Singapore already has a reputation for throwing money at scientists in particular fields it wants to develop. Now, the government says it will almost double its research budget over the next five years, to a hefty 3% of its gross domestic product (GDP). But whereas those in the favoured fields have welcomed the money, others complain that, as ever, basic research is losing out.

The government announced on 7 July that its newly established National Research Foundation (NRF) will spend S$1.4 billion (US$876 million) during 2006–10 in three areas: biomedical research; environment and water technologies; and interactive and digital media. This is part of the S$5-billion five-year budget set aside for the NRF when it was created in January.

Another S$1 billion is earmarked for a project to attract world-class research institutes. As a start, the NRF says it will establish a joint research centre with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year in Singapore, and hire 300–400 researchers to work there. How the remaining S$2.6 billion will be spent has yet to be decided.

The announcement represents the first big move in the government's ambitious plan to increase its research and development budget to S$13 billion for 2006–10, or 3% of the country's GDP.

Singapore is famous for big science initiatives, especially in the biomedical sector. One example is Biopolis, a S$500-million development that houses biotech research institutes and pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis. Next year, the government plans to open the first phase of a Fusionopolis complex, which will house information-technology and media companies.

Despite previous investment, the NRF's chairman, Tony Tan, says the Singaporean government is concerned about keeping its competitive edge in science and technology research, compared with big and growing economies such as those of India and China.

Over the past few years, Tan has travelled to other small but wealthy countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden to find out how they do it. He says he learned the importance of specializing in a small number of research areas that are likely to turn a profit.

Will investment in research help Singapore keep its competitive edge? Credit: R. RAHMAN/AFP/GETTY

The NRF is now discussing exactly how funds in each of the three research areas will be spent and when to start accepting grant applications. S$550 million will go towards biomedical research, especially translational and clinical studies — a move from the previous focus on basic research. S$330 million is likely to go towards strengthening technologies that allow the country to produce clean water, for domestic use and for export. S$500 million will go towards developing media technologies such as video games and digital cinema.

Some academics, such as Barry Halliwell, deputy president of research and technology at the National University of Singapore (NUS), have acclaimed the funding, saying it will help to attract big names from overseas.

Others are underwhelmed. The NUS's Juan Walford, who studies seahorses as a barometer for the quality of the marine environment, says the new categories are just a reclassification of areas already given the bulk of government money. “There is really nothing new,” he says. “It's all applied technology and engineering, there's no new opening for 'scientific research'”