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Debunking myth that basic research is abstract, scientists point to real-world gains like helping in Covid-19 fight

SINGAPORE — Scientists in Singapore are keen to debunk the idea that basic research deals with abstract subjects, removed from day-to-day life. To support their case, they point to a range of real-world gains benefiting many Singaporeans.

Debunking myth that basic research is abstract, scientists point to real-world gains like helping in Covid-19 fight

Professor Stephan Schuster posing with an air sampling machine at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering located at the Nanyang Technological University.

  • Scientists said basic research is often mischaracterised by the public as a waste of money
  • They said research allowed Singapore to develop many practical solutions, including ways to tackle Covid-19
  • To highlight its importance, DPM Heng said more than S$8 billion will be dedicated towards basic research over the next five years

 

SINGAPORE — Scientists in Singapore are keen to debunk the idea that basic research deals with abstract subjects, removed from day-to-day life. To support their case, they point to a range of real-world gains benefiting many Singaporeans.

These gains are not always linear. Take, for example, food science research, which is not a field that most laypeople would immediately link to the effort to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the curiosity of a team of researchers from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), who were working on ways to reduce food waste a couple of years ago, led them to stumble upon a method to create a natural, non-toxic antimicrobial compound.

Consisting of plant parts typically discarded during food processing — such as stems, seeds and seed husks — the researchers found the compound could kill 99 per cent of harmful bacteria due to a powerful antioxidant found in seeds.

Professor William Chen (left), director of NTU's food science and technology programme, said his team found that they could create a natural, non-toxic antimicrobial compound from discarded plant parts. Photo: NTU Singapore

The team’s lead, Professor William Chen, told TODAY that textiles manufacturer Ghim Li Group learnt of this discovery, and collaborated with NTU to create an antimicrobial fabric finishing for reusable face masks. At least 3.67 million of these masks were then distributed to Singaporeans in June this year.

Prof Chen, who is also director of NTU's food science and technology programme, credits the discovery to investment in basic research.

Such is the importance of basic research — or developing a greater understanding of a chosen topic — that Singapore has dedicated a third of its S$25 billion research, innovation and enterprise (RIE) budget towards it over the next five years.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat explained during the RIE budget announcement on Dec 11 that consistent investments in basic research have allowed Singapore to develop a base of scientific capabilities and intellectual property that it can now draw on.

Professor Low Teck Seng, the chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation, told TODAY that because the outcomes of basic research require a long fruition timeline, it is “all the more important to place sustained investment into it, as early as we can”.

Furthermore, he added that Singapore’s commitment to basic research goes a long way in creating an environment that can attract and retain top scientific talent here. 

WHY IS BASIC RESEARCH IMPORTANT?

Yet scientists interviewed by TODAY said that some Singaporeans do not seem to appreciate the significance of basic research.

Professor Stephan Schuster, the research director for meta-'omics and microbiomes at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, said the biggest misconception is that a lot of money is being used on research that is seemingly not needed.

“However, with scientific results being published and disseminated by the global scientific community, no result is eventually going to be wasted,” he said.

Associate Professor He Jianzhong, from the National University of Singapore’s department of civil and environmental engineering, believes this misconception is partly because the outcomes of basic research funding tend to be “less visible and sometimes less obvious” compared with funding for social welfare projects.

Prof Chen of NTU said that basic research requires curiosity to “unravel the mechanisms of phenomena in our life”, which in turn leads to knowledge creation.

“The same curiosity can also lead to developing solutions to improve our life,” he added.

HOW HAS IT BENEFITED SINGAPORE?

Aside from helping to develop the antimicrobial fabric finishing, Prof Chen and his team from NTU have developed a natural preservative using yeast, and are in the midst of running a pilot project with it. He said that the preservative they have created is able to extend the shelf-life of consumables such as fruit juices by as much as 24 times.

Over at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, research into microbes has led to the ability to test both the air and sewage for the presence of the coronavirus.

While the work for both projects predated the outbreak of the pandemic, the scientists said that they were able to make the necessary adjustments so that the technology could be utilised by the authorities.

Associate Professor Janelle Thompson, the team lead for the wastewater surveillance project, said that the scientific methods they had developed allowed them to collaborate with the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Armed with the centre’s inputs, NEA then monitored 20 large foreign worker dormitories in June in an effort to identify those that were free of individuals infected by Covid-19.

Prof Schuster said that the centre’s air sampling project began in 2014 with the intention of studying how microorganisms in the air can influence the respiratory health in Singapore since no similar studies had been done for tropical environments till then.

This year, they were able to include in their survey methods a way to test an area for the presence of the coronavirus.

Once they were certain that their detection methods worked, air samplers were deployed in various locations across the island, including the Singapore Zoo before it was reopened to the public.

It takes about 24 hours for an analysis of the air sample to be completed, similar to a nasal swab.

Assoc Prof Thompson said that further developments into such environmental surveillance methods would be beneficial in helping policymakers make informed decisions.

Aside from protecting and improving human health, discoveries in science can also lead to innovations that can benefit the environment in a cost-effective manner.

NUS announced earlier this month that Assoc Prof He’s team had found a new strain of bacterium, called "Thauera sp strain SND5", at a wastewater treatment plant in Singapore. It can remove both nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage.

Most existing sewage treatment systems use separate reactors for removing nitrogen and phosphorus, a process the researchers described as bulky and expensive. This removal process is necessary to prevent environmental pollution when treated sewage water is released.

Assoc Prof He said that the newly identified microbe could also make wastewater treatment more efficient and save the plants about 62 per cent of their electricity needs.

“Basic research is often mischaracterised or wrongly imagined as a lonely scientist spending endless amounts of time and money finding answers to irrelevant questions,” she said.

This could not be further from the truth because the outcomes help shape the direction of applied research and development for decades, she said.

“Without the incremental advances of hundreds of dedicated researchers working to solve fundamental questions about highly specialised topics, there can be no true breakthroughs in the future,” she added.

Related topics

research Covid-19 science NTU Heng Swee Keat

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