SINGAPORE: Following a mid-term review of its five-year science and technology plan, Singapore will pump in more money to boost research and development (R&D) efforts in three key areas, namely digital technologies, cell therapy manufacturing and food security.
“Our investment in R&D is a long-term endeavor. It is not just for the short run and we must continue our investments in basic sciences," said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat on Wednesday (Mar 27).
Mr Heng, who is also the chairman of the National Research Foundation (NRF), was speaking alongside Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference held at the end of the 11th Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC) meeting.
In his opening remarks, Mr Lee said the elements of research, innovation and enterprise are critical to Singapore's development.
There has been progress since the RIEC journey began in 2006 to deepen the nation's science and technology capabilities along the whole value chain. This includes international recognition and significant breakthroughs for local scientists, as well as foreign companies such as Dyson setting up their advanced product development facilities here.
R&D efforts have also resulted in practical and useful products, including autonomous vehicles, he added.
To ensure success, Singapore will have to continue to emphasise science and technology throughout society, said the prime minister. For one, the country cannot afford “to have people fearful and distrustful of science, who are held captive by totally groundless anti-scientific beliefs”.
It will also have to develop a strong core of talented researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs, while forging international partnerships.
"We must and we will continue to invest in science, technology and innovation in a balanced, sustained and sustainable manner. (This is) in order to keep Singapore competitive and relevant globally, and seed exciting new opportunities for our future economy,” said Mr Lee.
INVESTING IN FUTURE GROWTH
The additional investments announced on Wednesday will build on the progress made under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan - the S$19 billion, five-year roadmap launched in early-2016.
On how RIE2020 plan has fared thus far, Mr Lee, who chairs the RIEC, said: “We have affirmed that we are on track, but we are sharpening our focus and making fine-tuning adjustments to our plans.”
To ensure that Singapore keeps pace with the digital revolution, the Government will invest an additional S$500 million under the RIE2020 plan to strengthen digital technologies and automation expertise here.
Of that amount, S$200 million will go to boosting the nation’s supercomputing capability and network speed and quality, as announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat earlier this month.
The National Robotics Programme is set to receive about S$41 million to deploy more robotics technology, while the remaining funds will help to expand existing programmes like AI Singapore and foster new capabilities in digital trust, the social science of digital technologies, and computational law.
Another area earmarked for more investments is cell therapy – a form of therapy in which intact living cells are injected into a patient to help fight cancer, or enable the restoration of tissue or organ function.
The industry has seen accelerated growth in recent years on the back of related product launches, presenting high-value opportunities for the local biopharmaceutical manufacturing sector, according to the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
“When you look at the future, it’s beyond what we currently manufacture today. Small molecules, biologics and cell therapy will be part of the future and we want to anchor those investments here in Singapore,” said Dr Benjamin Seet, executive director at A*STAR’s biomedical research council.
By ploughing in S$80 million, Singapore hopes to address existing hurdles in the making of cell therapies. These include developing a commercially scalable platform and improved technology to assess the quality of cells manufactured.
In line with the newly announced target of producing 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs by 2030, some S$144 million will also be allocated from the RIE2020 plan for R&D work in sustainable urban food production, future food, as well as food safety science and innovation.
MORE TO BE DONE
Apart from increased funding, Mr Heng also touched on the need to position Singapore as a global-Asia node of technology, innovation and enterprise.
He noted that this year, a dedicated session on innovation and enterprise was held during the RIEC meeting for the first time. It involved venture capitalists and entrepreneurs from around the world, who “strongly endorsed” Singapore’s positioning strategy.
“They feel very strongly that this is an excellent time for Singapore to position this way because the economies in Asia are growing and the global linkages are needed more than ever. At the same time, it will allow us to draw some of the best technology, innovation and talent into our region.”
Developing talent across various areas in both basic R&D, as well as innovation and enterprise, is also an area that Singapore needs to do, said Mr Heng.
“We need to create more opportunities for our people, young or old, to understand more about the markets in Asia, the possibilities, the tech or nature of innovation.”
Building on that, Mr Chan, in a speech centered on the changes in the manufacturing sector, said Singapore must maintain its access to global talent networks. “That will become a crucial distinctive feature in our competitiveness.”
There are also areas that Singapore can do better, with private-sector RIE investments brought up as one example during the press conference.
Singapore currently spends about 1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on RIE, said Mr Lee. The private sector, on the other hand, spends between 1.2 per cent and 1.4 per cent of GDP.
“It’s not quite what we had hoped because our aim is Government 1 and private sector 2,” said the prime minister, in response to questions from reporters.
He was, however, quick to add that in terms of dollar amount, RIE investment from the private sector has increased alongside growth in the economy. Mr Heng added that R&D investments from businesses have been growing at some 5.7 per cent per annum compounded.
“But I think we need to do more,” said Mr Lee. “It is an area that we need to find partnership between the public and private sector."
Elaborating on what the NRF can do to nudge more companies, both big and small, to try to incorporate R&D into their operations, its chief executive Low Teck Seng said: “The industry is not spending rapidly enough so we will need to keep pushing our tech consortia idea and others to see to get them more involved. In terms of tech deployment and diffusion, can we be more effective? I think we can.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Wong