SINGAPORE â€” Last summer, Rachel Kraut and Cyrus Papan were senior postdoctoral researchers at Caltech, yet they were worried about their future.
With four young children, they wanted jobs heading their own laboratories in the same city â€” a chancy prospect in today’s job market, even for experts from an elite university.
They found salvation half a world away in Singapore, where each now enjoys a competitive salary, a cutting-edge lab and an occasional view of balmy Sumatra across the Singapore Strait.
Kraut and Papan joined an intellectual reverse migration away from the United States â€” the world’s biomedical superpower â€” to Asia’s fast-rising life science tigers.”
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“Despite Singapore’s autocratic image, built on such laws as its ban on gum spitting and the 1994 caning of an American teenager for vandalism, Western scientists here say they have found an open scientific environment flowing with funds.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Papan said from his home in a gated community that looks like any upscale American apartment complex, except for the jungle trees.
The compound, among scores of high-rises that replaced swamps and jungles, is 10 minutes from his new workplace, the futuristic complex of steel-and-glass research buildings named Biopolis.
The nation has invested billions of dollars in bioscience. It has recruited American Nobel Prize winner Sydney Brenner of San Diego’s Salk Institute; Edison Liu, former division chief at the National Cancer Institute; and Britain’s Alan Colman, who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996.
A host of other scientific stars have joined the island’s race to become a world leader in the study of embryonic stem cells, cancer genes and advanced medical techniques.
Singapore’s rise coincides with a tumultuous period in U.S. science, brought on by security-linked visa curbs on foreign scholars, federal limits on stem cell research and a bioscience funding squeeze.
“The U.S. may not be able to lead all areas of biosciences anymore,” said Yongmin Kim, chair of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, which collaborates with Singaporean institutes. “It may be Japan, the U.K., China or even Singapore.”
Am I the only one who is bothered by this. What a terrible indictment of our current situation.
“Salaries in Singapore are comparable to the United States’, but living costs here are lower and Western researchers with children often receive subsidies for elite private schools. Even with full-time domestic help, they save more money than would be possible back home.
Singaporean institutes are organized much like internal research units of U.S. National Institutes of Health. Executives allocate funds, but principle investigators, who head labs of five to 15 researchers, manage their own projects. Success is measured, as in the United States, by peer-reviewed publications, inventions and patents.
Papan studies metabolic byproducts as a way to diagnose disease.
Across the hall from his lab, he showed off a $600,000 confocal microscope, which uses lasers and fluorescent markers to detect proteins and metabolites. Papan can use it whenever he wants, a rare luxury for junior researchers in the United States.
He and Kraut spent the first six weeks on the job shopping like kids in a candy store. They scoured supply catalogs for glassware, specialized computers and reagents.
Papan ordered a $400,000 nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, another tool to measure metabolites with uncanny precision.
“The money is always an issue in research â€” except here,” he said. “If you can justify it, you can buy it.”
Singapore has become more alluring in the wake of policy arguments inside the United States.
The Bush administration has angered parts of the scientific community with a federal ban on funding for some stem cell research â€” a field richly supported by Singapore â€” and sweeping new lab security rules and biodefense programs. Post-Sept. 11 visa policies have sealed off American science to thousands of Asian experts and trainees. Singapore has welcomed them with open arms and wallets.
Philip Yeo, the head of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, said America’s fixation on security had opened “a small window” of opportunity for Singapore.
“We are moving as fast as we can,” he said.
Bioscience is Singapore’s second attempt to become a technological power.
Determined to create an economic bulwark against foreign domination, the government first turned to computer component manufacturing in the 1980s.
“When Singapore said they would reinvent themselves around the electronics business, people laughed. Then they became a dominant player. Now they are doing it with biotech,” said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster with the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. ”
It is such a simple thing to see how this could become a serious problem. Brain drain is not a good thing.
“Biopolis is designed to multiply the return on its investments by encouraging collaboration across genomics, nanotechnology and other fields. Sky bridges connect the upper floors of five of its seven buildings to the nation’s institute for bioinformatics â€” the science that analyzes volumes of data generated by today’s biological specialties.
Several embryonic stem cell lines were originally created in Singapore, which remains a major supplier to U.S. scientists.
The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, established last year, has filed for patents on dozens of inventions, including ultra-sensitive diagnostic tools for cancer and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and breathable, transparent membranes to cover burns and lacerations.
“I sometimes characterize Singapore as a venture-capital company masquerading as a government,” said Lee L. Huntsman, president emeritus of the University of Washington, who has established cooperative academic programs in Singapore.
Axel Ullrich, director of the Department of Molecular Biology at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, and one of the world’s most influential biologists, recently agreed to head Singapore’s Onco Genome Laboratory.
He likened Biopolis to a small Silicon Valley for biology.
“Singaporeans are the Californians of Asia,” Ullrich said.
Quality research, generous tax laws and a push to become a regional center for “healthcare tourism” has made Singapore a haven for pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers. Novartis, the giant Swiss drug company, recently opened a major research and development facility in Biopolis.
The companies added more than $6 billion to Singapore’s economy last year, topping every manufacturing sector except electronics.
Irving L. Weissman, who directs Stanford University’s stem cell institute, compared Biopolis to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, where disdain for artificial borders between academic disciplines fostered the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA.
Singapore plans to extend the idea by building adjacent housing, shopping, schools and entertainment centers.
“I wish â€¦ we had Biopolis at Stanford,” Weissman said.”
Singapore’s tight control of its people, however, has also created its own problems.
Risk, the active ingredient in the often-chaotic brilliance of U.S. science, is abhorred.
“A well-trained army â€¦ they don’t challenge,” said Wei Chia Lin, a native of Taiwan who earned her doctorate at UC Davis and worked for years at U.S. biotech firms before joining the Genome Institute of Singapore.
Importing Western scientists is seen as part of the solution. The other is to send students abroad. Each year, Singapore sends 100 of its top high school pupils to Western universities. Their education is paid through graduate school in exchange for six years of work back home.
Yeo’s research agency produced a booklet to attract aggressive and independent students. It is crafted to resemble a scrapbook of e-mails, diary entries and quotations from “Chairman Yeo” collected by two fictitious scholarship students, Samantha and Tian.
“Encourage the kids to listen to their heartstrings â€¦ to spurn the compulsion to go with the tide,” Sam tells Tian.
But outsiders wonder how fast individual initiative can take root in a culture of self-control.
“I do see a very conservative stance from scientists as a result of this top-down approach,” said Paul Yager, a University of Washington bioengineering professor and a leader of the joint Singaporean program with his university. “I don’t see it as well-suited to a long-term, healthy scientific environment.”
Papan and Kraut regard the autocratic approach as strict but fair, despite its occasional surprises.
Like many Westerners here, they’re defensive about Singapore’s image problem in the West.
“It’s always about caning, and that you cannot spit gum. I don’t care,” Papan said, waving his arms in exasperation. “I don’t have to spit gum.”
Papan recalled a recent incident when he stretched out on a bench beside a bubbling fountain in Biopolis, as he might have done at Caltech on a sunny day.
A guard immediately approached.
“I was politely asked to stand up or sit up because it was an unsightly view,” Papan said.
At first, he was bewildered by the request. But then, amid the grandeur and newfound scientific privileges of Biopolis, he slowly sat up.”
The bottom line is that there are a number of key areas that we should not allow ourselves to fall behind in, technology, Biotech, general medicine are just a few of them.