Jayne Thompson's truth is stranger than fiction. The young quantum-information theorist is studying the very foundations of existence. “Is there an objective reality out there?” she asks. “Or is reality strangely dependent on the actions of observers like us?”

Singapore has become a research hotbed, attracting scientists from around the world. Credit: NEALE COUSLAND/SHUTTERSTOCK

The quest to understand the arcane laws that rule the world of quantum physics took Thompson from Australia to Singapore, the diminutive city state at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Last August, she joined the 5-year-old Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). There, 20 principal investigators and roughly 180 other researchers including postdocs and PhD students are probing the innermost workings of the Universe, unburdened by teaching obligations or excessive grant-writing duties. “It's a fantastic place, very open and collaborative,” says Thompson. “I am supported very generously and I can discuss my ideas with amazing people from different continents and cultures.”

Singapore, a former British colony with an area of little more than 700 square kilometres, has become a hotbed of research. Lucrative funding opportunities, high salaries and a welcoming environment have lured leading researchers to the city state, and flocks of aspiring young scientists have followed. Institutions and organizations are seeking foreign talent, and about half of the 5,700-strong academic workforce at the NUS comes from overseas.

But newcomers will have to adjust to an insular scientific environment in which personal relationships can take on inflated importance — for better or worse. In tiny Singapore, it is hard to escape past interactions with funding agencies, ministries or academic administrators. And in a country where science is governed by five-year plans, researchers must reckon with sometimes perplexing shifts in funding priorities.

Knowledge growth

Singapore did not always have a booming knowledge economy. In the 1960s, when it became independent, the city state had its fair share of notoriety and social problems. Apart from a medical college founded by the British colonists, from which the NUS emerged, science was absent and public education was in its infancy. The nascent republic — made up mostly of indigenous Malays, and Chinese, Indian and Tamil immigrants — was not unified by language, history or religion. Singapore could not afford to be Singaporean: it had it to be international to survive.

Science investments have been a major part of its strategy for economic growth. In the past 15 years, Singapore has become a magnet for scientific talent. Its international ambience — superficially Western-seeming, except for the tropical climate — makes it easier for Europeans and Americans to live and work there than in China or Japan. “Accommodation is not hard to find and employment contracts are handled easily,” says Thompson. Her arrival “was a very smooth transition”.

All career levels are being recruited — from postgraduates to senior researchers (see 'Welcome package'). The government's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) offers scholarships and fellowships for graduate students and postdocs, and operates a programme under which PhD students from partner universities in Asia and the West spend up to two years at an A*STAR institute.

Postdocs are normally offered three-year contracts, with an option for another three-year term depending on a successful review. More-senior researchers negotiate a start-up package for the first one to two years, and then have to compete for grants.

Jayne Thompson: “I can discuss my ideas with amazing people from different continents and cultures.”

Success rates for grant applications at A*STAR and other government funders vary between 15% and 25%, roughly the same as at the US National Institutes of Health. Generally, grants are about the same size as those in the United States and Europe — up to US$500,000 per year. Salaries lie somewhere between those in Europe and those in North America.

International researchers tend to find Singapore welcoming. “I came with the ready-made notion of a country leaning a bit on the totalitarian side, where you would be hugely fined for jaywalking and the like,” says Artur Ekert, the Polish-born director of the Centre for Quantum Technologies. “What I found is a relaxed and well-organized place — maybe a little boring, but safe, family-friendly and with a wonderful education system — where science is held in high esteem.” Although some authoritarian tendencies linger in Singapore — for example, Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization based in New York, notes continued restrictions on political opposition and freedom of speech — the city state has become more liberal in recent years.

Product push

The Singaporean government has ruffled some feathers in the past three years by refocusing its science priorities — mainly in the life sciences.

In 2006, husband-and-wife cancer geneticists Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins left the US National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, for the A*STAR Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), which had made them a generous offer. “We both liked Asia and I was getting tired of working for the government,” says Copeland. The couple shipped their lab mice — and three of their postdocs — to Singapore, where they hoped to stay until retirement.

The scientific environment at the IMCB, which is located in the A*STAR-funded Biopolis research park, proved excellent, says Copeland. Students and co-workers were smart and hard-working, funding was almost unrestricted and the researchers had all the freedom they could have asked for. Within a year, Copeland was promoted to executive director of the institute and Jenkins to deputy director. The two felt much more engaged in scientific research than they had in the United States.

But things changed abruptly in September 2010, when the government decided as part of a new five-year research plan to increase commercialization of biomedical research and give funding priority to projects with industrial potential. The IMCB's budget, which had been focused on basic research, was slashed by almost half. Copeland and Jenkins handed in their notice and returned to the United States, along with their postdocs.

Commercializing research was a longer-term goal when the couple first arrived in Singapore, says Copeland, who is now co-director of the cancer-biology programme at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston, Texas. “We could afford to quit when that changed because we're approaching the end of our career. For many others it was more difficult.” Nevertheless, Copeland feels no resentment. “Singapore was by and large a wonderful experience,” he says. “You've got to be prepared that things can change overnight. But if you get a good job in science it is definitely worth going, especially if you're young.”

For their postdocs Karen and Michael Mann, the Singapore experience was personally and professionally challenging. “Carving a life in a foreign country thousands of miles away from everything you know is emotionally taxing at times,” says Karen Mann. “At the time Jenkins and Copeland were getting ready to leave, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding funding, scientific leadership and scientific direction. We felt it was in our best interest to return to the United States.”

But it was excellent training for a career in science: the experience helped Karen and Michael Mann to forge valuable international collaborations and gain experience in designing and coordinating research projects. “We helped establish a mouse cancer-genetics lab from scratch as young postdocs, which is an invaluable experience for setting up our own labs,” says Karen Mann, who is still working under Copeland and Jenkins in Houston.

Culture clash

Some Western scientists complain that decisions by Singaporean funding agencies are not always transparent, and that the path to career advancement is unclear. Others have difficulties with the customs of Asian academics.

Neal Copeland: “Things can change overnight, but if you get a good job in science, it is definitely worth going.”

Brendan Orner, a chemical biologist at King's College London, often felt alienated during his six years as an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Students called me 'Sir' and wouldn't enter the room if I held the door for them,” he says. “That was quite amusing, but the problems I had with superiors were less so.” In one instance, he tried to get feedback on a failed grant application. But the university research-support officer thought that Orner was asking for the names of the reviewers. “I couldn't tell him that he had misunderstood me because that would have been an impossible affront,” he says.

Confucian tradition, which is influential in Singapore, holds that senior people are not supposed to be challenged publicly. Westerners often find Asian restraint unsettling — whether in business meetings or in the seminar room. “You have to tell Asian students again and again that it is OK to challenge authorities,” says Ekert. “But they are beginning to embrace Western concepts of discourse — and not only in science.”

Barry Halliwell, the British-born deputy president for research and technology at the NUS, regularly has coffee or lunch with new recruits to get a sense of how they are getting on, and to help to settle any problems related to research administration, employment contracts or lab space. “Most settle in easily,” he says. The odd problem — with lab space not being ready, for example, or with missing clearances for animal experiments — can normally be resolved in a short time.

Many foreign scientists will find a stay in Singapore a scientifically rewarding and character-building experience. “We have benefitted from the opportunity to work in a culturally diverse entity like A*STAR,” says Karen Mann, who maintains productive collaborations that she started in Singapore with scientists in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Thompson is not yet sure where her inquiries into the nature of reality might lead her. “But Singapore,” she says, “is nothing I'd wish to leave behind quickly.”