DPM Heng Swee Keat at the ASTAR Scientific Conference

DPM Heng Swee Keat | 30 November 2021

Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the A*STAR’s Scientific Conference on 30 November 2021.

Ms Chan Lai Fung, Chairman A*STAR,
Ladies and Gentlemen, including those joining us virtually,

Good Morning.

I am very happy to join you at A*STAR’s annual scientific conference. This year’s conference is also especially meaningful, coinciding with A*STAR’s 30th anniversary. Over the past three decades, A*STAR has played a key role in building a vibrant R&D ecosystem in Singapore. I thank the A*STAR team, past and present, for your contribution and dedication. 

Golden Age of Science & Technology 

Science and technology has always been a key driving force for human progress. It has propelled economic growth and raised living standards dramatically. People live much longer and healthier lives than those just a few generations ago. 

The recent pandemic has also brought home the importance of science and technology. Vaccines were developed at record speed, saving countless lives. Digital technology helped us transcend physical restrictions – whether it is telehealth consultations with doctors, or hybrid meetings like the one today. 

Beyond COVID, the world has many challenges ahead of us. These challenges include combating climate change, building livable cities, securing food supplies, tackling ageing demographics. To address these challenges and others, science, technology and innovation will be critical.In Singapore, we have committed $25 billion over the next five years in our Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 plan. 
This morning, let me touch on how we intend to harness the potential of science and technology to address the challenges we face. 

Building research excellence 

First, commitment to research excellence through basic science. 

Great discoveries often start with someone asking a simple question: “why”? If Alexander Fleming had not asked why the bacteria he was culturing had been killed near to an area where mould was accidentally growing, penicillin would not have been discovered. If another group of scientists was not curious enough to ask why there were repeating DNA sequences in bacteria, we would not have CRISPR today. 

But basic research often takes many decades or even centuries to bear fruit. It requires patient capital and long-term commitment. In Singapore, we have remained committed to basic science over the years. For example, A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, one of our oldest biomed research institutes, was set up in 1985. Its basic research has been useful in helping us understand how diseases work at a molecular level, informing the development of effective drugs and therapeutics. We have also developed other peaks of excellence in quantum technologies, 2D materials, membrane technology, among others. Under RIE 2025, one-third of the $25 billion budget will go towards basic research. 

But achieving excellence in basic research goes beyond dollars and cents. Increasingly, a more inter-disciplinary approach will be important to break new grounds. This inter-disciplinary lens is critical because our challenges are increasingly complex. For example, to create livable cities, we need scientists and engineers with expertise in materials science, life cycle assessment, modelling, simulation, AI, and data science, as well as doctors and psychologists to understand how humans respond to particular environments. To combat climate change, we need experts in natural sciences, engineering, and even social sciences to come together. Innovation often happens at the intersection of disciplines. So I am glad that today’s conference brings together speakers from diverse disciplines - ranging from health and wellness to deep learning and robotics. 

Another important way to build research excellence is through collaboration with the best from around the world. Scientific breakthroughs are seldom about a lone genius having a eureka moment. Often the breakthroughs involve multiple teams working in collaboration, and building on work by previous generations of scientists. Even as Singapore is investing heavily in R&D, we know that our efforts are just a fraction of the global effort. We are forging partnerships with researchers and institutions from around the world. Our CREATE campus hosts joint research collaborations with many institutions – including MIT from the US, Shanghai Jiao Tong University from China, ETH Zurich from Switzerland, and HUJ from Israel, among others. CREATE is a unique model for international collaboration in a network of institutions that has worked well. In RIE2025, we will be building on this, to expand and broaden our collaborations with the best researchers in a wide range of disciplines and institutions.This conference is yet another opportunity to strengthen collaboration between researchers based here and those of you from abroad. 

Translating research into impact 

I have touched on the importance of basic science. To achieve outcomes, we need to put just as strong an emphasis on translating research into impact.
As the theme of this conference suggests, “excellence” and “impact” must go hand-in-hand. Often, a “valley of death” exists between translating R&D into successful innovation. With the market fast-moving, it is also challenging to scale at speed.I earlier spoke about Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. What is also interesting is that it was not until 1943 that penicillin came into widespread use. The original big idea by Fleming was not enough. It also required the development of a method to produce penicillin at scale, and a further push to ramp up production against the backdrop of the US involvement in World War 2.  

In Singapore, our approach is to invest in basic research as I earlier mentioned, but at the same time build an eco-system around this so that the research can be translated into real-world impact.  Many companies here are now working closely with our research institutes, institutes of higher learning, healthcare institutions, and public sector agencies to develop innovative products and solutions. Take the vibrant start-up scene here. Around half of the bio-tech start-ups in Singapore are in partnership with A*STAR. In fact, around one-third of our bio-tech start-ups are A*STAR spin-offs. For example, A*STAR spin-off Lucence Diagnostics has collaborated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the National Cancer Centre to develop tests that improve cancer detection and treatment selection. To help local SMEs transform ideas into commercially viable products that are ready for market adoption, A*STAR in collaboration with Enterprise Singapore have piloted the Innovation Factory. Since its launch last year, over 38 local SMEs have kickstarted over 20 projects. For example, JM VisTec System developed a structured-light 3D scanner for their machining vision solution, which they are in the process of commercializing to roll out to a range of industries.  We have also put together translation platforms – one example is the DxD Hub, which brings together researchers, clinicians and entrepreneurs and industry professionals to fast track the development of medical diagnostics. In this pandemic, the DxD Hub has partnered companies to accelerate the development of 10 COVID-19 diagnostic  tests. In particular, during the early days of the pandemic, DxD Hub partnered biotech firm MIRXES to speed up the production of the Fortitude test kits, which has since been deployed to more than 40 countries.This example also illustrates that enterprises in Singapore can make a greater impact, when we focus not just on our small domestic market, but when we think global at the outset. We must give greater emphasis to this to maximise our impact.

Not all scientists are interested in commercialising their research. Some prefer to devote themselves to basic science, and we are committed to walk this journey with them. But for those who are interested in bringing their research discoveries to market, we will also support them through entrepreneurial and product development programmes such as the Lean LaunchPad Singapore Programme.  

Developing the scientific community   

This brings me to my final point. Ultimately, advancing our research frontiers and making an impact is all about people, and how we support the scientific community’s aspirations and passion.    

We will continue to nurture young talent here who are passionate in science and technology. We should start young, cultivating and encouraging curiosity in our children, both boys and girls.  Our students in schools are exposed early to the use of the scientific concepts in solving real world problems, in our Applied Learning Programme. We are also exposing our undergraduates to research work, including through STEM internships at A*STAR Research Institutes. For those who are eventually keen to pursue a career in STEM, they can apply for a range of scholarship programmes. The A*STAR Scholarship has developed a strong pipeline of talent over the years. More than 1,700 Singaporean PhDs have been trained at renowned universities and laboratories locally and around the world. 

We should also continue to broaden the different pathways for those who pursue a STEM career. Some PhD graduates aspire to an academic career, while others prefer to work in industry.  The emergence of industry-relevant doctoral degree programmes such as industrial PhDs has been useful. Such programmes are designed to enable knowledge created in the universities to be translated and put to practical use in industries. For example, the Industrial Postgraduate Programme trains industry-ready R&D talent, with students given opportunities to work on industry-relevant research projects. We are also creating more opportunities for researchers to contribute to industry. Under the T-Up programme, A*STAR seconds its research scientists and engineers to local companies to help them build R&D capabilities. We have recently expanded this to support SMEs with overseas T-Up R&D projects. I am also glad that globally, universities are looking into ways to broaden the recognition for researchers who do impactful research, apart from the standard metrices of publications and citations. 

Our ambition is for Singapore to be a great place to pursue science, technology and innovation. We seek to be a Global-Asia node of Technology, Innovation and Enterprise. Talent is critical to this endeavour, and Singapore has been and will always be open to global talent and ideas. For example, the National Research Foundation Fellowship supports outstanding young scientists from around the world to conduct independent research in Singapore. Over the years, we have benefited from having a diverse group of individuals, local and international, who have been instrumental in developing Singapore into the global R&D and innovation hub that it is today. Every time I visit our research institutes or institutes of higher learning, I am always inspired by their passion and dedication. I welcome collaborators from around the world to come to Singapore and work with us to push the frontiers of science, technology and innovation. 

Sydney Brenner Memorial Award 

It is fitting at this point for me to say that I can think of no better person who encompasses these qualities of passion and dedication, than the late Dr Sydney Brenner. Dr Brenner was a giant in the molecular biology world and contributed greatly to the growth of Singapore’s biomedical scene. His impact continues to live on today. When Dr Brenner and his colleagues deciphered the method of how DNA coded for proteins in the 1960s, they had also described the existence of mRNA. This paved the way for the mRNA-derived vaccines that have helped us turn the tide during this pandemic.  To celebrate Dr Brenner’s vision and contributions, A*STAR inaugurated the Sydney Brenner Memorial Award in 2019. The second Sydney Brenner Memorial Award goes to Professor Aaron Ciechanover for his contributions to the discovery and understanding of ubiquitin-mediated cellular processes. I look forward to hearing more about Professor Ciechanover’s research when he gives his lecture shortly.


Let me conclude. 

As we look ahead, we are in a golden age of science, technology and innovation. I believe that we will be able to fully harness the power of science and technology, if we are able to continue to build excellence in basic research; Put greater emphasis translating this research into impact, and develop a community of talented and passionate researchers. 

A*STAR has been a driving force in our R&D journey over the past three decades. I am confident that in the decades ahead, A*STAR will continue to play an important role within our RIE ecosystem, and will scale new heights in both excellence and impact.

I hope that you will all enjoy a fruitful conference. 

Thank you.