Friday, September 9, 2011

Trouble in (Research) Paradise

Front page article in the Straits Times - "$180m doled out from stalled biomed fund", the title of which is itself an anodyne sounding palliative.

I wrote on the capriciousness of research funding in Singapore and the impact it has on individuals two years ago, almost to the day, in my post Picking Winners.

I wrote then:

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.

The requirement for industrial collaboration and quantifiable economic value generation in order to access government funding was obvious to those who knew where to look, right from the beginning of Singapore's great R&D enterprise. It was de-emphasized early on (otherwise, how else would we have attracted the whales?), but as I expected, not too long after Philip Yeo has exited the scene, the edifice is starting to crumble.

One of the most important lessons I learnt when I first started working in research as a fresh graduate was that running a research lab is a lot like running a small business.  

Passion, curiosity, orginality, drive - these are all important attributes for a successful scientist. But to do science you need money. So, bringing money in is extremely important. It's the reason why if you've ever worked in a not-so-well funded lab, the PI (principal investigator) isn't as involved in the day-to-day running of the lab as you think he or she should be, but instead spends all their time writing grant proposals and making sales pitches to funding authorities.

And if you're really unlucky like I was, the pressures of "business development" start filtering down to the lower echelons of researchers, like fresh graduates. Developing technical expertise takes a backseat to helping to put food on the table.

It sounds strange, but managing tight lines of cash flow is a common activity in small research labs. That's because unlike for-profit companies, there is no luxury of a cash cushion or going to market to raise debt and equity financing. Oftentimes, money from a new project is directed to meeting the costs of an ongoing project due to unexpected delays, cost overruns or just plain overpromising/underbudgeting in the project proposal (usually in order to get the grant money in the first place). 

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. That's why I say running your own research lab, which is what most scientists aspire to, is like running a small business.

So, researchers in Singapore are simply going to have to adapt to the new realities of research funding at A*Star. If you're a returning scholar who has long had your head in the clouds about doing science, and discovering new knowledge, and pursuing noble goals, it's time to wrap your mind around what are the important skills to learn in running a small business, meeting the needs of your industrial partners/customers, and appealing to bureaucrats' unhealthy obsession with KPIs. You're going to have to learn all this on your own; PhD programs generally don't teach these skills.

I have a lot more to say on this sudden change in research funding policies at A*Star, but it's difficult to cohere it all into an article. So, I'm going to take the lazy way out: quoting sections from the Straits Times article and interspersing my comments.


"Going to bed with industry makes us all very uneasy...Plus scientists don't make the best negotiators with savvy businessmen."

Especially if the businessmen can smell blood, like they do now. The scientists are desperate and everybody knows it. Negotiating from a position of weakness means extremely unfavorable terms on any deals made, you can count on that for sure.

"I feel very sorry for the younger scientists and scholars as the rules of the game have changed while they were looking the other way."

Read: You're going to be assessed and rewarded on your ability to bring in money, not on your ability to do good science. You can trash your doctoral work now if there's no way to spin it as having industrial or economic value. 

And if your subspeciality happens to have little commercial value, well, sucks to be you.

"The whales are likely to be followed by other big and small research creatures."

Exodus. 'Nuff said. And the whale metaphor is getting so tired, it should be retired, just as Philip Yeo has left the scene. I wonder how many returning scholars are going to feel grateful to him for the scholarships he doled out so aggressively in years past. It's a terrible feeling to feel trapped. 

"I do not know whether you can measure the performance of scientists by KPIs."

Ah, the tyranny of the KPIs again. What can't be measured or is difficult to measure generally won't be measured. See above on being assessed on ability to bring in money rather than ability to do good science.

"They must have signed research agreement with industry, or work with a medical doctor who is also a scientist, or create technology platforms that companies can use."

It is a sweet, sweet time to be a clinician scientist. Suddenly, everyone wants to be your new best friend.

"And he said that $180 million of the $600 million available for the next five years has been given out or will be given out soon, which shows institutes are able to access it successfully."

Let's see, in my experience, that can mean a few things:

1) Relaxation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
2) Creative interpretation of the guidelines on awarding funding due to massive unhappiness on the ground.
3) Fantasy proposals that can't reasonably be delivered on, but that will only be a problem a few years later.

For (3), you can generally expect the scientists who wrote the proposals to intensify their job search with the time they have bought at A*Star with their unrealistic research proposals. 

Either that, or manage expectations of the funding authorities when project deadlines near. That's not as difficult as it sounds, since in Singapore's bureaucracy, the management people get rotated every few years, so the person assessing project completion is quite often not the same person who approved the project.

"Last week, homegrown biotech firm S*Bio said it was slashing headcount by 80 percent after a deal with a US pharmaceutical firm did not go through as planned."

I'm shocked, shocked! And here I was thinking that everything was going hunky dory. I mean, if something bad had really happened in Biotech Land, I'm sure our authoritative Straits Times, voice of the nation, would have been all over it.  

"But others are concerned about the ethics of working with industry....conflicts of interest."

See Science for Sale for example. Many other good books on this subject.

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