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Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Naysayers Strike Back!

Science policy analyst Cong Cao, who worked in Singapore before, wrote a letter to Science magazine (8 June 2007), listing a number of challenges that the Singaporean scientific endeavour faces.

And it quickly drew a response from a world-renowned Singaporean, who agreed wholeheartedly with the article.

At Fresh Brainz we spare no effort at the critical examination of criticisms.

So here is a blow-by-blow analysis of the key challenges that Cong Cao described:

1. First, biotech research is uncertain and it can take many years to achieve a breakthrough. Furthermore, advances in understanding pathways operating in human beings are not automatically translatable into commercialized, profitable products. It is not unusual for a pharmaceutical company to spend 10 years and billions of dollars developing a new drug. Although improvements in drug-screening technologies, automation of the screening process, and advances in genomics may change the “hit-or-miss” drug discovery process and shorten the development cycle, pharmaceutical companies will continue to see high rates of failure and enormous development costs. It remains to be seen whether Singaporeans are ready to embrace uncertainties and tolerate failures.

Research is uncertain, that is true. However it is not necessary to have a "breakthrough" in order to reap commercial benefits from research. Inclemental improvements, whether driven by basic science or technology R&D, can have good potential for profits - this depends on many market-related factors.

Ironically, Dr. Cao shows us that he is already aware of this, by pointing out two such improvements (drug-screening technologies and advances in genomics) that can help pharma companies streamline their drug development process - two key areas in Singaporean biomedical research today.

As for the high rate of failure in pharma companies, I should clarify that while there is a high failure rate for pharm start-ups, established international pharma companies continue to generate strong sustainable revenue. Thus they are a good starting point for collaborations.

Still, I share Dr. Cao's concern about how a new generation of Singaporean biotech and pharma start-ups will fare in the face of uncertainty, failure and intense international competition (see point 2 for more details). Currently, only a handful of Singaporean start-ups are sustainable operations.

I should mention that Dr. Cao's use of the buzzword "breakthrough" and use of "biotech" when referring to products to be used directly in people (should be "biomed") are clues that tell us that his primary training is likely not in science.

2. Second, the talent challenge may not be easily resolved. Singapore has started using a government fellowship program to send students abroad. But it will take at least 10 years—the normal time for a doctoral degree plus postdoctoral research experience—for them to become independent researchers and longer to become internationally renowned. Also, in contrast to the United States, where the biotech industry has benefited from strong entrepreneurial efforts by academic scientists, their counterparts in Singapore, as civil servants, operate in
a highly rigid, hierarchical system where moves between academia and industry are rare. Also, Singaporean youngsters may not be willing to stick to tedious benchwork that may or may not lead to financial rewards.

The timeframe is incorrect - the pioneer batch of A*Star PhD students will be graduating this year. If we use Dr. Cao's assumption that they will need to undergo two postdocs (usually 2 X 3 years), then it will only take 6 years before they return as independent researchers.

Even the students who entered the Life Sciences program after the announcement of our biomedical initiative (2002) will be ready in 8 years' time, likely sooner.

However, Dr. Cao is right that they will take much longer to become internationally renowned scientists. I know of three students in the my field of research who I think have the potential to become world-leading scientists.

Of course most students won't get there, but that's also true of any group of students, even in the USA.

It will be helpful, but not necessary to produce many world-leading scientists in order to have a sustainable biomedical research and manufacturing endeavour. Large pharma or biotech companies rarely have renowned scientists (excluding their advisory boards). It is, however, crucial to have a sizeable number of well-trained scientists and technical staff.

As for the tradition of close links between entrepreneurs and academics in the United States, I agree that Dr. Cao has a good point. It's tough for a good scientist to also become a good entrepreneur; I personally feel that the training to become a scientist almost runs opposite to entrepreneurship.

I don't know what the government expects of A*Star students, but if the plan is for many of them to start companies, then I think we have a real problem. Entrepreneurial training needs to begin early. In fact, if they successfully become world-leading scientists with strong personalities then it will be very difficult to switch them towards the entrepreneurial mindset.

Until the time when an entrepreneurial tradition in science becomes established here, there will be a strong demand for people who have the difficult job of acting as intermediates between scientists and the business community.

3. Finally, research in Singapore profited from the ethical debates that mired stem cell and cloning research in the United States. Less restrictive rules may have been an inducement to some foreign biotech companies to set up operations in Singapore. Of course, that does not mean Singapore has no regulatory framework to review research and enforce any recommended ethical code. But Singapore’s advantage may not last if the research environment becomes more open in other countries.

It's hard to say how much Singapore has benefited specifically from the stem cell controversy in the USA, since other research powerhouses such as the UK have had open research environments for years. Nevertheless we are attracting a significant number of world-leading scientists, as well as new pharma investments to our tiny island.

There are many reasons why this is so, including an attractive tax structure, intellectual property protection and an educated workforce. In order to become more attractive than Singapore for research and manufacturing, a competing nation will need to address all these factors, in addition to having a more open research environment.

I agree that we cannot tell for sure how long Singapore's advantage will last.

But if what Dr. Cao really means is that the United States will quickly catch up in embryonic stem cell research once the political pressures ease after 2008, then I only have one thing to say:

You're too late.

It's not Singapore you have to worry about. Even if all political opposition to stem cell research evaporated today in the USA (which realistically won't happen for years) - Japanese and British research groups have gone so far ahead that you will need a long, long time to catch up.

4. More importantly, there should be better opportunities for civil society in Singapore to debate the issues related to biotech research. Citizens have the right to know much more about the risks and benefits associated with the biomedical sciences conducted in Singapore than they do now. Public understanding is at least as important as deep pockets and a deep talent pool.

If I am reading this correctly, Dr. Cao wonders why there isn't widespread debate about biomedical issues here, unlike the explosive and divisive situation in the United States.

He thinks cynically that it's because there is insufficient public information regarding bioethics.

Well, I can be even more cynical than that.

It's not that public information on bioethics isn't available, you can read about it anywhere: in the newspapers, on the Internet, there are even public talks on bioethics.

The real reason why most Singaporeans don't fight over ethics in science is because - they simply don't care about science at all.

Scientific culture doesn't exist among the general public. This is hardly surprising considering that even our oldest biomedical research institute is only 20 years old.

This is also why there are only 2 science blogs in Singapore, out of a few hundred thousand blogs. In contrast, there are hundreds of political blogs read by thousands of Singaporeans daily.

Heh.

To sum up: A number of informative criticisms about Singaporean science, which I have addressed in this article, have been raised by Cong Cao.

Is he a pessimist? Not quite.

Let me point out that, in stark contrast to this letter, he had a glowing appraisal of China's R&D efforts while working in Singapore.

He is now working in the United States.

Also interesting to note that a critical view of his letter accepted it without any criticism.

I know that naysaying can be fun, but like James Bond says - "It wouldn't do to make a habit of it."


Would you like to know more?

A review of Cong Cao's book
- China's Scientific Elite

11 Comments:

Elia Diodati said...

Hello,

Thanks for linking to my blog. I will thank you, however, for not putting words in my mouth as you have in this post. If you read it carefully, the only part I have stated my own agreement with Cong Cao's letter is the need for more open discussion about ethical issues. In this case, I didn't comment further because I don't have time for a longer commentary, nor did I think I had anything more useful to say. It most certainly does not mean that I categorically endorse everything that is written.

Just because I post or write about an article does not mean I necessarily "agree wholeheartedly "with the premises of it. As a scientist yourself, surely you must understand the value of listening to all points of view. (At least once, that is.)
"I should mention that Dr. Cao's... primary training is likely not in science." So what? I'd prefer to think it's possible that nonexperts can still have intelligent things to say about science and how it is practiced. Let's not stray into ad hominem here. Nonexperts have, after all, have played not unimportant roles in setting public policy in Singapore. Let's check the egos at the door, thanks.

I agree with you that incremental research can drive commercial benefits. you've answered at length about the commercial aspects of the R&D enterprise in the pharmacy industry (and probably better than I can), but let me ask you a more fundamental question: is research all about profit? I don't exactly see, for example, people becoming ornithologists because they want to feed the capitalist pipeline for birds. Yes, researchers have to eat, but let's get real - how many scientists are in science for the money? There are much more profitable careers out there in, say, high finance. (Cao's point #2.) I'm concerned, and I think Cao is too, that current government policies may attract the wrong kind of talent to science, people who are more interested in making money than actual science. That wouldn't exactly be a win-win situation.

"The timeframe is incorrect - the pioneer batch of A*Star PhD students will be graduating this year." Fine, but I believe the metric of 10 years was supposed to apply from the undergrad to postdoc timeframe. Ten years seems reasonable to me, and I don't see the point of belaboring this.

"[I]f they successfully become world-leading scientists with strong personalities then it will be very difficult to switch them towards the entrepreneurial mindset." I don't know what exactly you mean by "strong personalities", but there are plenty of startups created by "world-leading scientists" in all sorts of fields. Just because someone is established doesn't mean he/she can't spinoff discoveries into new companies. This is exactly the kind of mindset that Cao warns against (#2).

"It's hard to say how much Singapore has benefited specifically from the stem cell controversy in the USA": really? Let me point you to a few choice quotes in the mainstream media:

"Alan Colman, an English biochemist and a leader of the British team that created the first cloned mammal in 1997, the answer was to abandon the cold moors, heaths, and braes of Scotland for steamy Singapore./ But it wasn't the tropical weather that drew Colman. Instead, the 56-year-old scientist chose the city-state because of its tolerant climate for research using embryonic stem cells." - Bruce Einhorn, Business Week, Asia is Stem Cell Central, 2005-01-10.

"Two of America’s most prominent cancer researchers, Neal G. Copeland and Nancy A. Jenkins... said politics and budget cuts had left financing in the United States too hard to come by." - Wayne Arnold, New York Times, Singapore Acts as Haven for Stem Cell Research, 2007-08-16.

I'm sure there are plenty more opinions like this out there; these are just two that I am aware of. Clearly the decision for researchers to come to Singapore is varied and complex, but you cannot deny that it takes a lot for established researchers to uproot themselves and throw themselves into a foreign society with lots of unknowns.

I agree that the US is losing its edge in embryonic stem cell research, but it's not like stem cell researvch in the US is dead. Yes, the federal government opposes the funding of certain types of embryonic stem cell research, but states like California, Illinois and New Jersey are picking up the slack in funding that the federal government is reluctant to give. (I'm not an expert in this, so I'm not sure what has happened in the US in this field.) Besides, I don't even read Cao's article to mean that US supremacy in such research will be re-established once Bush is gone. I think Cao is merely pointing out that Singapore's remarkable growth in biotech and biomed R&D can be partly attributed to a one-time event, that of the Bush administration's policymaking, and that once the Bush administration is gone, the *rate* of growth will decline because of that if nothing else changes. I think it's useful to bear in mind the context here, that there has been a lot of publicity over the impressive and remarkable growth of Singapore biomedical research where five years ago or so Singapore had very little to offer.

Don't get me wrong, I think Singapore was very shrewd in publicising the availability of research funds and permissive legislation. It was a very clever move in terms of attracting talent to come. What Cao wants to point out is that this is a one-off thing, and that future growth in bio-____ in Singapore won't be that easy. Although Cao doesn't mention it, the failed examples of Johns Hopkins, Warwick and U. New South Wales are important counterexamples that illustrate that easy money and an encouraging public sector isn't sufficient to guarantee results.

"If I am reading this correctly, Dr. Cao wonders why there isn't widespread debate about biomedical issues here, unlike the explosive and divisive situation in the United States." You are presenting a false dichotomy. In the EU for example, there has also been plenty of debate over the ethical issues over embryonic stem cell research and cloning, but it's neither "explosive" nor "divisive". That that is the case in the US is more cultural than anything. That's just how Americans do things, by blaring their opinions at everyone.

"It's not that public information on bioethics isn't available, you can read about it anywhere: in the newspapers, on the Internet, there are even public talks on bioethics." I think you're missing the point. The claim is not that Singaporeans have no access to bioethics, but that Singaporeans aren't talking about it.

"The real reason why most Singaporeans don't fight over ethics in science is because - they simply don't care about science at all." True, but when did "most Singaporeans" care about anything other than money and one-upping each other? If you want to be the cynic, why not go the whole hog?

"Scientific culture doesn't exist among the general public. This is hardly surprising considering that even our oldest biomedical research institute is only 20 years old." Thanks for completely ignoring physics, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and sociology, just to name a few. What a non sequitur. Again you're missing the point. Singaporeans don't have to be scientists to worry about scientific issues. Ideally all that is necessary is an educated background and a healthy interest in such matters.

Which brings me to my next point: Singaporeans in general are apathetic. They've been conditioned to by the prevailing political climate. Even the "hundreds of political blogs read by thousands of Singaporeans daily" is nothing compared to the indifferent of the general population. That this would continue to hold true for issues of bioethics and other concerns regarding the effects of scientific research is tragic and a reflection of the relative unsophistication of Singapore society.

I don't naysay for the sake of being on the other side. I have better things to do than to seek this kind of attention. If you want to misunderstand my actions then I have nothing further more to say.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thanks for visiting Fresh Brainz. Wow what a long comment!

You have raised many good points in your comment. I'll try to address as many as I can.

Just because I post or write about an article does not mean I necessarily "agree wholeheartedly "with the premises of it. As a scientist yourself, surely you must understand the value of listening to all points of view.

Yes "wholeheartedly" sounds tad strong, but looks like you largely agree with his views. You say

I do agree with much that Cao has to say, because I think it is true...

And though I'm not a scientist yet, I understand the importance of examining many points of view. If I didn't I would've just ignored Dr. Cao's letter and spent my time shopping at VivoCity.

Oooh Nikon D40X! Quick, distract me with some bold text!

I’d prefer to think it’s possible that nonexperts can still have intelligent things to say about science and how it is practiced. Let’s not stray into ad hominem here. Nonexperts have, after all, have played not unimportant roles in setting public policy in Singapore. Let’s check the egos at the door, thanks.

Yes, you are right that a non-expert can raise a good point. Hell, I am a non-expert myself. However non-experts can still ask if other non-experts are expressing an informed opinion or not.

I am just noting that Dr. Cao is a sociologist whose expertise is on science and technology policy in China, while working in Singapore. He is now working in SUNY in the USA. We don't know just how much first hand knowledge he has about science policy in Singapore.

..let me ask you a more fundamental question: is research all about profit? I don’t exactly see, for example, people becoming ornithologists because they want to feed the capitalist pipeline for birds. Yes, researchers have to eat, but let’s get real - how many scientists are in science for the money?

I don't know the answer to that question. I can think of one prominent example where a successful scientist was thinking of megabucks right from the start (he is not Singaporean), but I don't have the data to say how many.

But you did raise a good point and I should up the ante: how many scientists are in science for the science?

I’m concerned, and I think Cao is too, that current government policies may attract the wrong kind of talent to science, people who are more interested in making money than actual science. That wouldn’t exactly be a win-win situation.

To be concerned about the "wrong" kind of talent, the question we should ask is - what is the "right" kind of talent? I've seen "passionate" people fizzle out and run away from science, screaming. I've seen people who say they only love money endure long nights of benchwork day after day, producing one solid publication after another.

I don't know what the right kind of talent is. But if a scientist does solid research work and also loves money, I won't say that she's the wrong kind.

I believe the metric of 10 years was supposed to apply from the undergrad to postdoc timeframe. Ten years seems reasonable to me, and I don’t see the point of belaboring this.

Yes, I was being picky because I felt the letter gave readers an impression that the scholarship program just started yesterday. In reality the fastest postdoc could become a research scientist at around 2011.

I don’t know what exactly you mean by "strong personalities", but there are plenty of startups created by "world-leading scientists" in all sorts of fields. Just because someone is established doesn’t mean he/she can’t spinoff discoveries into new companies.

This is not my opinion, but the views of a number of experts on the topic of bio-business from academia, university tech transfer offices and technopreneurs. Many start-ups fail due to conflicts of interest between the scientists and the business people. As mentioned in my article - I agree established scientists can spinoff discoveries into new companies if:

a) the scientist is appreciative of the entrepreneurial mindset due to early training.
b) the scientist is helped by professional intermediates (like a tech transfer office) that can reconcile the interests of both scientific and business partners.

"It’s hard to say how much Singapore has benefited specifically from the stem cell controversy in the USA": really? Let me point you to a few choice quotes in the mainstream media:

You mentioned Dr. Alan Colman, who left Scotland for Singapore. As for Drs. Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, they don't work on embryonic stem cells.

Anyway I agree that Singapore benefited some from the stem cell controversy in the USA, but I would argue that we benefited more from the overall anti-science political and social environment under the current US administration. President Bush's opposition to evolutionary biology, and Ken Ham's Creation Museum being two painful examples.

Clearly the decision for researchers to come to Singapore is varied and complex, but you cannot deny that it takes a lot for established researchers to uproot themselves and throw themselves into a foreign society with lots of unknowns.

I definitely agree.

I agree that the US is losing its edge in embryonic stem cell research, but it’s not like stem cell research in the US is dead. Yes, the federal government opposes the funding of certain types of embryonic stem cell research, but states like California, Illinois and New Jersey are picking up the slack in funding that the federal government is reluctant to give.

They have lost their edge. Others are now leading the way. It will take a very long blog post to explain why - maybe next week.

I think Cao is merely pointing out that Singapore’s remarkable growth in biotech and biomed R&D can be partly attributed to a one-time event, that of the Bush administration’s policymaking, and that once the Bush administration is gone, the *rate* of growth will decline because of that if nothing else changes.

Even the largest and most profitable industry will have a reduced rate of growth as it matures. That's not a problem unless the industry is leveling off faster than expectations.

Although Cao doesn’t mention it, the failed examples of Johns Hopkins, Warwick and U. New South Wales are important counterexamples that illustrate that easy money and an encouraging public sector isn’t sufficient to guarantee results.

It's useful to examine failure stories in order learn more about success (a core Fresh Brainz theme!) Not to only highlight failure stories of course. There is still Karolinska Institute, Insead and many others.

In the EU for example, there has also been plenty of debate over the ethical issues over embryonic stem cell research and cloning, but it’s neither "explosive" nor "divisive". That that is the case in the US is more cultural than anything. That’s just how Americans do things, by blaring their opinions at everyone.

I absolutely agree.

There are other countries where the embryonic stem cell ethical debate is quieter than in the EU or even Singapore, which Dr. Cao did not mention because that is outside the scope of his letter.

"The real reason why most Singaporeans don’t fight over ethics in science is because - they simply don’t care about science at all." True, but when did "most Singaporeans" care about anything other than money and one-upping each other? If you want to be the cynic, why not go the whole hog?

Wow that is truly cynical. You win.

"Scientific culture doesn’t exist among the general public. This is hardly surprising considering that even our oldest biomedical research institute is only 20 years old." Thanks for completely ignoring physics, chemistry, mathematics, psychology and sociology, just to name a few. What a non sequitur. Again you’re missing the point. Singaporeans don’t have to be scientists to worry about scientific issues. Ideally all that is necessary is an educated background and a healthy interest in such matters.

Science as a career in Singapore is really a new and fresh thing. I'm not kidding. Until the late 80's many potential researchers could only find work as administrators and managers in Singapore. Science as social endeavour is even newer, most people don't know what's going on and don't care (unless something goes wrong).

It will take some time for sciencey stuff to become interesting to the general educated populace. Even the United States hasn't succeeded after some 200 years.

Which brings me to my next point: Singaporeans in general are apathetic. They’ve been conditioned to by the prevailing political climate. Even the "hundreds of political blogs read by thousands of Singaporeans daily" is nothing compared to the indifferent of the general population.

Ok, your opinion is noted.

I wouldn't say "nothing compared" though, if you consider the Wee Shu Min controversy of Oct '06. Before that if someone said that a Singaporean could become a top search item on Technorati I would've said that's utterly impossible.

That this would continue to hold true for issues of bioethics and other concerns regarding the effects of scientific research is tragic and a reflection of the relative unsophistication of Singapore society.

Heh, you have strong views.

I can only say that I don't personally know enough Singaporeans to judge the sophistication level of our society. Or know which benchmark to compare with. Perhaps we are not "world-class" enough!

I don’t naysay for the sake of being on the other side. I have better things to do than to seek this kind of attention. If you want to misunderstand my actions then I have nothing further more to say.

When I first read Dr. Cao's letter I thought "Wow that's quite a number of discouraging things to say." So I hoped to find some articles which critically examines his letter and finding none, wrote this blog post myself. Then I read more about what he usually writes about and wondered "Why did he write this letter?".

Hmm...

ah said...

Yeah!

Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight!

I'll get the popcorn.

twasher said...

how many scientists are in science for the science?

My limited experience from one US university: any science major looking to go into grad school will quickly learn from his peers, grad students, and professors that science will not bring him much money. Thus, most American students I know who go to grad school do so for reasons other than earning money.

twasher said...

It is a universal truth that political blogs are more popular and numerous than science blogs. Non-Singaporean science blogs are also much less read and fewer than non-Singaporean political blogs.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Hi twasher,

Thanks for visiting Fresh Brainz!

Ooh you have brought up two points - I'll try to address them.

My limited experience from one US university: any science major looking to go into grad school will quickly learn from his peers, grad students, and professors that science will not bring him much money. Thus, most American students I know who go to grad school do so for reasons other than earning money.

Mmm... you are probably right but my question wasn't: how many scientists are in science for the money?

My question was: how many scientists are in science for the science?

I don't have a definite answer for this question yet. People who do science every day understand what I mean.

It is a universal truth that political blogs are more popular and numerous than science blogs. Non-Singaporean science blogs are also much less read and fewer than non-Singaporean political blogs.

Perhaps not a "universal truth", but you are broadly correct.

I don't have real data on this but I suspect the science blog-to-political blog ratio is higher in the USA than in Singapore.

Heh, it's not hard to do better than 2 science blogs out of hundreds of political blogs.

Elia Diodati said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond.

"But you did raise a good point and I should up the ante: how many scientists are in science for the science?"

I'd say that that's the norm rather than the exception. Certainly that's true of many people I know personally on campus. I don't know about the people who go into industry, but I'm virtually certain that it's true in academia. The simple argument, as twasher wrote already, is that there are far more rewarding careers than becoming a professor, at least in the US.

"I don't know what the right kind of talent is. But if a scientist does solid research work and also loves money, I won't say that she's the wrong kind."

There will always be the exceptions to the rule, and I could nitpick the examples you've provided, but it's hard to be a scientist without passion. Again I'm not saying that scientists cannot dream of striking it rich, but there are much easier ways to earn big bucks than becoming a scientist. Which is why I think a scientist who is in science for the money is not being too scientific...

"Many start-ups fail due to conflicts of interest between the scientists and the business people."

OK, but I'd be interested in some concrete numbers: do startups that involve scientists have a statistically higher failure rate than those that do not? That would be the clincher that would support your argument. I'll leave it at that since I only have anecdotal information about this.

"You mentioned Dr. Alan Colman, who left Scotland for Singapore. As for Drs. Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins, they don't work on embryonic stem cells."

Fair enough. But my point still is valid: funding is scarce in the UK and is declining in the US. To cite just one example, NIH funding fell by 3% just this year. I know many people in NIH-funded labs freaking out because their grant proposals are up for review, and the professors are seriously worried about not being able to maintain their grants, and hence their armies of students and postdocs.

Money *is* very important, and having a lot of it means scientists can get more real research done and not waste time engaging in what I think of as "professional begging".

"[The US has lost its edge]. Others are now leading the way. It will take a very long blog post to explain why - maybe next week."

I don't know much about ES cell research, and I'd be keen on hearing more about this. But my point is that just because you're not on the cutting edge doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Maybe the US will lose the ES battle, but I can safely say that in general the US still leads the world in many, many other areas. The fundamentals of the US R&D sphere are still very sound, even if funding is somewhat iffy at the moment.

""I think Cao is merely pointing out that Singapore’s remarkable growth in biotech and biomed R&D can be partly attributed to a one-time event, that of the Bush administration’s policymaking, and that once the Bush administration is gone, the *rate* of growth will decline because of that if nothing else changes."

Even the largest and most profitable industry will have a reduced rate of growth as it matures. That's not a problem unless the industry is leveling off faster than expectations."

You're sort of avoiding my point. I agree with that maturity brings slower growth, but it doesn't therefore mean Cao is wrong. What it suggests that the inevitable slowdown in the growth rate may be exacerbated by this one-off freebie.

"It will take some time for sciencey stuff to become interesting to the general educated populace. Even the United States hasn't succeeded after some 200 years."

Sorry lah, I was being kinda mean with the non-biomed science remark. But now I'm kinda curious. Scientific literacy in the US is simply not on par with "artistic" literacy, in that no one in the literati would admit to not having read Shakespeare, yet would freely admit their ignorance in (say) what the second law of thermodynamics is. It seems entirely possible to me that in the not too distant future, there will be a kind of scientifically literate elite which will exist because they grok science, just as now there is a snotty elite that prides itself on reading Chaucer and viewing Monets and drinking clarets...

"I wouldn't say "nothing compared" though, if you consider the Wee Shu Min controversy of Oct '06. Before that if someone said that a Singaporean could become a top search item on Technorati I would've said that's utterly impossible."

As did Xiaxue, tammy nyp, and that girl who had the nose job and denied it... You know, Bernard Leong has a theory that the Singapore blogosphere is driven by scandal, and I am beginning (reluctantly) to believe that to be true. Even Acidflask appears to have been a phenomenon driven more by human interest than in the pragmatic issues that were being raised. In my personal experience, nothing deadens a conversation between Singaporeans faster than a discussion about substantial politics.

"I can only say that I don't personally know enough Singaporeans to judge the sophistication level of our society. Or know which benchmark to compare with. Perhaps we are not "world-class" enough!"

I'm not saying that I know how to judge a society. I'm just making a personal remark based on my experience of living in American society and looking back at the Singapore I left behind.

About your remark about only two science blogs, I've been thinking of shifting my focus toward more sciency topics. Just so you heard it here first on FreshBrainz ;-)

sieteocho said...

"It seems entirely possible to me that in the not too distant future, there will be a kind of scientifically literate elite which will exist because they grok science, just as now there is a snotty elite that prides itself on reading Chaucer and viewing Monets and drinking clarets... "

First I don't know how unfashionable the 2nd law of thermodynamics is, you might like to know that entropy is one of the big themes in Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby".

Second, science will never be as fashionable and aesthetic as art. Aesthetics is what confers social status on people, not scientific knowledge. Knowledge about high art harks back to the days when aristocracy.

The average guy will pay money to watch Shakespeare but not to learn statistical thermodynamics. To put it in another way, the number of science geeks in a human population will never reach the certain critical mass at which they will be able to dictate cultural norms.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Elia:

Wow another long comment! I'll try to address all of your main points.

"But you did raise a good point and I should up the ante: how many scientists are in science for the science?"

I'd say that that's the norm rather than the exception. Certainly that's true of many people I know personally on campus. I don't know about the people who go into industry, but I'm virtually certain that it's true in academia. The simple argument, as twasher wrote already, is that there are far more rewarding careers than becoming a professor, at least in the US.


No, I'm not talking about money.

Many times during a seminar I ask myself: "Is the speaker really that interested in studying how X protein functions in Y bacteria? Are they deeply interested in this subject only, or did they have other plans?

There will always be the exceptions to the rule, and I could nitpick the examples you've provided, but it's hard to be a scientist without passion. Again I'm not saying that scientists cannot dream of striking it rich, but there are much easier ways to earn big bucks than becoming a scientist. Which is why I think a scientist who is in science for the money is not being too scientific...

I've mentioned somewhere in my blog that I dislike the catchphrase "passion" because I find it meaningless. I have met obsessively hardworking and committed scientists who don't care as much for the subject matter as they do about publishing results in high impact journals. Is that more or less "scientific" than a scientist who loves his subject but cannot publish well?

"Many start-ups fail due to conflicts of interest between the scientists and the business people."

OK, but I'd be interested in some concrete numbers: do startups that involve scientists have a statistically higher failure rate than those that do not? That would be the clincher that would support your argument. I'll leave it at that since I only have anecdotal information about this.


I don't have any direct figures, but Will Charles (GM, Tech Development, Liggins Institute, NZ) revealed in a talk in April based on recent data that 19 out of 20 biotech/biopharma startups will fail.

In the same talk, David Clarke (CEO, Neuren Pharmceuticals, NZ) added that relationships is the single thing that makes or breaks a company. Prof. Peter Gluckman (U. of Auckland) discussed a number of culture clash issues between scientists, businessmen and other stakeholders in a start-up.

Conflicts of interest is a common occurrence in start-ups. Managing this is more of an art than a science.

Fair enough. But my point still is valid: funding is scarce in the UK and is declining in the US. To cite just one example, NIH funding fell by 3% just this year. I know many people in NIH-funded labs freaking out because their grant proposals are up for review, and the professors are seriously worried about not being able to maintain their grants, and hence their armies of students and postdocs.

I agree - my point is that the embryonic stem cell debate is but one of many push factors for American scientists. The current anti-science climate in the USA is becoming very tiring for senior academics and some of them want a change of environment.

As for the UK, a professor recently stopped by and revealed that their funding situation is starting to improve. I think they have great hopes that Gordon Brown will make a positive difference.

I don't know much about ES cell research, and I'd be keen on hearing more about this. But my point is that just because you're not on the cutting edge doesn't mean it's the end of the world. Maybe the US will lose the ES battle, but I can safely say that in general the US still leads the world in many, many other areas. The fundamentals of the US R&D sphere are still very sound, even if funding is somewhat iffy at the moment.

The United States does the most scientific research in the world, that is a fact. It's a pity that it would shoot itself in the foot and give others the opportunity to claim niche areas which the USA used to be world-leading.

I'll put up an article about how ES research is thriving outside the USA later.

"Even the largest and most profitable industry will have a reduced rate of growth as it matures. That's not a problem unless the industry is leveling off faster than expectations."

You're sort of avoiding my point. I agree with that maturity brings slower growth, but it doesn't therefore mean Cao is wrong. What it suggests that the inevitable slowdown in the growth rate may be exacerbated by this one-off freebie.


This has already been anticipated.

http://www.paramuspost.com/article.php/20061229105324180

It's not as critical to be the best in the world; in Singapore it's more important to have a sustainable endeavour.

Anyway, by the time the US recovers from this "one-off freebie" others will be far ahead. Dr. Cao is probably right in his optimistic appraisal of the future of China's science.

"It will take some time for sciencey stuff to become interesting to the general educated populace. Even the United States hasn't succeeded after some 200 years."

Sorry lah, I was being kinda mean with the non-biomed science remark. But now I'm kinda curious. Scientific literacy in the US is simply not on par with "artistic" literacy, in that no one in the literati would admit to not having read Shakespeare, yet would freely admit their ignorance in (say) what the second law of thermodynamics is. It seems entirely possible to me that in the not too distant future, there will be a kind of scientifically literate elite which will exist because they grok science, just as now there is a snotty elite that prides itself on reading Chaucer and viewing Monets and drinking clarets...


I don't know whether there will be a scientifically literate elite or not. But if there is, you won't find me there. I'll be squatting together with the regular folks exchanging science fluff trivia and stupid jokes.

"I wouldn't say "nothing compared" though, if you consider the Wee Shu Min controversy of Oct '06. Before that if someone said that a Singaporean could become a top search item on Technorati I would've said that's utterly impossible."

As did Xiaxue, tammy nyp, and that girl who had the nose job and denied it... You know, Bernard Leong has a theory that the Singapore blogosphere is driven by scandal, and I am beginning (reluctantly) to believe that to be true. Even Acidflask appears to have been a phenomenon driven more by human interest than in the pragmatic issues that were being raised. In my personal experience, nothing deadens a conversation between Singaporeans faster than a discussion about substantial politics.


Your friend is probably right. Witness the spectacular rise of eastcoastlife, for example.

http://eastcoastlife.blogspot.com/

Scandal-driven or not, the importance of the Singaporean blogosphere has been recognized by mainstream media players at least a year ago (eg. ST's Stomp). The blogosphere will continue to grow rapidly, but the consolidation of blogs as trusted information resources will take place at much slower rate.

The handful of popular blogs that emerge from this natural selection-like process will have significant social impact.

About your remark about only two science blogs, I've been thinking of shifting my focus toward more sciency topics. Just so you heard it here first on FreshBrainz ;-)

The Biology Refugia hasn't been updated in two months, so Fresh Brainz has become the only active science blog left in Singapore. Which is kinda sad, I guess.

So you want to blog more about science? Good for you.

In my experience science blogging is not worth the time and effort put into it at all, but luckily I'm too drunk and disillusioned to care.

Heh.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Sieteocho:

You say

First I don't know how unfashionable the 2nd law of thermodynamics is, you might like to know that entropy is one of the big themes in Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby".

Second, science will never be as fashionable and aesthetic as art. Aesthetics is what confers social status on people, not scientific knowledge. Knowledge about high art harks back to the days when aristocracy.


I'm not sure whether this discussion is about science becoming popular among the educated elite or among everyone.

If we are talking about everyone then high art will never be more popular than pop culture.

The marriage of science and pop culture is illegitimate...

...and inevitable.

Some people say that movies make the world go round. It's actually the Sun's gravitational pull. - Mike Myers

The average guy will pay money to watch Shakespeare but not to learn statistical thermodynamics. To put it in another way, the number of science geeks in a human population will never reach the certain critical mass at which they will be able to dictate cultural norms.

The average guy would rather pay money to see Star Wars than Shakespeare. As for real science, it's not only about thermodynamics.

What about pigs and their cockscrew penises?

Is it necessary to reach some magical critical mass to influence cultural norms?

Sometimes it's a small group (Monty Python) or even just one guy (Doug Adams).

Before Monty Python, could anyone have envisioned philosophy or history as hip subjects?

I think you underestimate the potential of a bunch of very bored and very drunk people.

sieteocho said...

This is about science being high art. Not history, not philosophy (because these two are already part and parcel of high art before Monty), but science. Not popular culture, but high art.

I think when I made that comment I was responding to what he said about "people will freely admit ignorance about the 2nd law of thermodynamics but not about Shakespeare". Whenever science is incorporated into art, unfortunately, there is this tendency that it is thought of as incidental, or merely the premise which sets the scene.

Even in popular culture, a futuristic setting is there as an artistic backdrop, not the main storyline. "Star Wars" in this way is a remake of an old Samurai movie, converted into sci fi. (check out "The Hidden Fortress"). A love for science depicted in many of these films is "geek chic", which is to say you almost have to apologise for it.

The science in these movies is science for art's sake, not science for science's sake. Which is to say, when you are talking about "Star Wars" or even Tarkovsky's "Solaris" or HG Wells, you are considered to be talking about art as much as science.