Govt should continue efforts to retain scholarship holders in research sector: Parliament committee

Govt should continue efforts to retain scholarship holders in research sector: Parliament committee

SINGAPORE – A panel of eight MPs has urged the authorities to do more to keep research scholarship holders in Singapore and contributing to the country’s research sector.

It recommended that the Government track the number and retention rates of research talents, as well as relevant scholarship recipients. This is to ensure existing programmes are in line with Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plans to boost science and technology research, and remain a viable way to attract and retain the talents needed.

Singapore has grown a strong core of research manpower over the past two decades, with its researcher pool more than doubling from 20,000 in 2000 to 46,000 in 2020.

These were among the recommendations made by the Estimates Committee, which examines government spending, in a 57-page report presented to Parliament on Nov 27.

The committee is chaired by Mr Ang Wei Neng (West Coast GRC), and consists of six other People’s Action Party MPs as well as Workers’ Party MP Jamus Lim (Sengkang GRC).

It held four meetings between May and November and looked into various matters from Budget 2023, including the Healthier SG initiative, the safeguarding of Singapore’s climate resilience as well as the RIE2025 plan.

While the committee appreciated the efforts of the Government to catalyse research, innovation and enterprise through many investments, it said it was of the view that “it would be important that agencies disbursing RIE funds ensured the accountability and proper usage of such funds”.

This is due to the complex nature of research and development activities spanning many years and the amount of public funds involved, it added in the report.

In 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said the Government would be investing $25 billion from 2021 to 2025 through the RIE2025 plan.

The efforts put into RIE have resulted in steady progress over the years to build up a strong research ecosystem, noted the committee.

Singapore’s field-weighted citation index – which indicates how well a publication is cited compared with similar publications – rose from 0.71 in 2000 to 1.78 in 2020.

This is an improvement from being 29 per cent below the global average to being 78 per cent above the global average.

To ensure a robust local base of researchers with strong links to the global community, the Government funds various scholarships such as research scholarships at autonomous universities, as well as talent schemes like the National Research Foundation Fellowship.

A survey showed that about 64 per cent of RIE-funded postgraduate research scholarship holders worked in Singapore within a year of graduation for the graduated cohorts between 2019 and 2021.

Responding to the committee’s question on the plan to retain scholarship holders after graduation in their research fields to contribute to Singapore, the Finance Ministry said it is not uncommon for local PhD graduates to pursue overseas post-doctoral stints to gain international research experience.

This is even if their intent is to be based in Singapore eventually.

The authorities have also been tracking statistics on the retention of graduated scholarship holders for the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) post-graduate research scholarships which are for Singapore citizens, and the Singapore International Graduate Award (Singa) for foreign citizens.

Under RIE2020, about 80 per cent of graduated A*Star scholarship recipients and 50 per cent of graduated Singa awardees between 2016 and 2020 are currently working in Singapore and actively contributing to the RIE ecosystem.

They are primarily in A*Star research institutes, autonomous universities and relevant industries.

The Government’s strategy to retain scholarship holders after graduation include providing post-doctoral fellowships and awards to enable talented researchers to pursue impactful research in Singapore, said the ministry.

“More broadly, RIE plans are focused on building up global peaks of research and translational excellence in Singapore, which is ultimately critical in anchoring research talent,” it said.

It added that scholarship recipients who return to their home countries continue to be part of Singapore’s research networks around the world, strengthening the capabilities and capacity of the research and development ecosystem here through joint publications, collaborations and the provision of expertise to local researchers.

The Government’s efforts in this sector also extend to growing a core of local enterprises that actively leverage research and development and innovation as a source of competitive advantage, said the committee in its report.

It noted that local enterprises’ business expenditure on research and development increased from $1.1 billion in 2010 to $1.6 billion in 2020.

One start-up that has benefited from these improvements to the RIE ecosystem is Lucence, cited the committee.

Lucence, founded in 2016 and spun off from A*Star in 2017, provides ultra-sensitive non-invasive cancer detection technologies.

Through research and development collaborations supported by RIE funding, the start-up was able to access technologies, manpower, research and development and equipment from A*Star and public healthcare institutions.

On healthcare expenditure, the committee had also inquired about whether increases in spending are expected and what monitoring systems are in place to ensure prudent spending.

It noted that the ministry funded a wide variety of programmes, and recommended that it exercise prudence in ensuring cost-effectiveness, administrative efficiency and avoiding waste.

This could include reviewing existing programmes to reduce any duplicate features as well as to “sunset” programmes that are found no longer relevant, or incorporate them into other existing programmes.

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