Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Picking Winners redux

This is an update on a previous post, Picking Winners. This update presents yet another useful nugget of anecdotal information to support my thoughts. You might want to glance through the Picking Winners post to refresh your memory on what it was all about.

As luck would have it, just last week, I got wind of news of an ex-colleague of mine who left my current company almost 4 years ago to take up a Training and Attachment Program (TAP) with EDB. Apparently, TAP has now been renamed STRAT (as if we didn't have enough of an alphabet soup of acronyms; maybe it's because of all those ex-military types who have been offered jobs in the civil service post-retirement. I got a real kick out of the cornily named PREP-UP).

I shall call this ex-colleague of mine Nama (as in Royce Nama Chocolates, the reason will be clear enough in the following paragraph).

Nama had taken up a TAP co-sponsored by EDB and Rolls-Royce for training in manufacturing and testing of solid oxide fuel cells. He spent about 2 years in Derby, UK, for this training stint. It's actually kind of hard to find information on this TAP, what with broken links and pulled press releases. This is what I could find: here, here and here.

2 years post-TAP, with the Great Recession front and center, what has happened to Nama? Well, there is no large-scale manufacturing fuel cell facility in Singapore to be sure (or else the local media would have been all over it). In fact, out of about 20 engineers that had been working in the Rolls-Royce Fuel Cells venture, all but Nama have been made redundant. He is the sole employee remaining; he reports to a supervisor in the UK (make of that what you will).

When I heard that he was the sole remaining employee, I immediately thought of this and this. Nama isn't exactly shoddily paid (he is in fact quite well remunerated), but I speculate that perhaps the amounts that Rolls-Royce gets in government incentives more than compensate for maintaining a token fuel cell presence in Singapore (I have to reiterate, this is mere speculation on my part).

Needless to say, this hardly seems like a sustainable (sic) position for Nama. The fuel cell industry in Singapore is quite ... dead, at least for now.

[For the purpose of balance however, I have to add that Rolls-Royce does have substantial investments in the aviation industry in Singapore, and these appear to be doing ok. Well, I can't say as much on this as fuel cells as I have no inside contact information.]

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Surfeit of Shopping Malls

I confess: I only stepped into Ion Orchard and Orchard Central for the first time about a week ago. I am most decidedly not the mallrat, shopaholic type.

The two newest malls on Orchard Road were nice, in a generic nice sort of way. I enjoy the "new mall smell" as much as any Singaporean, but I am no connoisseur of shopping malls.

[As a matter of fact, my favorite building in the whole of town is the Killiney Road Post Office building, a squat spunky looking structure that nonetheless exudes a lot more character than any of the buildings that loom over it.]

Despite what this article says, I have a suspicion that we are, in the words of one expert interviewed in the article, "over-retailed for the population we've got". For one thing, while the square footage of retail space per capita is apparently lower here in Singapore than in South Korea or Hong Kong, I wonder what the "retail space" in the data actually includes. For example, Singaporeans do not shop solely in shopping malls. We shop at neighborhood stores, mama shops, pasar malams, wet markets ... even those pushcarts in shopping malls. Are these all captured under the rubric of "retail space"? 

The same Saturday night I was at Orchard Central (strictly to stroll through just to see what it's like), I was actually in town having dinner with my family. I was the one to choose where we would eat, and seeing as to how I'm allergic to crowds, I deliberately picked an uncrowded restaurant in an uncrowded mall.

[For the curious, we went to Indo Padang at the Cathay.] 

I knew that the Cathay was a quiet mall, which is already an anomaly on what is supposed Singapore's premier shopping street. But post-dinner, we walked to Centrepoint to browse at a store that sells ergonomic desks for kids and strikingly, and it was apparent even to someone like me who seldom goes to town, Centrepoint was devoid of crowds too. And this was only about 9 pm. Did this have anything to do with Ion Orchard and Orchard Central being the two hot new malls in town, and hence cannibalizing the weekend custom of other malls on Orchard Road?

To be fair, Centrepoint is a rather dated mall, and there are certainly malls on Orchard Road that have a pathetic mix of shops and restaurants and are generally dead anyway after hours (Park Mall, Singapore Shopping Centre, Tanglin Shopping Centre etc.). Still, I couldn't help but recall that far away from Orchard Road down south, Harborfront Mall used to be bustling before Vivocity opened for business. After Vivocity came online, it was downhill all the way for the older mall.

Diehard shopaholics may disagree with me, but Singapore seems to have a surfeit of shopping malls. Not that I'm complaining much, mind you. Even if the shopping mall in Singapore seems a little like the (bread and) circus in ancient Rome, I actually appreciate the availability of deserted shopping malls, especially in the heart of town. Malls where I can browse quietly, actually find an empty seat in a cafe, or get a table in a restaurant with friends without waiting in line. I have no use for quiet specialty malls like Palais Renaissance, aka Tai-tai Central, but I am absolutely fine with places like Millenia Walk or West Coast Plaza.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009 redux

I wasn't far off the mark in my previous post on the Nobel Prizes of 2009. As of today, my prediction took only 2 weeks to be confirmed.

It wasn't a schmuck of a politician, but a columnist in the Straits Times, Janadas Devan, using the Nobel Prizes of 2009 as a lede into his column in the Sunday Times today. Devan is nowhere as partisan as the Chua sisters, but his column today was still a shill as to why we need to roll out the red carpet for more immigrants in Singapore.

Close enough I suppose.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Walmart Green Push Drives BASF Swapping Crackers for Lab Coats"

From Bloomberg
By Antonio Ligi and Richard Weiss

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s new line of food containers made from corn starch also hold the promise of a revolution by global chemical companies including BASF SE.

BASF is developing chemicals from bacteria and fungi instead of processing oil derivatives, cutting back on smokestacks that belch carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Royal DSM NV will start a project by year-end with enzymes to produce succinic acid for car coolants. Mass production may start 2012.

“It’s not voodoo anymore,” said Claus Bollschweiler, a trained biologist who heads up BASF’s research into hydrophobin proteins derived from fungi. “This is a good investment.”

Engineering acids and substances from cells is the nascent part of a biotech chemical industry that’s fueled by demand for bioethanol and set to grow in sales by one-half to 153 billion euros ($227 billion) between 2007 and 2012, McKinsey & Co. estimates. The migration from food, fuels and drugs to basic industrial chemicals is a potential lifeline for BASF and rivals that have struggled to compete with oil-rich Middle East peers.

Bollschweiler’s lab is a dot on the landscape of BASF’s Ludwigshafen headquarters, a 4 square-mile complex dominated by interconnecting pipes, chimneys and plants. The hydrophobins he’s researching can be used for shoe waterproofing or cosmetics that are easier to apply. A venture with bakery ingredients supplier CSM NV to ferment succinic acid will start next year.


Bollschweiler’s efforts underscore the fallout from volatile crude costs that threaten to return to near $100 a barrel by 2012, according to a Bloomberg analyst survey, forcing chemicals suppliers to seek alternative sources of production.

Sales from industrial biotech-derived chemicals totaled about 230 million euros in 2008, only a fraction of BASF’s 62 billion euros in total revenue. The world’s largest chemical company has spent 135 million euros to research bio-chemicals over three years. Total research spending will be about 1.35 billion euros this year, BASF said in May.

DSM, based in Heerlen, the Netherlands, has closed traditional chemical factories for biotech sites, responding to demands from companies like Walmart who seek more environmentally friendly materials. Procter & Gamble Co., the largest consumer-goods company, is looking for bio-based compounds for diapers to replace acrylics.

DSM’s new succinic acid is produced by the fermentation of glucose in large stainless steel vats, avoiding the need for a cracker that breaks oil and gas down into components like naptha that’s used in plastics and adhesives. The biotech version may cut energy use by 40 percent as well as reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the company said.


“This is no longer just a promise,” Volkert Claassen, head of DSM’s unit developing the acid, said in an interview. “It’s reality. Two years ago we made the strategic decision to sell our chemical production route for succinic acid. We will be one of the front runners. Companies close to the consumer are driving this change.”

Saudi Basic Industries Corp. bought General Electric Co. plastics business for $11.6 billion in 2007, highlighting the move nearer to the consumer by Middle East petrochemical companies. Both BASF and Dow Chemical Co. are exiting styrene markets after inflated oil prices reduced margins.

Crude approached almost $80 a barrel last week on optimism demand will increase amid improved prospects for a U.S. recovery. That’s an impetus to the so-called white biotech industry. The label contrasts with red biotech for medicinal applications, and green biotech for gene-modified seeds.

Price Issue

With oil at $65 a barrel, Novozymes A/S’s enzyme-based acrylic acid in the U.S. is competitive with oil-based equivalents, said Thomas Schaefer, the Bagsvaerd, Denmark-based company’s senior research director. If made in lower-cost Brazil, it would be competitive with oil at $45.

“As a strategist or top manager, you have to think what you will offer in 10 years that is not a commodity and not in complete competition with rivals because then it is a price issue,” said Harald Gruber, a Silvia Quandt Bank analyst based in Frankfurt. “Some day in the future, fossil fuels will become scarce. The oil price will again increase.”

DuPont Co. is looking to broaden its bio-chemical range after creating propanediol by fermenting corn sugar and adding it to fabrics that make carpets and clothes more stain resistant, said biomaterials head John Ranieri. The Wilmington, Delaware-based company’s product pipeline includes thermoplastic elastomers, a rubber-plastic cross used in tubing and hoses.

More Complex, Better

“Four or five years ago, we would have said we are just looking for new specialties products,” Ranieri said in an interview. “Now it’s different, we are looking at all.”

Novozymes will announce two contracts for different chemicals over this year and next, adding to its acrylic acid for diapers. Within 30 to 50 years, biotech refineries will have sprung up all over the countryside, replacing the old-school plants and chemical complexes typically located in ports where the crude arrives, CEO Steen Riisgaard said in an interview.

Wacker Chemie AG is assessing if its success in producing acetic acid, used to make polymers, can be translated into large-scale production, said Guenter Wich, Wacker’s head of biotechnology.

“The more complex the chemistry, the greater the opportunities for white biotech are,” he said.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How's it like living in a 'Mickey Mouse' apartment?

Property developers in Singapore are marketing smaller flats these days as they are more "affordable". Apparently, Mah Bow Tan isn't the only one taking liberties with the word "affordable" these days.

[My very concise opinion on these flats is that they are not affordable at all and in fact, represent very poor value.]

I studied in Baltimore in the United States as an undergraduate. Back then, there was a limited supply of on-campus housing, so in my last two years as a student, I moved out of university housing and into a studio apartment. I lived alone for those 2 years, which really did a lot for improving my self-reliance and confidence.

[Having experienced living in such a rough town (Baltimore has an incredibly high crime and homicide rate, and there were at least 2 rape/homicide cases of undergraduates during my time there), I figure I probably have the wherewithal to live anywhere now ... but that's a story for another post.]

I'll spare readers the horror stories of looking for an apartment. Suffice it to say that the studio I lived in was quite small, about 400 square feet, so I think I am qualified to comment on what it's like living in a small apartment. I had friends who lived alone in even smaller apartments, about 250 square feet, which is approximately the size of the shoebox flats mentioned in the above news article.

I think I have to agree with property developers who steadfastly refuse to build apartments below 400 square feet in size. That is about the minimum for comfortable living. I viewed the 250 square feet apartments when I was apartment-hunting, but I quickly rejected them...and I'm not what you would call a fussy person.

Simply put, 250 square feet is not enough for one person. Living in such a small apartment will seriously 'cramp your style', so to speak.

You will not be able to:

1. Entertain, since there is no room for more than about 4 people to sit comfortably, assuming (and that's a big assumption) you have that many chairs and a coffee table in the first place. A sofa is out of the question of course. A (Western) futon is a compromise that lots of studio dwellers make.

2. Accumulate stuff. Every time you go out shopping, at the back of your mind, you will ask yourself not how much the item costs, but how much space it will take up in your apartment. At one point, all my worldly possessions in the US of A could fit comfortably into two suitcases and 4 boxes.

3. Cook, since the fumes of cooking (even with a hood) will permeate your apartment and saturate all the fabrics. Boiling and steaming are ok. Frying and saute'ing are not. Of course, this is assuming you even have the requisite paraphernalia for cooking. Remember, you will have no countertop space to prepare food, few cupboards and no room for appliances (except for a stove, maybe a rice cooker and the all-important microwave oven for reheating). It's right about this point that most people give up having any semblance of even having proper utensils and crockery. Then they decide to eat out or order in for all their meals.

4. Have all the comforts that most of us take forgranted. You can choose some, but not all of the following: a desktop computer, large refrigerator, dishwasher, television, stereo system, large desk, dining table, queen-size or larger bed, and other bulky items of furniture. A washer and a dryer are obviously no-go; you'll have to do all your laundry outside or in the basement of the apartment building (which is an alien notion for most Singaporeans). And needless to say, what large items of furniture a studio dweller selects is a reflection of his or her priorities. For many bachelors, having a queen-size bed is a necessity (no prizes for guessing why).

5. Stay at home much, if at all. This was a dealbreaker for me when I viewed the small 250 square feet apartments, as I am pretty much a homebody. I could not imagine coming home every day from school or work, opening the door and immediately facing a tiny closet-like living space, where a bed would immediately come into view and dwarf everything else around it (Believe me, you will choose miniature, collapsible or stackable versions of just about everything when you live in a studio. Tables, chairs, nightstands etc.). It is incredibly depressing, I can assure you.

So who would live in a shoebox apartment? People who fall into two categories: those who can't afford any better, and those happy (expat) singles who spend all their time out and about and return home only to sleep. The former we can discount, since they are clearly not the target demographic that Singapore private property developers are looking at. The latter are not likely to buy property in the first place, seeing as how they are so footloose.

That leaves investment buyers. For those buyers of Mickey Mouse flats who are thinking of buying these apartments and then renting them out to the aforementioned singles, good luck with that.

First of all, even swinging singles look at how much it costs to rent a place. Small and cheap will always find takers, the same cannot be said for small and expensive. Given the prices of these flats, a commensurate rent to yield a reasonable ROI would probably be in the ballpark of about $1k - $1.5k a month, not including utilities and condo expenses. Unless the location is very prime and the building amenities are excellent, no single is likely to pay that much. And by prime location, I mean proximity to town (Orchard Road), public transport (given how "unaffordable" a car is), laundry facilities, restaurants and eateries, malls etc.

The larger problem is that the kind of tenant that this kind of tiny apartment is meant to be rented out to, is supposed to live a lifestyle that our city is not geared towards supporting. Ergo, such a tenant is probably uncommon.

Cities that have high rental rates for small apartments include London (Zone 1), New York City (Manhattan), Tokyo and Hong Kong. All these cities have urban densities in their city cores that are in actuality, more concentrated than Singapore's, despite Singapore having a higher average population density. There are more shops, services, restaurants, nightclubs and crucially, subway stations, per square foot in the inner city core of these global cities than Singapore. And more of them operate at extended hours, or in some cases 24/7 (like the New York City subway, at least in Manhattan). In these cities, tiny apartments in the city core can and do get rented out at exhorbitant rates, simply because there is so much to do outside in the city. In addition, wages are considerably higher in these cities to pay for the astronomical cost of living.

In contrast, except for nightclubs, Singapore pretty much shuts down after 11pm. The lack of public transportation options after midnight is a major culprit for this. Singapore can bill itself as a family-friendly destination for expat families, but it cannot claim to be equally attractive to "zero-drag" singles. Especially since expats now tend to be employed on local packages instead of the cushy expat packages of yesteryear.

The inescapable conclusion is that these tiny-ass apartments will likely be rented out to less desirable, short-term tenants. Property analysts and experts interviewed by the article mentioned the likelihood of monthly, weekly or even hourly rentals (I have no idea what is the legality of such arrangements). This sure recalls another property case, though it may not stop determined landlords.

Possible tenants would be tourists (I once stayed in a New York City sublet in SoHo for a week; the original tenant was working abroad; speaks to how hard it is to land a good apartment in Manhattan) and short-term visitors such as business travellers. Less savory possibilities would be brothel clients, illegal immigrants, and the like.

Is the Mickey Mouse flat a sustainable trend? Hard to say, looking at how property prices have stayed gravity-defying through a recession. One thing's for sure, I know what it is like to live in small apartment, and I would never go below 400 square feet. For those who find out the hard way, well, lots of luck with owning a shoebox apartment. If there's one sign of a property bubble, this could well be it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The solution ... is the problem

I've been reading Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, where he argues that Europe cannot remain Europe should the pace of (Muslim) immigration there continue. Fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about our own immigration issues here in Singapore, euphemistically termed foreign talent.

Several of Caldwell's arguments can be generalized to problems with immigration itself, and not just to Muslim immigration to Europe. I won't go into detail on these arguments. Suffice it to say, you should pick up a copy of his book if you are at all interested about the problems that rapid immigration and dis-assimilation cause. In this post, I will focus on Singapore-centric issues only.

Singapore has a fertility rate of about 1.3, below the replacement rate of 2.1. We are sitting on a demographic timebomb. Add to that the unquenchable demand (at least on the part of the government) for ever greater GDP growth, Singaporeans are told that we must be open and accepting of immigrants (i refuse to use the doublespeak term of foreign talent in this post). Immigrants provide the warm bodies with which to fuel our economy. These two statements sum up the chief arguments behind Singapore's pro-immigration policy. The other arguments, no matter how well articulated or reasoned, can be subsumed under these 2.

Why aren't Singaporeans reproducing enough of themselves? Some reasons are common to why industrialized nations typically experience a fall in fertility upon attaining developed nation status. I will not discuss these. Indeed, some of them can be found in the Caldwell book. Instead, I will describe reasons more unique to the Singapore condition.

Singaporeans do not have many children because of the high cost of living (in particular housing), the high cost of raising children, the lack of social safety nets, the unavailablility of affordable and convenient childcare, and the competitive and stressful work environment.

In response, the government encourages immigration to make up for the reproduction shortfall.

Immigration results in greater competition for jobs and a more stressful work environment. Indeed, for some civil servants, a more stressful work environment is precisely the point of immigration (forget work-life balance, that token phrase that has been cheapened beyond all recognition). Philip Yeo has spoken explicitly of increasing the hungriness index as a spur to make Singaporeans work harder.

Immigration also tends to drive down salaries and retard wage growth. This has the salutary effect of pushing up corporate profits (and government tax receipts) but doesn't do much for workers. In addition, immigrants also require the use of public services and amenities, in particular housing and public transport, and correspondingly drive up their costs (in the former) or lower the quality of the experience (in the latter). Lately, there has been much unhappiness among Singaporeans over the high and rising cost of public housing. [no link provided here; too many to choose from]. Naturally, these two factors taken together exacerbate how the high cost of living and raising children discourage Singaporeans from reproducing.

Faced with such an abject environment, where Singapore citizens are made to feel marginalized within their own country, it is hardly a surprise that many Singaporean youth want to emigrate.

In view of rising emigration, the government takes the view that they should concentrate on making Singapore a more attractive place to live.

Of course, in the opinion of the government, a better place to live involves high GDP growth, which would be facilitated by, what else, immigration. Immigration would also conveniently help replace the Singaporeans who have migrated and mitigate the low fertility rate.

And more immigration would lead to ... well, you get the idea. In short, the solution ... is the problem.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Picking Winners

I had a conversation with a colleague recently after one of our regular Friday night hang-outs.

We were talking about research and work in general (we are after all, both researchers) when the conversation came round to the Economic Development Board's(EDB) investments in research.

My colleague has a friend working in EDB, and she shared some of her conversations with her friend with me. This friend of my colleague shall henceforth be referred to as X.

X works in a department responsible for disbursing seed funding to local companies operating in nascent industries. And X was deeply unhappy in his job (though apparently not unhappy enough to leave, a not uncommon phenomenon).

The reason why X was unhappy was because he had the unenviable task of breaking the unpleasant news that funding was no long forthcoming to these fledgling companies whenever EDB decided to turn off the monetary spigots. Naturally, when funding gets cut, companies die and people get laid off.

Funding can dry up for any number of reasons, some of them very good ones. For example, companies may simply be unviable and should be shut down. Taxpayers' money should not be used to prop up business models that simply don't work (though good luck telling that to the US government that has bailed out the big banks).

While being the bearer of such bad news is always unpleasant, it is far more unpleasant when the decision to cut funding is partially or totally at the behest of trends or fads. In other words, funding can be fickle to the point of being arbitrary, which is somewhat ironic since the whole point of government funding is that it need not be subject to the whims of the market and can take a longer, more strategic view.

Apparently, according to X, the rising trend at EDB is to fund companies engaged in the new sphere of alternative energies and related technologies. This is perfectly understandable given the increased urgency that climate change today is viewed with. In addition, as renowned venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and Khosla Ventures would say, the energy industry is the biggest industry of them all, and alternative energies will constitute a monumental investment opportunity in the future.

There are other areas that EDB is interested in of course (digital media technologies, water-related technologies). The point here is that as the pie of funding is relatively fixed in nature, more money to these areas means less to others, in particular to the most recent fad of all, life sciences.

Less funding means fewer opportunities, although you wouldn't know it from the horde of students that regularly profess interest in the life sciences today. The recent open house that my company held which invited potential scholarship applicants saw just such a horde. Several students that visited my department's exhibits made a beeline for me with questions to ask once my boss introduced me as a biomedical engineer. The disappointment was palpable when I explained that I no longer worked as one, although strangely enough no one asked why. The students moved on quickly enough when I introduced them to my ex-colleagues working in biomechanics.

The point I am making here is that the capriciousness of government funding and intervention in the industrial marketplace can have real impact on an individual's career decisions, sometimes positive, but quite often negative.

Funding for the life sciences from EDB may be reduced for a number of reasons. I can think of several, but two stand out most. The first is the perception that A*Star already gets plenty of funding for life sciences research and that there is no need for EDB to pick up the slack in the life sciences industry. The second reason is that, rightly or wrongly, it's "mission accomplished" for the life sciences industry; Singapore seems to be successful in attracting pharmaceutical firms and medical device companies to set up shop here, hence there is less of a need to emphasize life sciences. [Sidebar: Though seemingly successful, I am sceptical of the quality of jobs being generated from the investments. Let's face it, people inspired into taking up careers in science and engineering don't exactly aspire to work in manufacturing and quality assurance.]

If there is a lesson to be drawn here, it is that the government in Singapore likes to 'pick winners', hence the title of this post. Like it or not, major segments of our economy are centrally planned. Even the number of doctors, lawyers, teachers and PhDs in Singapore is centrally planned.

For the individual, this works fine if the sector you work in is a 'winner' and the 'picking' part is still in the early stages. You'll do just fine, better than fine even, if you are a foreigner invited to come here.

But if you are late to the cycle, there is a real risk you could get shut out even before you get a foot in the door. Worst, if you are established in the 'winning' field that then becomes less winning, you are left behind, too old to switch fields when you get made redundant.

This Schumpetarian creative destruction may work well for Singapore's economy, but it can leave an exceedingly bitter taste in the mouth of the individual.

We have seen this movie play out several times before. I call it the kiss of life and death: a surge of investment and interest, followed by maturation and then senescence and decline. It happened in engineering years ago. It also happened in Information Technology a decade ago (and IT expertise today has been commodified to a great extent thanks to the influx of Indians and Filipinos, per a friend who works in IT recruitment; salaries and the permanency of jobs have correspondingly slid). It's arguable that it's happening in life sciences today. Even the boom in finance could be argued to be engineered, although I suspect government support for finance will continue as it is seen as too strategic an industry. In contrast, alternative energies, water and digital media are all in the ascendant phase. For now.

What does this mean for life sciences in Singapore? What does this mean for so many that have invested their time and careers in life sciences? I have some predictions I can make, but only time can tell if they are true prognostications.

The first is that life science start-ups, always a dicey proposition, will become even more endangered in the future. We have had no massively successful homegrown biotech company in Singapore. Ever. The odds for this happening are very small. The counterargument here of course, is that the gestational period for biotech startups is long. To that I would reply that the global biotech industry as a whole has never turned a profit. Ever. The successes of Genentech and Amgen cannot redeem the billions of dollars pumped into biotech in the USA, the most dynamic and advanced of economies, with the strongest of research infrastructures. Even if we do see successful startups in Singapore, the ROI would likely be unremarkable.

The second prediction is a narrowing of research foci. There will indeed be happy and successful career life scientists in Singapore. With the amount of money being invested, there cannot be but some success stories. These successful scientists will all be featured incessantly in the local media, working in various happening exciting fields. What you will not hear of are the unhappy scientists and engineers that are forced to switch research fields, say from tissue engineering to stem cells, or from developmental biology to medical diagnostics, because their field of interest is "not relevant". And those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones will drop out of science altogether.

My advice to would-be life scientists: Make sure you're one of the happy successful ones, working in happy successful fields. If you're not going to be happy, you're going to be miserable. A middle-ground is going to be hard to find.

The third prediction is that the life science industry, like all industries, will mature and stabilize. There will be employment in factories and manufacturing plants, but these will be subject to the global economic cycle just as all industries are. There will be redundancies during recessions, and concerns with China racing up the value chain, and hollowing out during periods of severe competition, just as has happened with semiconductors.

What is least likely to happen is that life sciences will continue along its present path as a golden industry apparently untouchable by calamity, and that is only to be expected.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Prizes 2009

One of the most striking things about this year's Nobel Prizes is that many of the awardees are foreign-born Americans.

For the Nobel in Medicine or Physiology, Elizabeth H. Blackburn was originally from Australia and Jack W. Szostak was born in London. The third winner, Carol W. Greider, a native American, nevertheless trained under Blackburn as a graduate student.

For the Nobel in Physics, Charles K. Kao was born in Shanghai but holds dual British and American citizenship. William S. Boyle holds dual Canadian and American citizenship. The last winner is George E. Smith, who is American.

For the Nobel in Chemistry, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan was born in India but holds American citizenship. Of the two other winners, one is an Israeli woman and the other a native American.

For the Nobel Peace Prize, while Barack Obama is a native American, his father is Kenyan. So he is born of immigrant blood as well.

The prizewinner for the Nobel in Economics for 2009 has yet to be announced.

I think it's only going to be a matter of time before some schmuck of a local politician brings up the Nobel Prizes of 2009 as an argument for a pro-foreign talent policy in Singapore (and if such a politician does do so, remember, you read it here first).

I won't be criticizing our "FT" policy in this blog. There is ample material out there in other Singapore blogs excoriating this policy.

I shall simply point out that the foreign-born American Nobel prizewinners of 2009 are all naturalized American citizens, indicating that they are well-integrated into American society. This is something that I think no one in Singapore can claim has happened to an appreciable extent in our own country. Citizenship take-up rates are low; they are even lower when compared to take-up rates for permanent residency, which indicates foreigners are interested in the perks of living here, but not the responsibilities or rights. [You could hardly blame them: the right to vote is the most fundamental and valuable right of a citizen, and most native Singaporean citizens have never had the opportunity to exercise it, so why bother taking up citizenship?]

Secondly, the United States of America allow dual citizenship with a number of other countries (the UK, Australia and Canada). Many of the naturalized American Nobel winners hold dual citizenship. That is probably no small matter in persuading them to take up American citizenship. The last I checked, Singapore doesn't permit dual citizenship of any kind.

So if the next time some guy dressed in white holds up the Nobel prizewinners of 2009 as an example of the wonders of foreign talent, you know what a spurious argument that is.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book List Refreshed!

I have removed:

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich
Making the Foreign Serve China by Anne-Marie Brady
The Corrosion of Character by Richard Sennett
China Shakes the World by James Kynge

I have added:

Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by Christopher Caldwell
Dear Mr Buffett by Janet Tavakoli
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect"

From The New York Times
Published: October 5, 2009

In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life serves up the occasional pink unicorn. The three-dollar bill; the nun with a beard; the sentence, to borrow from the Lewis Carroll poem, that gyres and gimbles in the wabe.

An experience, in short, that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound “sensation of the absurd,” and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called “The Uncanny,” traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of “something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.” 

At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy.

Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large. 

“We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,” said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. “We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.”

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

In a series of new papers, Dr. Proulx and Steven J. Heine, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, argue that these findings are variations on the same process: maintaining meaning, or coherence. The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. 

When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

“There’s more research to be done on the theory,” said Michael Inzlicht, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, because it may be that nervousness, not a search for meaning, leads to heightened vigilance. But he added that the new theory was “plausible, and it certainly affirms my own meaning system; I think they’re onto something.” 

In the most recent paper, published last month, Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others. 

The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.

But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”

Brain-imaging studies of people evaluating anomalies, or working out unsettling dilemmas, show that activity in an area called the anterior cingulate cortex spikes significantly. The more activation is recorded, the greater the motivation or ability to seek and correct errors in the real world, a recent study suggests. “The idea that we may be able to increase that motivation,” said Dr. Inzlicht, a co-author, “is very much worth investigating.” 

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

Still, the new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.

"I.B.M. Joins Pursuit of $1,000 Personal Genome"

From The New York Times
Published: October 5, 2009 

One of the oldest names in computing is joining the race to sequence the genome for $1,000. On Tuesday, I.B.M. plans to give technical details of its effort to reach and surpass that goal, ultimately bringing the cost to as low as $100, making a personal genome cheaper than a ticket to a Broadway play.

The project places I.B.M. squarely in the middle of an international race to drive down the cost of gene sequencing to help move toward an era of personalized medicine. The hope is that tailored genomic medicine would offer significant improvements in diagnosis and treatment. 

I.B.M. already has a wide range of scientific and commercial efforts in fields like manufacturing supercomputers designed specifically for modeling biological processes. The company’s researchers and executives hope to use its expertise in semiconductor manufacturing, computing and material science to design an integrated sequencing machine that will offer advances both in accuracy and speed, and will lower the cost.

“More and more of biology is becoming an information science, which is very much a business for I.B.M.,” said Ajay Royyuru, senior manager for I.B.M.’s computational biology center at its Thomas J. Watson Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. 

DNA sequencing began at academic research centers in the 1970s, and the original Human Genome Project successfully sequenced the first genome in 2001 and cost roughly $1 billion. 

Since then, the field has accelerated. In the last four to five years, the cost of sequencing has been falling at a rate of tenfold annually, according to George M. Church, a Harvard geneticist. In a recent presentation in Los Angeles, Dr. Church said he expected the industry to stay on that curve, or some fraction of that improvement rate, for the foreseeable future. 

At least 17 startup and existing companies are in the sequencing race, pursuing a range of third-generation technologies. Sequencing the human genome now costs $5,000 to $50,000, although Dr. Church emphasized that none of the efforts so far had been completely successful and no research group had yet sequenced the entire genome of a single individual.

The I.B.M. approach is based on what the company describes as a “DNA transistor,” which it hopes will be capable of reading individual nucleotides in a single strand of DNA as it is pulled through an atomic-size hole known as a nanopore. A complete system would consist of two fluid reservoirs separated by a silicon membrane containing an array of up to a million nanopores, making it possible to sequence vast quantities of DNA at once. 

The company said the goal of the research was to build a machine that would have the capacity to sequence an individual genome of up to three billion bases, or nucleotides, “in several hours.” A system with this power and speed is essential if progress is to be made toward personalized medicine, I.B.M. researchers said.

At the heart of the I.B.M. system is a novel mechanism, something like nanoscale electric tweezers. This mechanism repeatedly pauses a strand of DNA, which is naturally negatively charged, as an electric field pulls the strand through a nanopore, an opening just three nanometers in diameter. A nanometer, one one-billionth of a meter, is approximately one eighty-thousandths the width of a human hair.

The I.B.M. researchers said they had successfully used a transmission electron microscope to drill a hole through a semiconductor device that was intended to “ratchet” the DNA strand through the opening and then stop for perhaps a millisecond to determine the order of four nucleotide bases — adenine, guanine, cytosine or thymine — that make up the DNA molecule. The I.B.M. team said that the project, which began in 2007, could now reliably pull DNA strands through nanopore holes but that sensing technology to control the rate of movement and to read the specific bases had yet to be demonstrated.

Despite the optimism of the I.B.M. researchers, an independent scientist noted that various approaches to nanopore-based sequencing had been tried for years, with only limited success. 

“DNA strands seem to have a mind of their own,” said Elaine R. Mardis, co-director of the genome center at Washington University in St. Louis, noting that DNA often takes a number of formations other than a straight rod as it passes through a nanopore.

Dr. Mardis also said previous efforts to create uniform silicon-based nanopore sensors had been disappointing. 

One of the crucial advances needed to improve the quality of DNA analysis is to be able to read longer sequences. Current technology is generally in the range of 30 to 800 nucleotides, while the goal is to be able to read sequences of as long as one million bases, according to Dr. Church, who spoke in July at a forum sponsored by Edge.org, a nonprofit online science forum. 

Other approaches to faster, cheaper sequencing include a biological nanopore approach being pursued by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a start-up based in England, and an electron microscopy-based system being designed by Halcyon Molecular, a low-profile Silicon Valley start-up that has developed a technique for stretching single strands of DNA laid out on a thin carbon film. The company may be able to image strands as long as one million base pairs, said Dr. Church, who is an adviser to the company, and to several others. 

“To bring about an era of personalized medicine, it isn’t enough to know the DNA of an average person,” said Gustavo Stolovitzky, an I.B.M. biophysicist, who is one of the researchers who conceived of the I.B.M. project. “As a community, it became clear we need to make efforts to sequence in a way that is fast and cheap.”