Thursday, February 08, 2007

Dr Lee Wei Ling vs Philip Yeo

While i may seem harsh on Dr Lee in my previous entry, the truth is i listen to the message and not the messenger. Today Dr Lee gets my support for her stand in her "feud" with Philip Yeo in the current Biomed debate that is getting Yeo all riled up and making all sorts of uncalled for remarks against her which has led to some stinging response from Dr Lee herself. Yeo has the support of an ex-SAF general and heavy weight PAP minister Tony Tan no less. But Dr Lee is a member of the untouchable family, the daughter of LKY.

Under Dr Lee's microscope
Letter from Associate Professor Lee Wei Ling
Director, National Neuroscience Institute

THE official stance by the Government is that there is nothing wrong with its biomedical research strategy. It justifies that it is on the right track by the fact that the biomedical sector now makes up a quarter of Singapore's Gross Domestic Product generated by manufacturing.

Output by Singapore's drug factories jumped by over a third last year, pushing overall biomedical production up by 30.2 per cent. This robust growth puts biomedical output at a record $23 billion, almost four times the production in 2000. More than 90 per cent comes from pharmaceuticals, with the rest from the medical technology sector.

To attribute the investment by biomedical companies in Singapore to our multi-billion dollar research drive is inaccurate. Numerous news agencies and newspapers have reported the reasons why these biomedical companies decided to set up in Singapore. The generous help from the Singapore Government, the strict enforcement of intellectual-property (IP) laws, proximity to new major markets in Asia, Singapore's efficiency, educated workforce and English-speaking environment are the incentives for investing in Singapore.

Singapore's own huge biomedical research initiative is not an important consideration, except in the few cases where the pharmaceutical companies have joint research ventures with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) or the Biopolis. This is not surprising. Research groups doing similar research are all competing with each other to make breakthroughs — only then do they get the IP rights. So, how would having competing groups in Singapore be an incentive for biomedical companies to come and set up shop here?

Mr Philip Yeo described me as "a voice in the wilderness", noting that I have not been in the Biopolis. But I have received more fanmail than I can remember from Singapore doctors and researchers, thanking me for pointing out the obvious mistake in the way the biomedical drive has been carried out.

I would challenge that, having never practised as a doctor, Mr Yeo is strategising about biomedical research directions in an ivory tower. He has been very successful in selling Singapore in the past, but biomedical research is a different ball game. The fact that he dismisses the importance of Hepatitis B and head injury shows how out of touch he is with reality.

Yes, Singapore is immunising its children against Hepatitis B, but immunisation does not help someone who is already a carrier for the Hepatitis B virus. What is more significant is that 5 per cent of all ethnic Chinese are Hepatitis B carriers.

Head injury is the major cause of disability in children and economically-productive adults. The cost to the patients' families and to society equals, if not exceeds, that of cancer. Head injury is not particular to Singapore, but it is an area where not many research centres have chosen to concentrate on. At the National Neuroscience Institute, we have a good research track record and will continue to pursue this area of research.

Lieutenant-General (NS) Lim Chuan Poh said "you have to give it time to show success. Some of these things cannot be done in a matter of three or five years; we are going to stay the course".

If A*Star believes this, why did it sign an agreement with Johns Hopkins that had a five year timeline?

In fact, Professor William Brody from The Johns Hopkins University alluded to this when he was asked about biomedical research in Singapore. Prof Brody also pointed out the fact "that research is not linear, or predictable — it's unpredictable".

Can Singapore afford to continue to pour in huge sums of money for 10 or 20 years in the hope of eventually yielding results, yet knowing that there is no certainty of success?

Lt-Gen Lim goes on to ask: "Why must it be that Singaporeans cannot be world-beaters?" My answer to that is: Singaporeans can be world-beaters — if Singapore has the appropriate research strategy and concentrates effort and resources on the areas where we have a competitive advantage. The Singapore Olympic Council seems to understand this simple concept which escapes the highly intellectual officials determining the direction of Singapore's research strategy.

A*Star dismissed any suggestion that the Government might be rethinking its strategy to develop the biomedical research sector. However, Dr Tony Tan seems more open-minded about this issue. Dr Tan, who is the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council's deputy chairman, said he was sure the biomedical science executive committee will consider all input: "If there is any change in direction or emphasis necessary, I'm confident they will take the appropriate action."

In the same article where he was featured opening the new National University of Singapore Centre for Life Sciences, it was reported that "several cancers, the ones more common in Singapore and the region, will be put under the microscope". This is in line with the concept of niche areas that I have been advocating.

From my feeble knowledge of economics in JC, it seems that Tony Tan's use of GDP to proclaim Biomed a success is misleading. (What's wrong with him anyway? I would think he should do some homework after making that classic remark about Sg workers costs more than American and Australian workers)

The components of GDP, which comprise of investments, private consumption and net exports, does not take into account R&D. The KPI for R&D should be patents and breakthroughs. To date the Biomed has failed in this aspect which was what led to the termination of the tie-up with American John Hopkins after just 5 years. There was a big public relation exercise by Philip Yeo when the tie-up ended some 2 years ago. So for Philip Yeo and gang to now proclaim that "research needs more time" (10 to 15 years) sounds like going against their own justifications in ending the John Hopkins venture. Their position in this saga is riddled with u-turns and flip flops. I wonder if they realise it themselves.

Billions poured into Biomed may not be recoverable. But is it too late or too costly to change track now? Perhaps this is the reason why Yeo and gang is standing their ground. But why then is high-flying Yeo (mostly self-proclaimed) jumping ship to let an unproven and untested SAF general take over? That to me is a clear sign of abandoning ship, a standard SAF procedure to protect their prized officers and scholars.

I think observers may point out that perhaps Dr Lee has a hidden agenda here. Perhaps she is so vocal now becos she hopes that research money go into areas under her purview. Of course this is just speculation. But i won't be surprised this will be what the Yeo camp will suggest in the days to come in their counter-offensive. Yeo has been very defensive and exceedingly arrogant and rude in his remarks so far. When one deals with a monstrosity like the SAF or someone with ego so big that it blocks out the sun and blinds him from reality, for sure they are not going to lie down without a fight even if it means dragging the whole ship down with them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually what Lee is pointing out here is the research. Why have so many cancer labs instead of having some niche areas that are more applicable to this region.
Phillip Yeo is emphasizing on the fact that the output from the biomed industry has grown, which is true, but mainly from the EDB inviting companies from overseas to set up shop here. That shouldn't be confused with the research.
And so what if we have 1000 newly trained scientists? A-star needs to realise that it is going to be quality and not quantity that will matter later on. Our scientists must be like sir david lane and sydney brenner, the very people whom we invited here to kick start our research sector.