The Straits Times says

Funding the science of the future

Singapore's commitment of a record $19 billion to scientific research and development in the next five years indicates the extent of its economic and social stake in furthering the frontiers of scientific and technological knowledge. The nearly $4 billion to be given out each year is around 1 per cent of the annual gross domestic product; indeed, it is comparable with what world leaders such as the United States spend. Benchmarking itself against the most successful economies, which have come so far partly on account of their investment in R&D, is an important index of Singapore's need to punch way above its demographic weight and outpace regional competition. Parsimony usually does not make for good science.

The generous funding regime will add the depth of predictability to a research environment that can thrive only on risk-taking. The best brains in scientific research could hardly be expected to be drawn into work of uncertain financial feasibility. That is why cutting research funding is shortsighted even in economic downturns that foment a culture of defensiveness. Instead, it precisely is the ability to invest in the future that helps countries move out of periodic stagnation or decline. At the same time, however, research funds have to justify themselves by producing quantifiable results. Singapore's revved-up investment in R&D covers the downside base by increasing competition, with researchers having to compete for about 40 per cent of their funding, double that of the previous five years. The Government's fiduciary responsibility to citizens, whose taxes will pay for the new R&D strategy, obliges it to ensure that every research dollar is well spent and is not dissipated in pursuit of exciting horizons that promise more than they can deliver.

Within the parameters of generosity and frugality set by the new budget, it falls on research institutions to attract the best talent, retain it, and encourage multi-disciplinary work. The range of imperatives is broad, encompassing advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and the digital economy, and urban solutions and sustainability. These priorities encompass most of the critical areas in which science will contribute to Singapore's success in the years ahead. Bringing back internationally successful scientists to Singapore must complement the encouragement of local scientists who have persevered to make their country a better place in which to live and learn.

At the end of the day, faith in the transformative capability of science and technology is a national asset that goes with the belief that human reason and cooperative behaviour can expand the economic and social lifespans of nations. Young Singaporeans who are drawn to science and technology as a calling will benefit from this latest investment in the common future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Funding the science of the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe