By Professor Sir David Lane, Chief Scientist, Director, p53lab, A*STAR
There is a critical need for a supportive ecosystem to make careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics rewarding, so as to enable innovation.
IN A world driven by science and technology, the push for education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has become a priority. In fact, both the United Kingdom and the United States are grappling with a perceived STEM labour shortage that, if not addressed, could lead to shortfalls in sectors such as engineering, computer science and technology. This has led to concerted moves to promote STEM education.
In the UK, efforts to promote STEM education have resulted in the number of students in STEM courses reaching record highs. According to figures from Higher Education Funding Council, 98,000 students were accepted on to STEM undergraduate courses in the 2013-14 school year, a record number. In the US, concern over dwindling interest in STEM led to the launch of the "Educate to Innovate" campaign in 2009, which promotes STEM subjects among students and also addresses the shortage of teachers with the skills to teach in these fields. A more recent push for STEM is reflected in the Obama Administration's 2015 budget that invests US$2.9 billion in federal programmes on STEM education, a 3.7 per cent increase from 2014.
Singapore, with its traditional focus on maths and science at the primary and secondary education levels, has also started to place a strong focus on STEM at the higher levels.
Driven by Singapore's rapid economic growth and the gradual move towards a knowledge-based economy, there are now more opportunities for further study, resulting in a growing cohort of technically well-educated and creative individuals.
However, promoting math and science in schools is not a panacea for a vibrant and self-sustaining STEM economy. There needs to be a "value chain" that supports STEM careers and STEM talent development in the long term. A mismatch in job opportunities or career pathways could force graduates to leave their fields or seek opportunities in other countries and cause a potentially devastating brain drain.
In the UK, there is growing evidence that many STEM graduates end up in non-STEM fields despite the job opportunities available. A similar trend is arising in the US - most maths and science majors don't end up working in their fields of study. One reason that UK STEM graduates gave for not working in their fields of study was the lack of career support at the university level. While a majority wished to pursue a STEM career, many did not seek career guidance at a university level but felt it would have helped them understand how their degree courses would relate to future career and occupations. As for the US, a large proportion of STEM talent are forced to leave due to restrictive immigration laws. Though more than 40 per cent of STEM students in Master's and PhD programmes are from foreign countries, these graduates face a tough battle to obtain their green cards and have to leave the country after they graduate - taking their skills with them .
There is a critical need for a supportive ecosystem to make careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics attractive, fulfilling, sustainable and rewarding - so that we as a civilisation can progress, innovate and make the world a better place.
We need to think quite deeply about these issues, beyond just education, and approach STEM not merely as areas of study but as enablers of innovation, creativity and lateral thinking. In addition, the startup culture needs to be more conducive and less averse to risk and failure.
To keep a country attractive for research and prevent a brain drain, one must look at developing an interrelated landscape of education, culture, career pathways and funding. Education aside, STEM professions and career pathways also need to be reassessed to make them more relevant and customised to meet current needs.
In Singapore, the traditional career structure for engineers works relatively well today, but the same model derived from existing UK and US models does not seem to work as well for biomedical scientists. For instance, one problem for biomedical researchers is that they are judged by how many publications they put out instead of looking at impact, projects, collaborations and achievements. Publishing a paper is an excellent outcome, but it should be just one step towards an end goal - that of translational research that leads to real-world solutions, better patient care and practicable outcomes.
At A*STAR, we have moved away from the numbers game. Instead of looking at publications as a measure for success, we look at what truly reflects our real-world impact. This could be the industry collaborations we have sparked, the companies we have anchored in Singapore as a result of our R&D capabilities, how we have managed to help local enterprises grow, the take-up for the patents and licenses we developed, and most importantly, the economic and social impact we have created.
Of course apart from an environment that supports translational research, you need money - stable funding that supports the R&D landscape. I have experienced every sort of funding in my life - and been responsible for some controversial decisions to revise funding models. My own view is to keep funding systems mixed and varied.
You don't want chances of grant success to be so low that scientists spend most of their time futilely writing for grants instead of doing real work - yet you want some level of competition. At A*STAR, we have a system of mixed funding: having a core of funds that keep things ticking over, while also applying for projects competitively. I personally find this to be a good mix. It is stimulating but also reassuring to know we can keep things moving along. Having multiple, independent grant sources that encourage collaboration with industry and other sectors is also important. Based on the European and Singapore experience, this is a system that is taking off and doing well. Through joint R&D projects, A*STAR has attracted multinational companies to invest in Singapore and anchor their R&D facilities here, thereby creating high-value R&D jobs. Singapore's Biomedical Sciences Initiative as a whole has also resulted in the number of biomedical R&D jobs in the public and private sectors doubling from 2,150 in 2002 to 5,427 in 2012.
With the competition for talent at an all-time high, countries that are doing well in their research landscape need to be careful that this success is based on their own merits rather than others' failures; that is to say, creating pull factors rather than benefiting from push factors. And while Singapore is in a good position, it needs to continue to aspire to attract and retain top talent by making it such a great environment that people want to stay here.
Good infrastructure, funding, opportunities and ease of relocation are all important - as are moves to give people more space and time to do the research that matters. I've seen Singapore make great strides in the last 10 years. Most recently, some good research outcomes have been made. We recently developed new drug formulations to effectively combat antibiotic-resistant superbugs in respiratory illnesses; created a molecular test kit which predicts kidney cancer patients' survival and drug responses; identified new biomarkers for cancer and other diseases; and now we're even helping in the global fight against Ebola.
As STEM becomes increasingly integral as a building block of our world, its growth cannot be sustained unless we take the time to support, nurture and drive it. Only then can we empower society to continue progressing. Supporting STEM does not stop at the promotion of STEM education. It has to be a long-term investment and we need immense patience to follow it through, in order to reap all the rich rewards it will bring.
As chief scientist of A*STAR, the writer engages in Singapore's STEM development at the strategic level. He was formerly a Professor of Oncology at the University of Dundee.
This article is also available in The Business Times on February 27, 2015, with the headline 'Extending the value chain beyond science education'.