R&D will remain key pillar of Singapore

As Singapore enters its 51st year today, Lin Yangchen looks at how science and technology shaped the nation's first 50 years, and what the future holds.

The Singapore skyline.
The Singapore skyline. PHOTO: ST FILE

Science is an important part of the collective human knowledge that has made us so successful as a species. It has enabled us to understand and contemplate our impact on the world, even to explore worlds beyond Earth.

As Singaporeans usher in the next 50 years of nationhood, it is perhaps timely to appraise the country's history of science, to draw inspiration from those who set the ball rolling and to spur the new generation to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

R&D's importance was recognised early on, even as fledgling Singapore was busy building the economy, public infrastructure and defence. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1966: "It is of the utmost importance that, in the field of science and technology, we should lead the field in this part of the world."

The following year, the Science Council was established to nurture human resources in various aspects of R&D, including training and relations with scientific organisations.

And in 1968, Dr Toh Chin Chye was appointed Minister for Science and Technology.

To stimulate interest in science among people of all ages, the Singapore Science Centre opened in 1977. It soon became a popular destination for many Generation-Y children. Researchers also received a boost from government programmes and infrastructure.

In 1991, the National Science and Technology Board, now the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), was set up to further enhance Singapore's capabilities and establish future directions in science and technology.

Today, A*Star straddles academia and industry, promoting innovative research that benefits the economy and society, and offering awards and scholarships.

In 2000, Singapore's biomedical revolution began with the launch of the Biomedical Sciences Initiative, laying the foundation of yet another pillar of Singapore's economy.

The science and technology sector received yet another fillip in 2006 when the National Research Foundation was created under the Prime Minister's Office to develop strategies and policies, coordinate research efforts across agencies and provide research funding.

In 2013, the Government went on a global drive to attract top Singaporean scientists back home, with PM Lee Hsien Loong announcing the Returning Singaporean Scientists Scheme.

They can choose to work in numerous institutions: In academia such as the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore University of Technology and Design, or in academic-industrial outfits like the Biopolis and Fusionopolis research hubs for corporate laboratories.

The well-known lack of women in science was also not overlooked in Singapore. To counter this "potential waste of human talent" - as was described in the academic journal Nature (about the worldwide dearth of woman scientists) - the L'Oreal Singapore for Women in Science National Fellowships were created in 2009 to support early-career women in a wide range of scientific disciplines.

These measures have propelled Singapore into the "First World" of science and technology - academically and in industry, in fields as varied as medicine and engineering.

But even more crucial now is the task of grooming the next generation of home-grown scientists to make the discoveries of tomorrow.

To help meet this goal, the NUS High School of Mathematics and Science opened in 2005.

In addition, Singapore held its first National Science Experiment last year, when over 43,000 students from primary and secondary schools as well as junior colleges collected and analysed data on their daily travel patterns.

People in general are encouraged to take an interest, too. The new SG50 book Singapore's Scientific Pioneers, available free online, tells of the remarkable politicians and scientists who steered Singapore through its first 50 years of science.

Currently, there is an exhibition at the ArtScience Museum of Nobel Prize-winning ideas that transformed the world, and of the Large Hadron Collider that facilitated the discovery of the Higgs boson, or "God particle". There are few things more remote from our everyday lives than the "God particle", but it represents what really makes us human - the desire to get to the bottom of the mysteries of our universe.

And this might just be what is needed to keep the momentum going in the long run - the so-called blue sky research.

Research in Singapore in the past half-century has focused largely on getting economic returns. While this approach has served the country well, basic or blue sky research should not be forsaken.

Such research may seem to offer little in the way of tangible benefit to the economy or society, but we should not forget that iPhones would not be possible without the discovery of the electron.

Inundated with centuries of knowledge accumulated by mankind, the scientist of today may struggle to invent or discover something as revolutionary as Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines or Newton's laws of motion.

But be it pushing the frontiers of space or taking on the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change, the next 50 years of exploration and discovery offer plenty of opportunities, and an even greater presence for Singapore on the world stage of science.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline 'R&D will remain key pillar of Singapore'. Subscribe