More on the JHU-A*star breakup

July 24, 2006 at 6:41 pm 2 comments

The original ST report here. Today has a follow-up, and I reproduce it below:

The experiment that failed

A*Star points to problems with Johns Hopkins’ PhD programme, senior leadership

Tuesday • July 25, 2006

Tan Hui Leng
huileng@newstoday.com.sg

SINGAPORE’S eight-year relationship with Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has gone sour and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has said the reason was simple: The American medical institution did not deliver what it promised.

In a media report over the weekend, the university had appeared to blame its Singapore partner for not meeting its “financial and educational obligations”.

This is not true, said A*Star yesterday, while acknowledging that it had decided to terminate its arrangement with the Division of Johns Hopkins in Singapore (DJHS).

“We are dismayed at the implication that A*Star is somehow to blame for the current predicament of the DJHS junior faculty and students,” said A*Star’s director of the Biomedical Research Council, Dr Andre Wan, in a press statement.

Singapore had invested $54 million under Phase 1 of the collaboration from 1998 to 2004 and another $28 million from then to now. Despite this, the university had “significant problems” in the progress of its research and education programmes, A*Star said.

“Findings revealed that DHJS was still lacking in senior scientific leadership and had failed to achieve several key performance indicators,” said A*Star.

The review was carried out by two committees late last year and early this year.

In the agreement, DJHS was tasked to enrol at least eight PhD students by February this year. As the review date approached, however, the division still had no students.

“Given the pace of development, A*Star assessed that DJHS was unlikely to meet the target of 40 PhD students enrolled by Feb 2009,” the agency said.

The agreement also required DJHS to recruit 12 senior investigators with international reputation, who would live in Singapore by February this year.

However, just one out of 13 fulfilled these requirements, said A*Star.

Five others were full professors but one resigned from the university. Two were based in Baltimore, one spent 80 per cent of his time at the Johns Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and one was a visiting scientist. Of the remaining seven faculty members, six were assistant professors.

“Academics generally would not consider someone at the level of an assistant professor to be a senior investigator,” said A*Star.

The agency raised its concerns but the university responded that it prefers “to hire capable and ambitious junior scientists rather than bring in ‘big names'”.

However, A*Star “feels strongly that neither the letter nor the spirit of the agreement, in particular the requirement to recruit senior investigators, was being followed”. Just this month, the agency learnt that DJHS had granted four PhD students five-year scholarships with no obligations to return to Singapore after the completion of their studies. However, such scholarships do not qualify for A*Star funding support under the agreement.

A*Star said it has been actively helping the facility with the relocation of its faculty members back to Baltimore and placements for those who wish to stay. It is also trying to assist the PhD students with their studies.

“As a government agency, A*Star has a responsibility to review the progress and performance of projects such as DJHS that are supported with public funds,” said A*Star.

“Where necessary, we will act decisively to ensure that these projects continue to create value for and contribute positively to Singapore’s biomedical sciences initiative.”

———————————————————————-

On the same day under the Voices section, Dr Andre Wan gives the Agency’s take on the issue. Pretty much the same as was written above, with the addition of several minor details.

We have kept our end of the deal: A*Star

Agency says decision to terminate agreement with Johns Hopkins taken after three years of monitoring and scrutiny

Tuesday • July 25, 2006

Letter from dr andre wan
Director
Biomedical Research Council
Agency for Science, Technology and Research

Let us start by stating the mission of the Division of Johns Hopkins in Singapore (DJHS). It was set up to achieve three goals.

First, to establish a centre of immunology, experimental therapeutics and cancer research with an international reputation. Second, to establish PhD training at DJHS in Singapore. Third, to recruit senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and full-time residence in Singapore.

We refer to Mr Leong Sze Hian’s letter in your newspaper yesterday urging A*Star to “tell us more”. We also refer to the Straits Times’ article of July 22, 2006 headlined “Johns Hopkins, A*Star ‘headed for break-up'”. It was alleged in the report that A*Star “has not kept up its end of the deal in meeting its ‘financial and educational obligations'” and that this is a “reputational issue for Singapore and A*Star”.

It was also alleged that Johns Hopkins University (JHU) “had done its part to recruit faculty and graduate students as stipulated in its Agreement with A*Star”.

These statements attributed to the JHU spokesman are both untrue and inappropriate.

The truth of the matter is that A*Star has fully complied with its obligations under the Agreement and continues to do so during the contractual 12-month wind-down period.

Indeed Singapore invested a total of S$54 million under phase 1 of the collaboration (1998-2004) and a further S$28 million under phase 2 to date.

The JHU presence in Singapore began in 1998 with the goals of providing clinical service, education and research. But in 1999, Johns Hopkins Singapore (JHS) was found to have significant problems in the progress of its research and education programs and a restructuring of the collaboration was then effected.

However, problems persisted. A*Star had to negotiate a significant restructuring of JHS in 2003 which led to the establishment of the DJHS, an academic department reporting to the Dean of Medicine at JHU.

A*Star put in place, with the agreement of JHU, stringent oversight criteria and the requirement for a mid-cycle review. The Agreement specified clear key performance indicators (KPIs) that would provide mutually agreed metrics for success.

The mid-cycle review was carried out by two committees in late 2005 and in early 2006. Separate reports were submitted by the independent Scientific Advisory Committee appointed by DJHS itself, and by the A*Star Grant Review Committee. The findings revealed that DJHS was still lacking in senior scientific leadership and had failed to achieve several KPIs.

For example, the Agreement required DJHS to enrol at least eight PhD students by February 2006. However, as the review date approached, DJHS still had no students. In October 2005, DJHS was urged by its Scientific Advisory Committee to take steps to address this issue. Given the pace of development, A*Star had assessed that DJHS was unlikely to meet the target of 40 PhD students enrolled by February 2009.

The Agreement also required DJHS to recruit 12 senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and with full-time residence in Singapore by February 2006.

In truth, only one out of the 13 recruited by DJHS fulfilled these requirements. While there were five others who held the title of full Professor, one had already tendered his resignation from JHU, two were based in Baltimore and did not reside in Singapore, one was based at the JHS International Medical Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and spent only 20 per cent of his time at DJHS, and one was a visiting scientist on a 12-month contract.

Of the remaining seven faculty, six were given appointments as Assistant Professors by JHU. For five of the six, this was their first appointment as an Assistant Professor. Academics generally would not consider someone at the level of an Assistant Professor to be a senior investigator.

When A*Star raised its concerns, JHU responded that at Hopkins they prefer to hire capable and ambitious junior scientists rather than bring in “big names”. A*Star feels strongly that neither the letter nor the spirit of the Agreement, in particular the requirement to recruit senior investigators, was being followed.

All in all, DJHS failed to meet eight out of 13 KPIs for scientific capability development specified in the Agreement. For seven of these KPIs, DJHS was unable to even meet the first year targets by the end of the second year.

The Agreement allows A*Star to discontinue funding DJHS if it decides after formal review and with due process, that DJHS is not likely to succeed in achieving its KPIs.

The decision to terminate the arrangement with DJHS was not taken hastily and was based on nearly three years of monitoring and scrutiny. Moreover, discussions between senior management at JHU and A*Star about the potential closure continued for over three months (mid-February to end May 2006) before the decision was finally made.

A joint A*Star-DJHS circular was then sent on June 20, 2006 to all DJHS staff and students to inform them of the decision. The wind-down process then commenced in accordance with the terms of the Agreement.

It was only in July 2006 that A*Star learnt, for the first time, that DJHS had granted its four PhD students five-year scholarships with no obligation to return to Singapore after completing their studies. Such scholarships do not qualify for funding support under the Agreement.

Instead the Agreement requires DJHS to either fund or seek external funding (ie not from A*Star) to support any student to be trained in Baltimore.

We are deeply dismayed at the implication that A*Star is somehow to blame for the current predicament of the DJHS junior faculty and students.

Under the Agreement, should the DJHS program falter, JHU alone is responsible for the redeployment of its faculty. A*Star’s obligation is limited to the provision of a 12-month wind-down budget. Notwithstanding this, A*Star has been actively helping DJHS and JHU with the re-location of faculty to Baltimore and placement of those who wish to remain in Singapore.

As for the four PhD students, though their scholarships do not qualify for A*Star funding under the Agreement, A*Star has gone out of its way to offer them assistance. We have renewed offers of A*Star local scholarships to two of them, and we are still attempting to assist the other two. We have yet to hear of any offer of assistance from JHU.

As a government agency, A*Star has a responsibility to review the progress and performance of projects like DJHS that are supported with public funds. Where necessary, we will act decisively to ensure that these projects continue to create value for and contribute positively to Singapore’s biomedical sciences initiative.

In this respect, we have been even-handed and fair in our other interactions with JHU as a whole.

For instance, A*Star and Singapore have a productive relationship with the JHS International Medical Centre based at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Much of the clinical research conducted there is funded by the Singapore Cancer Syndicate, which is an arm of A*Star.

A*Star also sends its National Science Scholars to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees at JHU in Baltimore, after which they are obliged to return to serve Singapore.

A*Star and Singapore have, over the past eight years, given JHU every possible chance to succeed. But for DJHS, JHU was unable to fulfill its obligations under the Agreement. We cannot justify the continuation of public funding for a collaboration that has failed to yield results for Singapore.

However, we continue to act in good faith to ease any disruption by the provision of a generous 12-month wind-down period and as much support as possible within the terms of the Agreement.

It is therefore most surprising that JHU should choose to lecture A*Star and the people of Singapore about our reputation when it is JHU which has not delivered on its commitments under the Agreement.

Letter from Dr Andre Wan

Director, Biomedical Research Council

Agency for Science, Technology and Research

My take? A divorce is always messy, especially when you have two big egos clashing.

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

The 2006 PSC scholars About doing Science in Singapore

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Elia Diodati  |  July 24, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    Might be in response to this letter.

    Reply
  • 2. Anonymous  |  July 25, 2006 at 10:04 am

    as a grad student, are you able to comment more on the situation? for example, how easy is it to get that many investigators to move to singapore?

    i’m guessing that there are very few PIs/full profs who would relocate without very large financial incentives.

    Reply

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