The new Oz

U.S. scientists follow yellow brick roads overseas

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: January, 2009

Illustration by Dave Cutler
In a southern corner of Singapore, there is a biomedical research metropolis—fittingly named Biopolis—that wasn’t there 10 years ago.

Science magazine dubbed the complex a “scientific Emerald City,” conjuring images of the sparkling city in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Biopolis appears to offer that same sense of promise. Scientists from around the globe are following the yellow brick road to Singapore, where they are finding modern research space, excellent shared resources and secure funding.

Neal Copeland, Ph.D., laughs at the Emerald City image. “That might be a little strong,” he says, “but it’s certainly a beautiful place to work.”

Copeland directs the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology—one of Singapore’s research institutes, similar to the National Institutes of Health in the United States. He and his wife and research partner Nancy Jenkins, Ph.D., moved their program to Biopolis in 2006, after 22 years at the National Cancer Institute.

Neal Copeland, Ph.D., in Biopolis
Courtesy Neal Copeland, Ph.D.
What lured them away?

It was a number of things, Copeland says, perhaps chief among them the growing frustration of dealing with the government bureaucracy at the NCI.

“It seemed to be getting worse every year,” he says. And added to that were the uncertainties of the annual budget cycle.

“We had an operating budget that didn’t mean anything, and all of a sudden—six months into the fiscal year—we’d get a budget that included cuts,” Copeland says. “That’s not a way to run anything.”

In Singapore—an island nation the size of Chicago—Copeland and Jenkins found a place where biomedical research is buzzing. The government has a vision, and the funding to back it, for vaulting Singapore into the upper echelon of biomedical research performers in one generation.

R&D spending as a share of the economy (relative to gross domestic product, GDP) is expected to reach 3 percent by 2010 (the United States spent 2.57 percent of its GDP on R&D in 2006).

“Singapore is building and growing (its research enterprise), while the United States is flat or headed down,” Copeland says.

One component of the government’s vision is Biopolis—a complex of (so far) nine modern buildings interlinked by sky bridges. The buildings, with names like Centros, Genome, Matrix and Proteos, house the biomedical research institutes of the Agency of Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR)—the Singaporean equivalent to the intramural NIH campus—alongside research labs of pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Built in two phases since 2003, Biopolis now boasts more than 2 million square feet of research space and amenities like food outlets, retail shops, and exercise and childcare facilities.

As of early 2007, Singapore had spent about $1.3 billion building and staffing Biopolis, which is part of a master plan for a 500-acre science and technology development that will include shops and homes.

“It’s beautiful infrastructure,” Copeland says. “It’s really quite amazing what they’ve done in such a short period of time.”

To jumpstart its ascendance as a biomedical research power, Singapore knew that it would need to import scientific talent. It has been wildly successful in its recruiting efforts. Along with Copeland and Jenkins, other prominent transplants include Edison Liu, M.D., former director of the NCI’s Division of Clinical Sciences; Jackie Ying, Ph.D., formerly of MIT; Alan Colman, Ph.D., who ran the Roslin Institute where Dolly the sheep was cloned; Edward Holmes, M.D., former dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego; and Judith Swain, M.D., former dean for Translational Medicine at UCSD.

“They’re trying to do in 10 years what other places would take 25 years or more to do,” Copeland says. (San Diego’s transformation into a biomedical research hub took 40 years.)

“It’s a very international place,” he says. Among the 450 or so researchers in the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, “about 50 different nationalities (are) represented.”

Eighty to 90 percent of the leadership of the various A*STAR institutes is foreign born, Copeland estimates. But the government has programs in place to increase the number of Singaporeans in the leadership ranks and to move the overall mix of institute researchers closer to a 50-50 balance.

It is paying the way for about 1,000 students to earn Ph.D. degrees at foreign universities by 2015, with the requirement that they return to Biopolis for five years of postdoctoral training. The government hopes that half or more will stay on.

Shares of Total World R&D, 2007
* calculated in U.S. dollars using purchasing power parities.
Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) R&D Budget Policy Program;
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Main Science and Technology Indicators, 2008.

Data: 2007 or latest year available.
World = OECD members plus Argentina, China, Romania, Israel, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa and Taiwan.

AUGUST ‘08 © 2008 AAAS

In the last century, many research roads blazed a one-way path toward the United States. Increasingly, they now offer more attractive passage in other directions.

Along with top U.S. scientists heading to other lands like Singapore—an “American brain drain,” writes leading innovation expert John Kao in “Innovation Nation”—foreign students and scientists who come to U.S. shores are more apt to leave.

Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., the Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Vanderbilt Program in Drug Discovery, notes that the best graduate student he’s had since he joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 2003 intends to return to his native China to pursue academic research.

“That was unheard of 15 years ago,” Conn says. “Students and scientists would come here with a desire to stay—now the best come with a desire to go back (to their home countries). It’s anecdotal, but it’s so pervasive that everyone sees it in their own students and experience.”

Lin Mei, M.D., Ph.D., agrees. Mei is a program chief in the Medical College of Georgia’s Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics who has watched students and research fellows return to China.

Two of his recent postdoctoral fellows, both of whom had published papers in the high-profile journals Neuron and Nature Neuroscience, have taken positions in China—one at the Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai that Mei helped found, and the other at one of China’s top five universities.

Lin Mei, M.D., Ph.D.
Photo by Billy Howell,
Georgia Research Alliance
It’s a sign of the times, Mei says. “China is becoming an exciting place to do research. When I was a master’s student in China (23 years ago), the research opportunities were very limited; there was not much you could do. Nowadays, the government is investing lots of money in research.”

In 2006, China announced plans to nearly double its R&D spending as a proportion of GDP within 15 years; the proportion—2.5 percent—will be similar to that of the United States. Expenditures will grow from $30 billion in 2005 to $112 billion in 2020. (The United States currently spends about $300 billion.)

Also troubling are the foreign-born students who are no longer coming to the United States in the first place.

U.S. graduate school applications from foreign students fell 28 percent in 2004, and dropped another five percent in 2005, Kao writes. Among the reasons: attractive graduate programs all over the world—often at lower cost compared to American programs—and greater difficulties in obtaining student visas.

More restrictive post-9/11 immigration policies are making it difficult to attract not just students and trainees, but also foreign-born scientists.

In the 1990s, 195,000 H-1B visas (valid for up to six years) were available annually for people with technical skills and an employment sponsor. That number dropped to 65,000 in 2003. For fiscal year 2008, the limit of H-1B visas was reached on the first day that applications were accepted, according to Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, published by the National Science Board.

“The United States has been at the cutting edge of science for the past 100 years,” says Mei. “One driving force for America’s global position has been an influx of highly talented immigrants. If foreign students and postdocs are not encouraged to come, if there is no effort to keep them, I see a huge problem in the future.

“How can the United States stay at the cutting edge?”

View from the Titanic

Competition for the global talent pool isn’t threatening the United States’ preeminence in biomedical research. Yet.

By many measures, America is on top of its game. The Council on Competitiveness wrote in its 2007 report, “Competitiveness Index: Where America Stands,” that “with only 5 percent of the world’s population, America employs nearly one-third of the world’s science and engineering researchers, accounts for 40 percent of global research and development spending, and publishes 30 percent of all scientific articles.”

But, says Richard Caprioli, Ph.D., director of Vanderbilt’s Mass Spectrometry Research Center, “these numbers are where we are now. That’s not what we’re interested in. Where are we going to be?

“We’re going to have to do better, not just stay the same. We’re in a very competitive world. This business of ‘Oh, we’re not doing too badly’ is kind of what the captain of the Titanic thought: ‘Gee, so far we haven’t hit an iceberg. We’re OK.’”

And even though the United States does indeed sit at the number one position in rankings of countries by dollars spent on R&D and number of scientific papers published, the trends tell a different story.

Over the last 40 years, the United States has been shifting research and development spending to the private sector. In the 1960s, U.S. government dollars funded about two-thirds of the country’s total R&D spending. By 2006, the government’s share had shrunk to just 28 percent. Even though the private sector has stepped up to keep the United States spending about 2.5 percent of GDP on R&D, these resources “are directed more toward applied rather than innovation-generating basic research,” Kao writes.

China and South Korea, by contrast, are upping their government R&D spending by 10 percent or more per year.

In terms of R&D spending as a share of GDP, America trails Israel, Sweden, Finland, and Japan, a group of countries that spend more than 3 percent of GDP annually. The United States—the country with the world’s largest economy—comes in eighth, part of what Kao calls a “second tier” for R&D spending.

The trend in scientific papers published follows the same pattern. While the United States published 29 percent of the world’s science and engineering papers in 2005—more than any other country—that percentage represented a drop from 34 percent in 1995. The average annual increase in papers published by researchers in the United States was only 0.6 percent over those 10 years.

During the same time period, China and South Korea’s outputs of scientific articles increased at annual rates of 16.5 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively.

Together, the flat funding of research in the United States, failure to attract and retain scientists, and modest performance in scientific publishing signal that now is not the time for America to rest on its laurels.

The United States needs to “recognize the seriousness of the situation,” wrote William Haseltine, Ph.D., chairman of Haseltine Global Health and founder and former CEO of Human Genome Sciences, in the October 2007 issue of Discover magazine.

“We have not yet killed the goose that lays the golden eggs of science and technology, but we have placed it on a starvation diet.”

What America needs, Kao argues, is a national innovation agenda.

There’s no wizard to show us the way. But with coordinated efforts, we can boost our research and development funding, grow our own talent pool through improved science education, and create our own “Emerald Cities” of discovery that attract and retain the world’s most talented researchers.

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