Two weeks ago, I was in Singapore to give a keynote presentation at GridAsia, which brought together teams from a variety of Asian Grid initiatives. I spoke about the confluence of scientific influences and disciplines via Grids and high-performance computing and the importance of culture in scientific partnerships. I believe most projects fail not for technical reasons but due to failure to understand what the reward metrics are for each collaborating group member. However, that is not the topic of this essay.
The GridAsia conference was held at the Biopolis, a purpose-built biomedical research site that co-locates researchers from the public and private sectors. As Nature and Science have noted, the Biopolis is a part of Singapore’s aggressive plans to establish itself as an international center for biomedical research, with both world-class facilities and international talent. See a recent NY Times article for more background.
The first phase of the Biopolis consists of a group of interconnected buildings
(about 2.5M square feet of space) and was built and occupied in about 24 months. The Chromos and Helios buildings support private biomedical activities (Novartis and SKB). The Centros, Genome, Matrix, Nanos and Proteos buildings house five biomedical research institutes (Bioinformatics Institute, Bioprocessing Technology Institute Genome Institute of Singapore, Institution of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology) from Singapore’s Agency of Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
Phase two included two additional buildings: Neuros and Immunos. In addition, the Biopolis contains a food court, bank, bookstore, a very nice outdoor courtyard,
parking facility and shuttles
to and from the nearby public transport system. Superficially, the Biopolis is just a research park, but it really is more than that. It mixes government, academia and corporate goals, together with industrial policy.
Singapore has two major assets, one physical (geographic location) and one intellectual (talent), and it is aggressively exploiting both in concert. The country’s push in petrochemicals, chemistry and biotechnology reflects its position as a physical and intellectual crossroads between the east and west. It is investing in both its local talent via educational programs, wooing international experts to positions in Singapore and building partnerships with international universities (albeit not without some problems; see the closure of Johns Hopkins Singapore campus, for example).
As I noted in an earlier essay, the rapidity of the Biopolis construction speaks to the commitment of a city-state where government, academic and industrial boundaries are so blurry as to be non-existent. This allows decisions to be made quickly and implementation to begin immediately. Although I am no fan of authoritarian regimes, I do worry that the U.S. innovation ecosystem is endangered by unnecessarily artificial separation of its assets. Simply put, we need greater coordination and cooperation across academic, government and industrial boundaries.
My wife once described Singapore as “Asia for beginners,” and she was right. English is ubiquitous, the infrastructure and services are world-class, the people are friendly, and one can easily reach China, Japan, Korea or Australia. Plus, Singapore Airlines sets a standard of excellence that I wish U.S. airlines would emulate. (See my earlier post on the return of silverware to American Airlines, for example.)
Singapore is trying to shed its authoritarian image, with a night Formula One race this fall and plans to build two casinos. I don’t know if they will succeed in this. The disembarkation cards one receives on the plane to Singapore very direct: drug trafficking is punishable by death; no subtlety there. The spirit that brings gambling and racing seems in striking contrast to bans on sidewalk spitting and caning for lawbreakers. Nevertheless, Singapore has pulled into the international passing lane.