Dr Lee Wei Ling, director of the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI), feels that studies here should focus on Hepatitis B, auto-immune disease and head injuries — areas where Singapore may have a competitive advantage."We need to choose the few research areas that we think may have a chance with," she recently told Reuters. "Why should we want to compete with another 10, 20, 30 world-class centres chasing the same thing?" And in a pointed allusion to the funds being spent on this research, she asked: "Anyone who looks at Singapore's size will wonder — why are we trying venture capitalism?" Two World Bank economists have also added to this line of questioning by saying that Singapore's biomedical strategy had only a 50-per-cent chance of succeeding.
Bristling at such suggestions, the outgoing chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Mr Philip Yeo — the man who spearheaded the biomedical push — yesterday countered the doubts raised by Dr Lee as well as the World Bank economists. "This is not an instant business. It takes 10 or 15 years to train these people," he said in his final biomedical briefing before he takes up his next assignment as economic adviser to the prime minister in April. He defended his policy of attracting the "big whales" — the top scientists — to Singapore. "I need the whales to take care of the guppies," he said, referring to his young PhD students now studying in top universities worldwide. Yeo has also referred to the same scholarship holders as his "slaves".
Mr Yeo next took a direct personal attack on Dr Lee's criticism, saying: "For a person who has not been here to make comments, I leave it to the person. The Singapore Government is fully committed to what we've done."
Both he and Sir David Lane, the executive director of A*Star's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, felt that the approach of focusing on what Dr Lee called "niche areas unique to the Singapore population" would not work. It was better to spread the net wide as one cannot predict where the next breakthrough will come from, said Prof Lane. Hence the focus on hot areas like cancer, for which top scientists like Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins had arrived in Singapore from the United States last year, with their army of research mice. "They sold their house, quit their jobs and are committed to Singapore in a big way," said Prof Lane.
Mr Yeo saw no reason to focus on niche research areas like Hepatitis B and head injuries.
"Why should we waste our time on Hepatitis?" asked Mr Yeo. "Why should we waste our time on head injuries? How many head injuries are there?"
In responise, Dr Lee said in an email to Today that, unlike herself, Mr Yeo had not been to hospital, seeing patients.
"Five per cent of ethnic Chinese are Hepatitis B carriers with a high risk of liver cancer and/or liver failure. Multiply that by the total number of Chinese worldwide," she said.
Similarly, she added that head injury might not be a glamourous area for research but it was one of the main causes of disability in children and otherwise healthy adults. In addition, NNI has an established track record in head injury research, which gives Singapore a competitive advantage.
"What is Philip Yeo's definition of success — and can he show at least some glimpse of it?" she asked.
In her interview with Reuters, Dr Lee had hoped that "maybe they (the Government) would have a rethink".