JHU – A*star break up (BT coverage)

July 28, 2006 at 3:38 pm 2 comments

The Business Times has two more letters published on this issue. Interesting parts in bold.

Business Times – 27 Jul 2006

JHU-A*Star break-up raises more questions

I REFER to media reports about Johns Hopkins University’s Singapore arm not meeting A*Star’s goals in their tie-up.

A*Star’s statement that Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) agreement was terminated because it failed to meet eight out of 13 performance benchmarks may raise more questions. Its spokesman had, only days earlier, described the problems as a period of ‘transition’ – a decision taken by the leadership of the American university and the agency to replace the current ‘operating model of collaboration’ with a ‘new model of partnership’ still being developed.

It is interesting to note that whilst five of the performance benchmarks (KPIs) relating to recruitment were not met, output in the five KPIs typically associated with academic research far exceeded their targets.

For example, in the first year, the result was zero for training programmes, graduate students and visiting faculty, and a shortfall of 78 and 62 per cent for full-time faculty, and research scientists respectively. Even by the second year, the result was still zero for graduate students, with a shortfall of 50 per cent for training programmes, 66.6 per cent for visiting faculty, 92 per cent for senior investigators with international reputation, and 69 per cent for research scientists.

In contrast, the KPIs for number of post-doctoral participating in research, joint projects with other research institutes in Singapore, papers published, papers presented at top conferences, and conferences organised; far exceeded their targets by 20, 300, 260, 300 and 100 per cent respectively.

If you are not able to recruit the numbers you target, but fewer people are able to produce much higher outputs, then what is the problem? Perhaps what is more important now is to try to understand why it is so difficult to get researchers willing to come to Singapore. We need to find out how to make our research environment more attractive.

It is perhaps instructive to note that all three KPIs relating to commercial end-results, failed to produce a single patent, new technologies or new products. In this context, maybe there is a need for us to re-examine our fundamental strategies and approach.

If JHU, which is arguably one of the best in the world in its field, is not able to meet A*Star’s standards, are the goals realistic and achievable within the time frame stipulated?

In the final analysis, KPIs and agreements aside, it is a ‘no win’ for A*Star, JHU and Singapore, as Singapore has clearly stumbled in its maiden major medical research effort.

We should focus on learning from the experience rather than concentrate on apportioning blame. Otherwise, we may just be reinforcing the scientific community’s perception that Singapore’s environment is not conducive to creativity.

I cannot help but feel that the root cause of the problem may be a clash of two cultures – Singapore’s technocratic efficiency versus the American ideals of freedom, liberalism, diversity and creativity.

For example, JHU prefers to recruit young researchers as they may have more passion and are hungrier for a research breakthrough, whereas A*Star wants researchers with international reputation.

Unlike other American universities and scholarships, JHU does not believe in bonds for its scholars, like A*Star which has a history of even taking bond-breakers to task.

As one researcher I spoke to said rather profoundly, you need to be happy to be creative, so Singapore’s happiness ranking at 131 out of 178 countries has to improve.

Leong Sze Hian


Published July 28, 2006


DJHS did not deliver as promised

I REFER to the letter ‘JHU-A*Star break-up raises more questions’ from Leong Sze Hian (BT, July 27). The key question is whether the return on Singapore’s investment in DJHS has been satisfactory. The answer: Not satisfactory.

We reiterate that DJHS was established to achieve three goals:

• establish a centre of immunology, experimental therapeutics and cancer research with an international reputation;

• establish PhD training at DJHS in Singapore; and

• recruit senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and full-time residence in Singapore.

DJHS failed to deliver on its commitments on all three goals.

With reference to key performance indicators (KPIs), they were what DJHS reported to A*Star. By its own rating, DJHS did not achieve eight of the 13 KPIs.

The five that DJHS said had been achieved do not outweigh the eight that were not met. Whether the five KPIs, including the number of papers published, have been met is yet to be determined by A*Star, in the light of the sparse presence of full-time senior investigators based in Singapore.

Mr Leong asked whether A*Star’s goals for DJHS were ‘realistic and achievable within the time frame stipulated’. We would clarify that the KPIs were not imposed on DJHS but were arrived at through negotiation and mutual agreement. With reference to the issue of recruiting senior scientists as opposed to junior scientists, A*Star is fully supportive of nurturing young research talent. Hence our extensive National Science Scholarship programme.

But the agreement with DJHS explicitly required the recruitment of senior investigators to lead the research programmes and to mentor students and young scientists. We need good ‘generals’ to lead our own young ‘lieutenants’. Mr Leong said: ‘What is more important now is to try to understand why it is so difficult to get researchers who are willing to come to Singapore.’

A*Star has had no difficulty in attracting some of the best scientific talents in the world to relocate to Singapore. These include world renowned leaders in their fields as well as bright young post-docs.

By happy coincidence, we are able to quote from the latest issue of Time magazine (July 23, 2006): ‘For a serial kidnapper, Philip Yeo looks harmless enough. But to hear some people tell it, he’s a dangerous man. Over the past six years, Yeo has been roaming the world, trailing talented scientists in Washington; San Diego; Palo Alto, California; Edinburgh and elsewhere, and spiriting them back to his home country of Singapore – What distinguishes Yeo from other kidnappers, of course, is that his targets go willingly. They happily relocate to Singapore’s new 2-million-sq-ft Biopolis research centre.’ (see: http://www.time.com magazine/printout/0,8816,1218061, 00.html)

With reference to the scholarship bonds, A*Star as a public entity that uses public funds, is obliged to the Singapore tax-payer to ensure that its scholars return and serve Singapore after completion of their studies. Johns Hopkins, as a privately funded university, may issue bond-free scholarships if it chooses to do so, but it should not expect A*Star to fund such scholarships on its behalf. A*Star is not aware of any other government entity that awards overseas study scholarships without requiring the recipients to return after completion of their studies.

Dr Andre Wan,
Biomedical Research Council
Agency for Science, Technology and Research


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Sg Govt worry we will all leave The cost of fitting in

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. SM  |  July 30, 2006 at 3:42 am

    Leong Sze Hian: “For example, JHU prefers to recruit young researchers as they may have more passion and are hungrier for a research breakthrough, whereas A*Star wants researchers with international reputation.”

    Reply from A*Star, Andre Wan: “But the agreement with DJHS explicitly required the recruitment of senior investigators to lead the research programmes and to mentor students and young scientists. We need good ‘generals’ to lead our own young ‘lieutenants’.”

    It points out an interesting observation in the expectations of A*Star with regard to senior investigators. Considering the life cycle of academics, is it truly necessary to have senior investigators leading the fray? And how do they reconcile their research duties with their mentoring duties?

  • 2. takchek  |  July 30, 2006 at 11:28 am

    Actually, the more ‘senior’ you are on the academic ladder, the *less* research you do (generally). You might not even go to the lab at all, but instead have your post-docs and PhD students report their results directly to you.

    What you will be doing as a their mentor and boss then, will be writing grant applications (begging for money from federal agencies, companies etc), or attending conferences and presenting your lab rats’ work.

    I would think that junior faculty will be the most productive and innovative compared to their senior colleagues. The trade off would be that they won’t be that well recognised in academia yet.

    A*star probably just wants the big names to come, and hoping this can bring in others. In my field at least, most of the interesting work are done by the younger professors.


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