Two Singapore-MIT research programmes to end this year

Researchers at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology's (Smart) Infectious Disease Laboratory.
Researchers at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology's (Smart) Infectious Disease Laboratory. PHOTO: SINGAPORE-MIT ALLIANCE FOR RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY

Tenure for 3 others to end from next year; research foundation to look at new proposals

They have come up with spin-off companies, new technology and breakthroughs, but the time is up for the five research programmes under the prestigious Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) initiative.

Moving forward, Singapore's National Research Foundation (NRF) - which funds the effort - will look at new proposals and research programmes which are relevant to Singapore, it said.

Meanwhile, the over 200 full-time researchers at Smart, hired on contract basis for the expected term of the research programme, will have to wait and see if their contracts are renewed.

Smart's environmental sciences and infectious diseases programmes will cease when their decade-long term expires at the end of the year. Three other programmes, which research into areas such as future urban mobility, low-energy electronic systems and technologies for the healthcare industry, will also end when their tenures are up from next year onwards.

The five programmes have resulted in a number of spin-off companies. One example is Visenti, a Smart spin-off which manages water technologies and sensors. It has since been acquired by global water technology leader Xylem.

Smart has also worked with the National University of Singapore on a robot kayak, which monitors the waters in the Strait of Johor for harmful algal blooms that killed fish and marine life en masse here in the past.

However, an NRF spokesman pointed out: "NRF reviews and refreshes the portfolio of programmes... as part of a continuous process to increase the impact of research conducted."

A Smart spokesman told The Straits Times that it has submitted a proposal for a new research programme, Urban Sustainability and the Environment. NRF, however, said it has not accepted the proposal, although it could follow up on some "promising" areas.

"Smart will work with NRF to identify possible partners for collaboration," said the NRF spokesman.

Smart, established to much fanfare in 2007, is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) largest, and only, international research centre.

It was the first of several international research centres established under an initial $1 billion initiative called Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (Create).

Create, which has also established centres with universities such as Cambridge University, aims to foster joint research programmes between the world's top research universities and Singapore-based research institutes, as well as to recruit and nurture a pool of young talent here.

All NRF-funded programmes at Create are awarded for five years in the first instance and can be renewed once, with a maximum span of 10 years - a process in line with international practices. There are regular reviews, during which the research directions are either reaffirmed, modified or concluded.

Some programmes failed to make it past the five-year mark, including those with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Peking University.

NRF has also identified new areas of research that Singapore should invest in. For example, last year, it pumped in $25 million to start a five-year marine science programme to spur research into how the Republic can better cope with emerging challenges such as climate change, heavy shipping and urbanisation.

"In line with Singapore's Smart Nation initiative, we are also looking to support the development of digital capabilities in areas including cyber security, data science and artificial intelligence," said the NRF spokesman.

Dr Erik Velasco, a researcher from Smart's environmental sciences programme, said the programme was the first environmental research centre in Singapore, and has over the past decade conducted scientific work on topics of relevance for Singapore's sustainability and welfare. The centre has done studies on domestic air quality, haze, and algae blooms, for instance.

The closure of the environmental programme, known as the Centre for Environmental Sensing and Modelling, was a loss of human capital and knowledge. "I am pretty sure other institutes will continue the research work started... Hopefully, they will follow the same approach of openness to the public." 

However, Dr Velasco noted that the closure was an opportunity for NRF to review its programmes and policies according to Singapore's needs. "Singapore needs to invest in scientific institutions and not just in research projects. Permanent institutions will provide sustained advice and support to both the authorities and society. Singapore needs to rely on knowledge generated by scientists based in Singapore. Such scientists need to be part of Singapore’s society and share its problems. Famous and well reputed scientists working somewhere else may provide good advice, but won’t be able of identifying such problems neither of providing adequate solutions."

Note: This story was edited to include quotes from a Smart researcher. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Two S'pore-MIT research programmes to end this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe