lessons of Stephen Hawking. As one of the leading thinkers of the century, his motto was to explore the world with the abandon of a child and to test it with the rigors of a trained scientific intellect. He championed discovery where it wasn’t always possible to foresee where the answers lay. Similarly, applying the standards of financial enterprise to research pigeonholes our scope of exploration and places restrictions as to what is considered good research. By setting the prime focus of government funding in research to be in areas largely supported by industries as well, these sectors are overemphasized at the cost of others. Students entering labs as part of short stints or exposure programs leave with the impression that financial motives are more likely to determine research that the passion of the researcher. During my time as a research assistant, the project I was tasked was revived after 5 years since we had finally arrived as the much needed manpower they had been lacking. We heard tales of labs ‘borrowing’ from others because they themselves had failed to meet the desired results required for a renewal of grants. While these may appear anecdotal, these experiences dampen the prospects or motivations of prospective students considering academia as a future career. While the overall numbers in the research industry appear to be increasing, the number of full time postgraduate students have begun to stagnate since 2011. Without sufficient young blood entering the industry, we cannot ascertain its sustainability in future. Creating a nurturing environment that encourages ground up project proposition is how we encourage researchers to take ownership and pride of their work and maintain the vibrancy of our R&D sector.
Fig 1. Number of Staff in the Research Industry from the year 2008 to 2015 Source: https://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/browse-by-theme/research-and-development-tables
The second is rethinking how we define success in research. An article by the Straits Times in 2016 measured how our R&D sector was faring through the following indicators: industry investment, the number of PhDs that fill our ranks, successfully marketed commercial findings and the number of patents we’ve registered (which apparently exceed both Harvard and MIT). Impressive yes but do they accurately define our research enterprise or create the right motivations? When we tie the rather intangible aspects of research discovery with tangible monetary outcomes and quantitative measures, we dilute the aims of innovation. The creative process is not a one-step wonder. It takes months, often years to yield any sort of result. Yet grants are reallocated every few years on the basis of performance. The last commitment made by the government to our research sector was in the year 2016 for the next 5 years. It took me close to 8 months to even complete 0.01% of my mentor’s proposed project, with indefinite results might I add. Putting together the pressures of a seemingly endless search and the financial woes of a researcher, you’re creating a recipe for disaster. There’s a higher propensity for academic integrity to be compromised as we’ve already seen in the two high profile cases in recent years. Dr Mridula Sharma, Professor Ravi Kambadur, Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy and Ms Sabeera Bonala are just symptoms of a toxic blight in our research culture should fail to address the inherent pressures at our research institutes. Left unchecked, the problems of an overly competitive research industry will only be exacerbated and loop back to a crumbling of our labor force in the R&D sector.
In light of our resource constraints, how then do we maximize our input into the sector? The first suggestion is to provide a wider platform for mainstream discussion of our research breakthroughs. How many of us knew that the Singapore based Trek Technology was one of the pioneers, possibly even the first, to release the ThumbDrive? Or that a potential cancer drug, ETC-159, has already reached the stage of clinical trials in the biotech labs of A*Star and Duke-NUS? My alma mater championed this spirit with pride yet even then few can predict how many of us will retain this drive and stick it through in the research world over the next few decades. Young children of 10 and 12 should be able to look up to these figures as aspiring role models if we are to retain this sense of childhood wonder to ride them through the difficulties of research in future. The way we calibrate and define success in research may also have to be tweaked to factor in the risk and high possibility of failure tagged to such ventures.
Ultimately, the growth and blooming of our research industry is heavily tied to how we value it as a society. We need to come to terms that possibly, this isn’t an area, akin to culture or the arts, where our tendency to revert to quantitative measures and indicators of performance is appropriate. It’s admitting that oftentimes, research is a shot in the dark where your efforts are carried forward by faith and conviction backed by logic.
It’s about carrying the Stephen Hawking spirit, exploring the vast universe with the unbridled curiosity of a child.