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Singapore Woos Top U.S. Scientists

April 12, 2006

CHICAGO — Singapore’s siren song is growing increasingly more irresistible for scientists, especially stem cell researchers who feel stifled by the U.S. government’s restrictions on their field.

Two prominent California scientists are the latest to defect to the Asian city-state, announcing earlier this month that they, too, had fallen for its glittering acres of new laboratories outfitted with the latest gizmos.

They weren’t the first defections, and Singapore officials at the Biotechnology Organization’s annual convention in Chicago this week promise they won’t be the last.

Other Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea and even China, are also here touting their burgeoning biotechnology spending to the 20,000 scientists and biotechnology executives attending the conference.

But what sets Singapore apart is the shear size of its effort to become the “Boston of the east” – along with its promise to limit government meddling.

The 250-square-mile island nation known to some as the place that canes miscreants and has issues with chewing gum has already spent $4 billion on biotechnology and has committed another $8 billion through 2010 in a bid to give the United States a run for biomedical supremacy.

“I am absolutely amazed at what they have. It’s just knock-dead gorgeous,” said Dr. Judith Swain, a University of California, San Diego, heart researcher who will decamp to Singapore in September to run the country’s new Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences at a state-funded research wonderland called Biopolis.

Swain’s husband, Dr. Edward Holmes, who is dean of the UCSD medical school and a ranking official with California’s stem cell agency, is also going to Singapore to work as a government researcher.

The two join Alan Colman, the British researcher who played a pivotal role in cloning Dolly the sheep; another husband-and-wife team, National Institutes of Health researchers Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins; and an increasing number of stem cell scientists.

All have been lured by lucrative pay, state-of-the art labs and – the clincher – nearly unlimited government support.

“They have recruited some extraordinary people,” Holmes said.

In all, the country has managed to recruit about 50 senior scientists – far short of what it needs, but a start for a tiny country of 4.5 million people off the tip of Malaysia.

Another 1,800 younger scientists from all corners of the world staff the Biopolis laboratories, which were built with $290 million in government funding and another $400 million in private investment by the two dozen biotechnology companies based there. Biopolis opened in 2003 and contains seven buildings spread over 10 acres and connected by sky bridges.

Copeland said he’s leaving for Singapore because of its unfettered support of human embryonic stem cell research. In the United States, federal funding has been severely restricted by President Bush because of moral opposition to the work, which requires destroying days-old embryos. Copeland and Jenkins spurned an attractive offer to join Stanford University’s stem cell department in favor of Singapore.

At the center of Singapore’s emergence is Philip Yeo, the government official in charge of recruiting scientific talent as chairman of his country’s version of the NIH, called the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Showing off a model of the Biopolis complex at the Singapore booth at the biotech convention, Yeo slyly grins and mentions that he had just finished breakfast with yet another prospective recruit.

“I am offering them academic freedom,” Yeo said, adding that recruits typically get sizable five-year government grants with few strings attached. “They don’t need to spend their time writing grant applications. We are much more efficient.”

Freedom from paperwork is one thing, but some question whether some of Singapore’s harsh social policies, which include punishing political dissent, can attract and retain enough top scientists.

Last year, Britain’s Warwick University dropped plans to open a Singapore campus after its faculty overwhelmingly protested that the country’s restrictions on free speech could cause trouble for outspoken students and professors.

U.S. scientists working with Singapore say they haven’t encountered recruitment barriers or other problems because of the country’s sometime strict laws.

“I would say just the opposite,” said Dr. Victor Dzau, dean of Duke University’s medical school, which is starting a Singapore program next year. “In fact, I would say we have an embarrassment of riches. People are actually seeing this as a great opportunity.”

An agitated Yeo added that foreign scientists have little to worry about as long they don’t mix in Singapore’s internal politics and foreign policy.

“I don’t see it as an issue. It’s silly,” he said. “We are a small country surrounded by larger ones and everyone needs to be sensitive to that.”




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