Sunday, September 04, 2011

Returns not always about money, says star scientist

Is your departure the start of a 'whale migration'?
A: Senior scientists rarely travel in pods except for meetings. But what they seek are favourable environments for their science. It is a bit cynical to think that good scientists come to Singapore just because there is money or solely for big salaries.

If that is the case, then we should be trembling at the Gulf states and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Sprinkling corn kernels in the Arctic may attract a few birds, but there will be no resetting of migratory patterns.

Instead, scientists are attracted to an ecology of science and of reason. Yes, this requires money, facilities and resources, but there also needs to be good students, rational governance and management by a science-knowledgeable leadership, a scientific peer group that is nurturing but whose science is competitive, and good living conditions.

Scientists look for places where other scientists thrive and are productive. When this sensitive ecology degrades, then scientists leave to find better environs to do their art.

Will there be a migration of the science whales? That depends on future government policies. It is hard to maintain a whale habitat if the policy is to build a tanker port. What you lose when a whale leaves is someone who understands the subtleties of managing a funding agency, a lifetime's worth of connections, and a mentor for other scientists. But I would be more concerned about the ranks of the emerging scientific leaders: the calves. Whales tend to migrate, but if the calves go too, the science population will disappear.

Do you agree with the economic focus of Singapore's scientific investment?
A: Definitely. This is one of the reasons why I came. But where I've had disagreements was on how this vision should be executed. I believe firmly that scientific excellence and innovation should be the focus for the research institutes because other countries can race us to the bottom in cost, but to maintain high levels of intellectual excellence is very difficult.

If we lose our competitive edge in fundamental biomedical research, then we will surely fall behind and become irrelevant as we were before.

Our advantage is our ability to integrate different and diverse scientific domains like engineering and biology, and stem cell genetics with computer sciences, and to move quickly. In the final analysis, I think Singapore is doing very well in this sector.

What should our commercialisation strategy be?
A: We need a diverse commercialisation portfolio. We should be willing to engage device developers, biotechnology and biomarker companies, and to start a number of companies of our own.

We need to enhance our talent pool in biotechnology savvy CEOs - we currently have very few. And we need to have creative funding mechanisms that enhance integration and cooperation amongst scientists.

In times of economic stress, we need to retreat to maintaining critical basic science and translational clinical science capabilities rather than to fund mainly service units that do industry bidding. This is because quality will generate multiples in productivity once the economy returns... Since the terrain changes with lightning speed, we need a strategy that is not rigid and over-planned, but exceedingly adaptable.

PROFESSOR Edison Liu, 59, is the founding executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and president of the international Human Genome Organisation (Hugo).

An international leader in cancer biology, genomics, human genetics and molecular epidemiology, he built up the GIS from a staff of three into a major research institute of 270 staff in less than 10 years.

Before moving to Singapore, he was the scientific director of the Division of Clinical Sciences at the US National Cancer Institute.

In 2001, he was recruited as the executive director for the new GIS, tasked with developing the region's genomic research, infrastructure and scientific human capital, and attracting research ventures in biomedicine into Singapore. Under his leadership, the facility grew into a major international research institute, with faculty in functional genomics, computational biology, population genetics and genome-to-systems biology.

He initiated and managed the Singapore Cancer Syndicate, a funding agency to enhance clinical translational oncology research. He was also executive director for the Singapore Tissue Network, the national tissue bank, and an early member of the Bioethics Advisory Committee which advised the Cabinet on matters relating to research ethics.

Prof Liu's own research has focused on the functional genomics of human cancers, particularly breast cancer. He has authored nearly 300 scientific papers and reviews, and co-authored two books. He takes over as president and chief executive officer of the leading genetics research facility, The Jackson Laboratory in Maine, next January.