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Biopolis: The Science Factory

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The 2004 agreement was far more ambitious. A*STAR wanted Hopkins to recruit scientists and settle them in Singapore to form an international division of Johns Hopkins Medicine. In exchange for delivering scientific results—the rights to which Singapore would share—Hopkins would receive funding and infrastructure support. “It was a risky move to make such a big commitment to Singapore,” says Hopkins vice dean of research Chi Van Dang, “but it was also an adventure.”

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McNiece found himself a two-minute walk from the Genome building, which housed ES Cell International, a Singaporean biotechnology startup. The company’s chief scientific officer was British scientist Alan Colman, famous for cloning Dolly the sheep. McNiece and Colman, who later became executive director of the Singapore Stem Cell Consortium, could chat about research over lunch at the food court, surrounded by dozens of similar groups having similar conversations. At Biopolis, scientists from publicly funded centers drink coffee with researchers working for GlaxoSmithKline, Lilly and Schering-Plough—all of which have outposts in buildings there. That kind of casual intellectual interaction, says McNiece, made Biopolis hugely conducive to research. “It felt like a campus with corporate and academic entities mixed together,” he says. “Everyone was trying to build something new.”

But at Biopolis, things have to be built very quickly, and Hopkins was judged a step too slow. In 2006, A*STAR conducted a midcontract review and decided not to renew the Hopkins agreement, citing failure to meet eight of 13 key performance indicators—chief among them, a requirement to persuade 12 senior investigators with “international reputations” to work in Singapore. Only one Hopkins faculty member qualified. A*STAR also expected Hopkins to have initiated eight patents and eight clinical studies; neither stipulation was fulfilled.

Yet while McNiece, now at the University of Miami’s Stem Cell Institute, doesn’t dispute that Hopkins came up short on several indicators, he worries that such requirements can lead to misplaced priorities. “When there’s a benchmark for patents, people try to patent everything,” he says. “It’s a false standard for achievement.” Moreover, pressure to get results limits what scientists even attempt to do, says Daniel Kevles, a science historian and former chair of Yale University’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine. “It encourages people to pursue lines of research that have sure payoffs,” Kevles says.

In any case, McNiece contends that the plug was pulled too soon. “Our projects were just getting started,” he says. One involved developing a vaccine for the West Nile virus that would activate the body’s immune response using genetic material from the pathogen. Another was a study of somatic nuclear cell transfer, a technique for cloning any cell by inserting its DNA into the nucleus of an unfertilized egg cell. When the sword fell, McNiece was still deep in what, back home, would have been judged an early stage of recruitment.

“We were on track to be very successful,” says McNiece. “Biomedical research isn’t like the dot-com business. You can’t excel in the short term.” Hopkins research dean Dang agrees. Rather than buy big-name talent, Hopkins “wanted to grow the next generation of researchers,” Dang says. Convinced that it had hired good people, the university paid to bring them back to the United States. All, Dang says, are thriving.

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Medical Research Funding: Where’s the Money?

While U.S. scientists scramble for funding, Singapore’s may race ahead. But their carte isn’t entirely blanche.

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hed-dossier

1. “Innovation Nation: How America Is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back,”, by John Kao [Simon and Schuster, October 2007]. Kao, a former professor at Harvard Business School, examines the Biopolis experiment, argues that the United States is falling behind other nations in fostering radical ideas, and lays out a plan for reclaiming our culture of innovation.

2. “Post-doc Journal,” by Amanda Goh, Nature Jobs, January–December 2008. In this series of 10 articles, a young postgraduate scientist reflects on the challenges, successes and unique laboratory culture she encounters in her first year at Biopolis.

3. “Why University Inventions Rarely Produce Income: Bottlenecks in University Technology Transfer,” by Paul M. Swamidass and Venubabu Vulasa, The Journal of Technology Transfer, August 2009. This empirical study of 99 U.S. research universities highlights the obstacles to commercialization of scientific discoveries, including a failure to actively market inventions and a lack of legal expertise in the complex patent application process.

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