October 01, 2008

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Let’s Get Real

Singapore is a great example of what can be achieved in science and technology with a determined focus and a long-term vision – it’s time Australia followed their lead.

By Wilson da Silva

HOW BIG IS SINGAPORE? I don’t mean geographically – most people know that the whole country is only slightly bigger than Hobart. But how big is it economically?

As one of Asia’s four ‘tiger economies’, Singapore truly is a remarkable success story. The smallest nation in Southeast Asia, it has a highly developed market-based economy with 26 per cent of its gross domestic product coming from manufacturing – and a growth rate of 7.6 per cent in 2007.

Yet its population is only slightly bigger than Sydney’s and its economy not all that much larger. It would take nearly five Singapores to make one Australia, in economic terms: our economy is worth A$1,297 billion, while Singapore’s is A$284 billion. Which is to say that it’s smaller than the New South Wales economy.

I was in Barcelona in July, to attend the Euroscience Open Forum, the largest interdisciplinary science meeting in Europe, held every two years. And I was impressed by the effort Singapore made to promote its home-grown prowess in science, sporting a stand in the exhibition hall that was five times the size of most others.

Run by Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (known as A*STAR), it was surrounded by crowds whenever I happened past. And it has a lot to boast about. I was most struck by Biopolis, a biomedical complex of seven buildings completed in 2004 at a cost of A$437 million and covering 185,000m². 

Phase one of the site brought together several government agencies, publicly-funded research institutes and the labs of pharmaceutical and biotechnological companies from around the world. Phase two was completed in 2006, adding two blocks, seven storeys high, and another 37,000 m² of research space, this time focussing on neuroscience and immunology, at a cost of A$61 million.

Fusionopolis One, which focuses on information communications as well as media, science and engineering

Then there’s Fusionopolis, a high-technology and media production hub of two towers, some 22 storeys high, that will be home to almost 1,500 researchers. It will specialise in research on high-resolution visualisation and audio, materials science and engineering, data storage, microelectronics and high performance computing. A lot of this is driven by decisive and determined government intervention in science and innovation spending.

Singapore spends S$4.6 billion (A$4 billion) on research and development, and is boosting this by around 8.8 per cent a year; that’s about 2.4 per cent of their GDP. So when I say that Singapore is serious about science, you can see what I mean. And Singapore is also keen to show this to the rest of the world.

Not bad for the world’s 44th largest economy. Now, Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world. Did it have a stand in Barcelona? No. We have a lot to boast about: excellent research and some brilliant minds. But we don’t promote it enough, either at home or overseas.

We don’t spend as much as we should on science, either. Less than 1.5 per cent of our GDP is spent on research and development and – as a national review of Australia’s innovation efforthas found – our spending has fallen by a quarter since 1993. Spending on education has also fallen to 4.7 per cent of our GDP, compared to an average of 5 per cent for industrialised nations.

We really ought to get serious about our spending on science and education. Australia’s economy does very well out of mining and tourism.

But if we’re going to be more than a nation of miners and golf caddies, we must invest in the future, and take science and education as seriously as the Singaporeans do.