Unis, research agencies expect to save $70,000 a year after re-evaluation of microscope licences

 Dr Peng Qiwen, lab executive at the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore, operates a microscope.
Dr Peng Qiwen, lab executive at the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore, operates a microscope.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Local universities and research centres will save $70,000 a year in costs for licensing microscopes, a decade after the National University of Singapore (NUS) first asked for the move to be re-evaluated by the National Environmental Agency (NEA).

The Ministry for Trade and Industry's (MTI) pro-enterprise panel had also pushed for the lifting of the N3 licence on microscopes. It was lifted in October 2018.

Citing the example of the N3 licence being lifted, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat encouraged regulators to find better, creative ways to set the rules and support new ideas as well as new business models.

"We need to constantly ask ourselves if there is a smarter, more efficient way to regulate, while ensuring safety and lowering the cost of compliance," said Mr Chee.

"By working together with users, we can maintain safety, while reducing the cost of compliance," Mr Chee said, adding that MTI's pro-enterprise panel is looking to expand its work across multiple sectors and agencies, including food services, logistics, and infrastructure projects.

In the last ten years, NUS spent about $465,000 and 1,070 man days to certify its confocal microscopes under the NEA's N3 licence regulations. Instead of using light, these special microscopes use lasers to illuminate the specimens under the lens.

The confocal microscope is used extensively today for scientific research, particularly in the field of life sciences, materials science and for inspecting semiconductors.

Many NUS researchers use confocal microscopes with embedded lasers of Class 3b and Class 4, with over 300 researchers and members of staff operating such machines.

N3 user licenses for these microscopes are now no longer required at NUS and other institutes of higher learning, like the Nanyang Technological University and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, if laboratories follow several safety guidelines.

Professor Chen Tsuhan, deputy president of research and technology at NUS, said the risk of exposure to radiation when using these microscopes is very low, and that licensing alone does not reduce or mitigate any risk when using the equipment.

"Licensing all the microscopes under the N3 licensing system has lead to tangible costs of about $70,000 at NUS per year. That aside, it is really the long waiting time required before the researcher can work with the microscopes that tends to hamper the research process," Prof Chen said.

Under this new licensing programme, NUS has now had 11 microscopes exempted from the N3 licence. But NUS must not stop here, Prof Chen said, as delays in researchers being able to use all the equipment they need may lead to lost opportunities.

"Professors and researchers can be much more productive and competitive, if they do not have to wait for licensing to come in," Prof Chen said.

He added that researchers who remained idle while waiting lose out on chances to not only pursue research, but also some valuable collaborations with other universities around the world.

Prof Chen said additional safeguards had been put in place, like having staff go through laser safety training courses, and installing safety shields to prevent stray laser light from escaping the machine.

"We are waiting eagerly for the NEA to change the licensing regime, to allow for site licences as well," said Prof Chen.