Mon, 15 Aug 1994

Research culture a must in Asia, scientist says

By Samsudin Berlian

SINGAPORE (JP): If Asia wants significant achievements in scientific fields what must be done?

Send the brightest students to the West to learn everything, bring them back and send them running in high gear? Or, build scientific bodies in all branches of modern science?

Those are fine efforts but not enough, according to Y.H. Tan, director of the Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). The most important thing, he said, is to build a research culture, which is not necessarily the same as gaining scientific knowledge.

Asia had a research culture, 54-year-old Tan argued, thousands of years ago. The Chinese invented paper making and gunpowder a long time ago and the thousand-year-old production of tofu is in fact protein chemistry.

However, the culture has been lost in Asia. Now, if Asians want to make significant contributions to world development, it must be reintroduced.

With the IMCB, Singapore is trying to do exactly that, or in Tan's words, "Doing something that Asia has not been doing in (its) modern history."

This claim may be too broad since there are other strong research centers in China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan but it is certainly true in Southeast Asia, at least until the Eijkman Institute in Jakarta proves itself.

Existential choice

Tan argued that the Asian nations which have emerged as economic dragons and tigers through luck and acumen now face the choice of whether they want to continue to depend on Japan and the West for their perpetual prosperity or take their destiny into their own hands.

To him the choice is clear. Asians must do their own basic research and not satisfy themselves with the ability to manufacture goods based on science and technology developed by others. And certainly not be satisfied with an economy based on cheap labor.

Tan believes that Asians should not only think of profit but should instead, together with other peoples, contribute to the advancement of the welfare of human beings as a whole -- although he also believes the human race will become extinct and will be replaced by insects.

When he was asked eleven years ago, while at his home near Calgary in Alberta, Canada, to help found a biological institute in Singapore, he readily accepted.

By then, Tan had spent years studying genetics and the biochemistry of human interferon at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, John Hopkins University, and the University of Calgary.

The stated mission of the IMCB, established in 1987 under the National University of Singapore, is "to develop a vibrant research culture in the biological and biomedical sciences which will support the development of biotechnology in Singapore."

Doing basic research alone can lead to nowhere, Tan said. The institute therefore emphasizes research which may lead to "things you can sell". In short, there are economic targets.

Such an approach, though at first seems to contradict the nature of basic research, apparently is appropriate for the institute which cost US$13.8 million (Rp 29.86 billion) to build and currently has an annual operation cost of about $17.5 million (Rp 37.87 billion).

In fact, one of the reasons for developing biotechnology, and not another branch of science and technology, is because it has high value added which is very important in a country with limited natural resources.

To help market research results, a company, IMCB Holdings Pte Ltd, was established last year to act as an interface for the IMCB and industry.

Good science

The IMCB currently employs nearly 200 scientists, over half of them hold PhDs, who mostly come from or were educated in the West. Tan aggressively searched for young talent and lured them to the institute with research freedom, ample funding and salaries of up to $50,000 (Rp 108.2 million).

Tan said he does not care where the researchers come from or what race they belong to as long as they can do good science in the institute.

This approach seems to be effective for tiny Singapore which finds it hard to supply its own scientists from a population of only 3.1 million.

It could not, for example, follow the People's Republic of China which sends hordes of science students abroad, but it certainly took advantage of the situation when Beijing crushed the pro-democracy movement and seeded doubts in Chinese scientists.

Tan's aggressive approaches following the crack down resulted in 17 Western trained Chinese scientists working for the IMCB.

The institute's researchers have published some 200 internationally renowned papers. Some of the institute's most significant results are in the field of cancer research and genome sequencing.