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A RESEARCHER’S DREAM:

Two million square feet of spectacular facilities // top-notch equipment // virtually unlimited funding // but one big catch.

Biopolis: The Science Factory

By Meera Lee Sethi // Photographs by Tony Law // Winter 2010
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Two stick-figure-like sculptures cavort next to a sign that reads: BIOPOLIS. Shuttle buses, bearing the words “Biopolis: Beyond Infinity” and images of beakers and DNA strands, buzz among nine irregularly shaped glass and aluminum towers with faces angled toward one another. Designed by the Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, known for her dynamic, futuristic creations, each building bears a monumental name drawn from Greek mythology (Chromos, Helios, Proteos) or science (Genome, Matrix). Inside, the large lobbies resemble those of private banks or Philippe Starck hotels: gleaming marble floors, sleek reception desks and security guards with crackling walkie-talkies. Sky bridges and wide walkways connect the buildings, and the grounds are lush with palms, ferns and fountains.

Here, within view of Singapore’s central business district, a cadre of some 2,300 researchers from more than 50 countries have engineered peptide nanoparticles that can fight brain infections, discovered a way to minimize tissue damage after a heart attack, and generated a three-dimensional model of a crucial protein produced by the H1N1 swine flu virus, helping to determine the efficacy of drugs that target it—all this, and considerably more, in just the six years since Biopolis opened. To fuel this research, a Singapore government entity known as the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) offers everything a scientist’s heart could desire: 2 million square feet of space outfitted with flow cytometers, nuclear magnetic resonance instruments and X-ray crystallography equipment; a vast supply center; and the ability to draw from the nearly $10 billion set aside for scientific research and development between 2006 and 2010.

But there’s a catch, and some researchers say it’s major. In exchange for plum working conditions, scientists must satisfy a list of key performance indicators. Everyone agrees to write a specified number of papers and file a minimum number of patent applications by a stated deadline (requirements vary from person to person). Contracts last just three to five years, and if scientists don’t deliver, they’re asked to leave. Setting such conditions enables Singapore’s business-minded officials to get rid of what they see as dead weight and to churn out science on a strict, predetermined schedule.

Some observers, used to a system in which the results of scientific research are expected to be unexpected, contend that the highest-quality work can’t be hurried. They wonder how and whether a government can create in a few years what elsewhere has evolved over generations.

Biopolis isn’t the first national scientific enterprise backed by a tremendous budget. Taiwan has poured almost $2 billion into its Hsinchu Science Park, and Saudi Arabia’s new King Abdullah University for Science and Technology has a $10 billion endowment. But according to a 2004 report by Danish business researcher Finn Hansson, most science parks are run in a fairly hands-off manner. Administrators deliver the money and take care of the physical plant, hoping to foster job creation and profitable technologies, but they don’t get involved in the scientific projects.

Biopolis, in contrast, manages almost every detail. That was the plan from the outset, as Singapore, a city-state of just 274 square miles and 5 million people, built a $360 million greenhouse in which to grow its biosciences industry. Watching the global pharmaceutical and biomedical engineering sectors add high-value jobs each year, Singapore—already one of the world’s richest countries thanks to consumer electronics and information technology exports—decided to become a knowledge-based economy. So this orderly republic, in which repeat litterers are made to dress in fluorescent yellow vests as they pick up trash, and chewing gum—the scourge of city pavements—can be bought only with a prescription, applied its customary efficiency to the task of incubating innovation.

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Medical Research Funding: Where’s the Money?

While U.S. scientists scramble for funding, Singapore’s may race ahead. But their carte isn’t entirely blanche.

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hed-dossier

1. “Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back,”, by John Kao [Simon and Schuster, October 2007]. Kao, a former professor at Harvard Business School, examines the Biopolis experiment, argues that the United States is falling behind other nations in fostering radical ideas, and lays out a plan for reclaiming our culture of innovation.

2. “Post-doc Journal,” by Amanda Goh, Nature Jobs, January–December 2008. In this series of 10 articles, a young postgraduate scientist reflects on the challenges, successes and unique laboratory culture she encounters in her first year at Biopolis.

3. “Why University Inventions Rarely Produce Income: Bottlenecks in University Technology Transfer,” by Paul M. Swamidass and Venubabu Vulasa, The Journal of Technology Transfer, August 2009. This empirical study of 99 U.S. research universities highlights the obstacles to commercialization of scientific discoveries, including a failure to actively market inventions and a lack of legal expertise in the complex patent application process.

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