A*Star shake-up: Greater clarity on research funding and outcomes, more collaboration across disciplines

A*Star chairman Lim Chuan Poh (second from right) and key management members announcing the agency's transformation plans on March 27, 2018.
A*Star chairman Lim Chuan Poh (second from right) and key management members announcing the agency's transformation plans on March 27, 2018.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - Singapore’s largest public sector research agency has abandoned its one-size-fits-all approach in funding and judging research, in efforts to stay competitive in an increasingly cut-throat research industry.

In the biggest shake-up in its 16-year history, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) on Tuesday (March 27) announced broad changes to the way the 18 research institutes under its charge will run.

Those who hold hands with industry or provide technologies that support research and development will be guaranteed funding, while those doing purely basic science research will have to work even harder to ensure they survive.

The announcement comes in the face of intensified competition for grants among scientists.

A*Star chairman Lim Chuan Poh said that scientists will have more clarity on their research funding – although a level of uncertainty will be inherent in competition. 

The research institutes, whose work ranges from the biomedical sciences to the physical sciences and engineering, will be organised according to their main activities such as basic science research or industry-oriented projects. 

A*Star managing director Raj Thampuran reiterated that the changes are meant to make the agency, which has more than 5,000 employees, more agile in the use of talent and funds. 

 
 
  • How R&D activities will be split

  • Research institutes

    Funded through guaranteed core funds. They are industry-oriented research entities, aimed at meeting industry needs and creating new industries

    Technology centres

    Funded through core funds, but to a smaller extent than research institutes. They support research and development efforts within and beyond A*Star. 

    Knowledge creation

    Aimed at attracting and hosting top calibre research talent and advancing science. Funded entirely though competitive, merit-based funds. Will be embedded in research institutes and technology centres.

    Programmes

    Funded through competitive, merit-based funds. They bring together multi-disciplinary expertise, from within and outside of A*Star, to address large and complex scientific or technological problems.

    National platforms

    Facilities and expertise that are funded nationally or by multiple public stakeholders, but hosted and managed by A*Star. They serve specific national needs.

Currently, all research institutes are given a core budget – or guaranteed funding – in a similar way. Under the new model, which will kick in from the new financial year that starts next month, they will be funded differently, depending on the nature of their activities. 

Researchers looking to collaborate with industry will be given a higher percentage of core or guaranteed funding, while those involved in “knowledge creation”, or more upstream research, will need to compete entirely for funding. 

Research institutes that provide technologies such as modelling and bioimaging, will receive guaranteed core funds.

When asked, A*Star would not give specifics on funding differences or the fate of individual institutes. 

A*Star will also set clearer outcomes for researchers, said Mr Lim. Those working on basic science research will largely not be expected to secure industry partnerships while there will be less emphasis on publishing in scientific journals for those partnering industry. 

Scientists’ reactions to the changes were mixed. 

Professor Hong Wanjin, executive director of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, said the uncertainty felt by researchers who have to compete more for funding is a global trend. “For those who are just doing knowledge discovery, if you’re not able to get grants, they will have to be phased out, that’s the reality,” he said. 

One senior scientist said many researchers remain in the dark about how the changes will affect them. “We already all do a mixture of activities, so why can’t they just look at what we’ve done and fund us accordingly?” 

But another A*Star scientist said that evaluating groups that focus on industry collaboration differently from those which do basic science research makes sense. “It is two different jobs. You can’t pit butchers against bakers and ask who makes the better bread,” he said.