Singapore must dream big to make breakthroughs in scientific innovation

Published: 4:00 AM, January 12, 2017

The 1985 movie Back to the Future depicted a world with flying cars, but the technology has yet to take flight. Instead, we may have to make do with autonomous self-driving vehicles and flying drones.

Singapore’s next big thing, for me, lies clearly in such science — daring, creative and groundbreaking. In January last year, the Singapore Government announced an ambitious plan to hurtle Singapore directly into the future, with a significant investment of S$19.1 billion into research and development (R&D) over the next five years.

The focus of this budget will be renewable energy, sustainable urban development and measures to support an active and healthy ageing population. Of interest is the approximately S$3.3 billion to be invested into research, innovation and enterprise. Commercialisation of technology will help create value from existing R&D investments at Singapore’s universities, research institutes and hospitals.

The budget lays the groundwork to support budding entrepreneurs through technology transfer offices, innovation incubators and accelerator programmes.

It will nurture high-growth innovative enterprises by giving Singapore-based scientists stronger support to take their concepts out of the lab and into the market.

These Government grants and initiatives are necessary to get things going. But if Singapore is to produce globally-relevant commercialisation ventures, more private investment is required.

Private sector funding into the science and technology sector, however, fell short of the goal of 2.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015.

For Singapore’s nascent start-up scene to soar, we will need many more entrepreneurial individuals who dare to fail while trying, as well as streams of private funding to keep them afloat. More public-private partnerships will not hurt either.


As a nanotechnology researcher working at a local university, I am confident that this sector will continue to flourish in Singapore. Research at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) is leading to many inspiring innovations by global standards. Futuristic nanomedicines are combinations of drugs and materials in the size range of 100–1000nm.

These tiny “packets” of drug-filled nanoparticles travel in the blood and unload their drug payloads at sites of disease. I see Singapore playing a big role in nanomedicine.

From stimuli-responsive nanomedicine, to targeted nanomedicine and nanomedicine that fights antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”, clever approaches to tackle global health issues are emerging right here at our doorstep.

Other areas in which I see Singapore gaining ground are innovative solutions for personalised healthcare, big data and supercomputing, cyberspace security, ageing and rehabilitative care, as well as the design of futuristic cities that even Marty McFly would be proud of.

Global recognition of scientific accomplishment from Asia is currently limited by language and cultural barriers, a relatively young academic infrastructure and a nascent science communications sector.


Any investment in science must be accompanied by investment in science communications, without which even the most revolutionary of scientific progress may go unnoticed by the local and international community.

In 2011, I founded Asian Scientist Magazine, a print and online magazine that covers science and technology research from Asia. I envision Singapore taking the lead in Asean when it comes to science communications and I hope to play my part in a small way.

But science writing is difficult. It requires scientific literacy and the literary muscle to inject enthusiasm into the bounds of reported information. It requires converting incomprehensible jargon into a format that captures the imagination of the public (younger people, in particular).

New forms of media have hurtled us into a digital age. More than ever before, maintaining an active public persona is important for one’s career; in science, it helps with finding research collaborators and in shaping the public’s views and attitudes towards science and technology issues.

Scientists can use the vibrant democracy of new media to our advantage. The intersection of mobile devices and video journalism is proving to be a disruptive force in media and publishing.

We can tap social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to engage the public more effectively. As Singapore continues to make headway into globally-relevant research, including in my pet subject of nanomedicine, we must continue to dream big — the flying car-kind of big. Even if, in the process, we have to buy COEs for flying cars.


Juliana Chan is a Nanyang Assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine. She is a L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellow and a recipient of the 2013 Singapore Youth Award. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book, a collection of 51 essays on Singapore’s next big thing.