Sylvia Lim: R&D spending needs to be accounted for

I agree that it is necessary for Singapore to invest heavily in R&D for our nation’s future. However, it is critically important to measure the output and impact of our R&D investments to ensure that it is money well-spent.

This is admittedly not an easy task. The results from research may take years to materialise, and some R&D may be undertaken for strategic reasons, the benefits of which may not be easy to quantify. Nevertheless, any public spending needs to be accounted for.

This was a speech in Parliament on 8 March 2010 by NCMP, Sylvia Lim, during the Committee of Supply debate, on the budget for the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). Read other Workers’ Party speeches and statements at wp.sg.

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Since the year 2000, Singapore has spent $33 billion on R&D, also referred to as the Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development, or GERD. Of this, about $12 billion was funded by taxpayers.

I agree that it is necessary for Singapore to invest heavily in R&D for our nation’s future. However, it is critically important to measure the output and impact of our R&D investments to ensure that it is money well-spent.

This is admittedly not an easy task. The results from research may take years to materialise, and some R&D may be undertaken for strategic reasons, the benefits of which may not be easy to quantify. Nevertheless, any public spending needs to be accounted for.

R&D output measures

How are we currently measuring the output and impact of our R&D investments?

I note that A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) puts out annual R&D Surveys covering input factors such as the expenditures on various fields of R&D and the overall GERD as a percentage of GDP. There is also mention of certain outputs like sales revenue from commercialised products and processes, licensing revenue from patents and technology produced here, and the number of patent applications.

However, the Singapore Competitiveness Report 2009 by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy observed that government-funded research institutes did not seem to be translating the scientific research into new products and services at a significant scale. Does MTI agree with the authors’ allusion to some under-performance?

What other output/outcome indicators are tracked by the government? How are we doing in terms of R&D output or outcomes vis-à-vis other countries at a comparable stage of their R&D?

R&D manpower

The numbers of full-time post graduate research students who were citizens or PRs was only 26% in 2008, with 74% being non-PR foreign citizens. The Economic Strategies Sub-Committee on Growing Knowledge Capital correctly noted that we should boost the numbers of local students pursing PhDs in R&D fields. What plans will the government be putting in place to up the numbers of local students doing PhDs in R&D?

Since the year 2000, Singapore has spent $33 billion on R&D, also referred to as the Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development, or GERD. Of this, about $12 billion was funded by taxpayers.
I agree that it is necessary for Singapore to invest heavily in R&D for our nation’s future. However, it is critically important to measure the output and impact of our R&D investments to ensure that it is money well-spent.
This is admittedly not an easy task. The results from research may take years to materialise, and some R&D may be undertaken for strategic reasons, the benefits of which may not be easy to quantify. Nevertheless, any public spending needs to be accounted for.
R&D output measures
How are we currently measuring the output and impact of our R&D investments?
I note that A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) puts out annual R&D Surveys covering input factors such as the expenditures on various fields of R&D and the overall GERD as a percentage of GDP. There is also mention of certain outputs like sales revenue from commercialised products and processes, licensing revenue from patents and technology produced here, and the number of patent applications.
However, the Singapore Competitiveness Report 2009 by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy observed that government-funded research institutes did not seem to be translating the scientific research into new products and services at a significant scale. Does MTI agree with the authors’ allusion to some under-performance?
What other output/outcome indicators are tracked by the government? How are we doing in terms of R&D output or outcomes vis-à-vis other countries at a comparable stage of their R&D?
R&D manpower
The numbers of full-time post graduate research students who were citizens or PRs was only 26% in 2008, with 74% being non-PR foreign citizens. The Economic Strategies Sub-Committee on Growing Knowledge Capital correctly noted that we should boost the numbers of local students pursing PhDs in R&D fields. What plans will the government be putting in place to up the numbers of local students doing Ph.Ds in R&D

Since the year 2000, Singapore has spent $33 billion on R&D, also referred to as the Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development, or GERD. Of this, about $12 billion was funded by taxpayers.

I agree that it is necessary for Singapore to invest heavily in R&D for our nation’s future. However, it is critically important to measure the output and impact of our R&D investments to ensure that it is money well-spent.
This is admittedly not an easy task. The results from research may take years to materialise, and some R&D may be undertaken for strategic reasons, the benefits of which may not be easy to quantify. Nevertheless, any public spending needs to be accounted for.
R&D output measures
How are we currently measuring the output and impact of our R&D investments?
I note that A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) puts out annual R&D Surveys covering input factors such as the expenditures on various fields of R&D and the overall GERD as a percentage of GDP. There is also mention of certain outputs like sales revenue from commercialised products and processes, licensing revenue from patents and technology produced here, and the number of patent applications.
However, the Singapore Competitiveness Report 2009 by Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy observed that government-funded research institutes did not seem to be translating the scientific research into new products and services at a significant scale. Does MTI agree with the authors’ allusion to some under-performance?
What other output/outcome indicators are tracked by the government? How are we doing in terms of R&D output or outcomes vis-à-vis other countries at a comparable stage of their R&D?
R&D manpower
The numbers of full-time post graduate research students who were citizens or PRs was only 26% in 2008, with 74% being non-PR foreign citizens. The Economic Strategies Sub-Committee on Growing Knowledge Capital correctly noted that we should boost the numbers of local students pursing PhDs in R&D fields. What plans will the government be putting in place to up the numbers of local students doing Ph.Ds in R&D?

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

5 thoughts on “Sylvia Lim: R&D spending needs to be accounted for”

  1. Mr G,

    I think it is in your domain to write something in relation to Temasek II.

    This is a personal opinion:

    While it is true that it is important to diversify our investment overseas, it is also true and important to look at what happen inside singapore.

    From an outsider perspective, Singapore is so rich that it can afford to lose so much at a short span of time. To certain extent, coupled with certain attitude from several high post person, it shows an element of arrogant behaviour in investment.

    Now, you and I know what is the story internally. In most biz, at SME and local level, with the exception of vice related biz, things are quite dried up. Yet, those great brain in charge still choose not to acknowledge it.

    I think this is a totally wrong approach. It is in my best interest to see more things done properly.

  2. Hi just to give you my perspective on upping the local people taking PhD: For PhD graduates, there are two career pathways: academic or industry. Unlike in many European countries, the value of a phD in industry are highly devalued except in a few larger MNCs that have R@D departments such as BASF. The issue is that the employment prospects for phD graduates in industry are not exactly that stellar and many are forced to work in research institutes or in the universities. The low percentage of locals are actually a reflection of the low security prospect of such graduates since the risk of at least 4-6 yrs of postgraduate studies with some scholarship versus a full time job tilts the situation towards the latter.

    It is pointless to artificially increase the local students if the underlying employment and research climate are not correspondingly improved in the industry. The local SMEs are often not willing or not encouraged to move up the value chain due to the influx of cheap engineers and technicians from overseas.

    For phD graduates striving for academic paths whether in the university or in the research institute, there is an unspoken rule whereby it is known that foreign phD graduates with experiences from overseas are favored compared to local graduates except if the graduate is under some kind of Astar or EDB scholarships. This leads to many local phD graduates striving to go overseas for their postdoc training. The issue is whether these people that have gone overseas are willing or can find an equal footing in singapore to pull them back after their 2-4 yrs of postdoc training? Unless the perception of favoring westerners over local are changed, many practical Singaporeans are not willing to take up a phD. Moreover, compared to only using scholarships to bond people, the government or university should instead focus on helping most of their postgraduates through tie-up, MOUs with partner universities overseas or non-bonded grants and facilitate the opportunities for postdoc work overseas.

    (P.S. i am one of those local phD graduates that are trying to go overseas for postdoc)

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