SINGAPORE - Two scientists wooed here to drive Singapore's biomedical push are relinquishing key leadership positions at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), after more than a decade helming major research institutes.
Professor Jackie Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), and Professor Birgitte Lane, head of the Institute of Medical Biology (IMB), will step down on March 31 next year (2018), an A*Star spokesman said in response to queries from The Straits Times.
While they will continue as senior A*Star scientists and run their own labs, they will no longer have a say in how their institutes are run, or their research direction.
The announcement of the move on Wednesday (Dec 13) caught scientists off guard, with some expressing uncertainty over how their own work would be affected.
Both women belong to a pool of top researchers, coined "whales". Many were wooed here by former A*Star chairman Philip Yeo from all over the world to kick-start Singapore's foray into the biomedical sciences dating back almost two decades.
They are also among the last big names among this group to be heading research institutes. Others who came and left include renowned husband-and-wife team Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, who left the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in 2011 to return to the United States, and American scientist Edison Liu, a world leader in cancer research and genomics, who left in the same year after 10 years of building the Genome Institute of Singapore from scratch.
The leadership changes come at a time when A*Star - the lead public sector agency spearheading Singapore's research and development - is undergoing major restructuring, including reviewing its funding mechanism.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had said earlier this year that the restructuring will enable A*Star to keep up with a changing biomedical industry.
A*Star said it has appointed two covering executive directors for IMB and IBN from April next year (2018) - Professor Zee Upton, currently deputy executive director (industry) and a research director at IMB, and Dr Ichiro Hirao, currently team leader and principal research scientist at IBN.
When asked, the A*Star spokesman said that Prof Upton and Dr Hirao are senior scientists who are familiar with their respective institutions.
"They will provide stability as they work closely with the rest of the A*Star leadership in A*Star's transformation effort," she said.
Commenting on her move, Prof Ying, 51, told The Straits Times: "Actually I feel very torn because I have so much vested in this institute. I've been here for almost 15 years, and the labs and institute (have been) all built up from scratch."
The US citizen and Singapore permanent resident, who came over from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, has led the IBN from the start. Under her leadership, the institute has conducted interdisciplinary research across science, engineering and medicine, with the aim of improving healthcare and quality of life.
It has more than 680 patents and patent applications, established 13 spin-off companies and published more than 1,300 papers in academic journals.
Prof Ying, who on Tuesday was named a Fellow of the prestigious United States National Academy of Inventors, said she will continue research as an A*Star Senior Fellow and will lead the new NanoBio Lab, which will focus on nanotechnology and biotechnology. Her own research group - comprising 25 researchers from IBN, will join her in this lab, which remains in the same Biopolis building. She will also be working on raising private funds for an incubator to help spin off companies in the medtech and biotech sectors.
When contacted, Prof Lane, 66, said: "I feel very proud of what IMB has become. The institute now has a superb team of very smart people, very clever women and men from many countries, who have dedicated themselves to building productive biomedical sciences in Singapore."
"They work brilliantly together and I am sure they will continue to be a great credit to Singapore," added the skin cell scientist, who has been with IMB since its creation in 2006. The institute has played a key role in building bridges between basic science and clinical medicine.
She and her husband, Sir David Lane - who is currently A*Star's Chief Scientist - were originally from Scotland's University of Dundee. Sir David was the head of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology from 2004 to 2007.
Prof Lane said she will continue to run her own research programme, the Epithelial Biology Lab, in IMB, and serve as Chief Scientist of the Skin Research Institute of Singapore.
When contacted, some in the scientific community said they were worried about both scientists' bowing out of key positions.
An IBN researcher, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that staff had been in the dark about the change until Wednesday's townhall meeting.
"It came as a huge surprise for many of us, because IBN has had a good track record under Prof Ying's leadership," he said. "The reason given was for IBN to stay competitive, but that doesn't really gel. With a winning formula, why is there a need for change?"
Professor Alex Matter, chief executive of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre and Drug Discovery and Development unit, said Prof Ying and Prof Lane have "made very important contributions, have been able to attract the very best young talents and are at the height of their professional productivity and creativity".
"The departure of these very high-profile scientists is regrettable, and I am not entirely clear why this happened... I hope this will not negatively impact the ability of A*Star to attract the best leaders, with international reputation," he said.
Professor Lee Chuen Neng, head of the surgery department at the National University of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, who works with Prof Ying by connecting her with potential investors and providing a clinical perspective, said: "It's not the correct time for Jackie to leave IBN, which is at the stage of starting to bear fruit.
"I hope she can be given a couple of years to translate patents and inventions into products that benefit Singapore... this would attract investment and benefit millions of patients."
Commenting on the development, Mr Philip Yeo, who is now chairman of Spring Singapore, said: "For any organisation to remain relevant, especially in a fast-changing technology scene, timely leadership succession must be carefully deliberated, consulted and humanely effected.
"It should apply to all appointments at the top tier of the pyramid, for example, in leadership.”