The record $16.1 billion injected by the Government into research between 2011 and 2015 reflects its commitment to create a city of innovation, despite the general challenges faced by nations in pursuit of a "new research economy". By any measure, research and development is a costly undertaking with no certain returns. Yet, many countries are banking on innovation policies that call for considerable public funds. R&D's appeal lies in the prospects of growth that technology-based products and services can offer as star sectors fade. With Australia's mining industry losing its shine, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unfurled an ambitious A$1.1 billion (S$1.1 billion) innovation agenda earlier this month. It is aimed at attracting "highly talented people" (like foreign students with research qualifications), tech entrepreneurs and angel investors to help create a 21st-century "boom that can continue forever", unlike mineral resources, as he put it.
Of course, the devil in even well-laid plans is in the details. Years of pump priming in some OECD countries have not eliminated the "innovation paradox" of low rates of actual innovation despite high levels of R&D activity. Singapore, however, has made a name for itself in water technologies and gastric cancer research, as National Research Foundation chief Low Teck Seng noted recently. But taking inventions to market and nudging up private research remain a work in progress. These indicators should not be overlooked when fresh funding and expectations for the next five years, under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Plan, are announced next month. While other performance metrics - like A*Star patents per billion dollars of R&D expenditure compared with Harvard's number - are favourable, one would also expect a visible flow-through of economic benefits like more jobs and spin-offs small and medium-sized enterprises can take advantage of.
Supply-side public policies everywhere, like the provision of research infrastructure, have played an important role in past years. There is now recognition of the need for demand-side innovation policies as well. These include improving conditions for consumer reception of technological improvements, and the public procurement of products, processes and services that are innovative in different ways and not just focused on information and communication technologies.
There's a need for new solutions across a broad field in the public sector - for example, in health, welfare of the aged, social cohesion, energy security, and the environment. Even established practices in the private sector can benefit from R&D. The wider its reach, the better the chances of a culture of innovation taking root here at all levels. Alongside the traditional focus on the output and impact of research institutions, there should also be some effort to track innovation in other areas.