Singapore to allocate record $13b on R&D spend during 2016-2020: NRF

View of Singapore Arts Centre. Credit: Flickr/Brian Evans

Singapore will be investing S$19 billion ($13.1 billion) of public money in science, research and innovation activities for the five-year plan period starting 2016, up from S$13.55 billion it allocated in the 2010-15 period.

Under the plan, labelled RIE2020 (Research, Innovation and Enterprise), the National Research Foundation (NRF) will help coordinate investments in four technology domains: advanced manufacturing & engineering; health and bio-medical sciences; services and digital economy; and urban solutions and sustainability.

Additionally, the funds will go towards financing the development of a pipeline of scientific talent, financing academic research as well as investing in local startup ventures and other business entities.

In 1991, the first five-year plan, then called the National Technology Plan, was initiated with an S$2-billion budget. Subsequent iterations of this initiative saw funding for the plans increase, exemplified by the S$5 billion Science & Technology Plan of 2005 and 2010’s S$13.55 billion plan.

“Our intention has not changed. It is to link the plan to the economy. This signals our preparedness to spend up to 1 per cent of the GDP, based on our needs that we see. If we have good projects to fund, we will fund,” said Professor Low Teck Seng, CEO of NRF.

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Healthcare, Biomedical & Innovation focus

Health and biomedical sciences will receive the largest allocation of S$4 billion, 21 per cent of the total budget, as part of a government push to further develop an integrated bio-medical sector and healthcare ecosystem.

The budget for new and emerging sectors, termed ‘white space’ sectors, has also been increased by more than 50 per cent, to $2.5 billion from $1.6 billion. An example of this is cybersecurity, which was not a domain of interest when RIE2015 was introduced.

This will also help fund various labs jointly established by government organisations like the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and private, international cybersecurity firms.

In many ways, RIE2020 is an extension of Singapore’s traditional strategy of industrial agglomeration, which has strong benefits and leads to the creation of ecosystems that act as repositories of knowledge capital, human capital and financial capital.

This policy, along with an effort to attract native scientists based abroad, is also aimed at growing and welcoming more workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, given the socioeconomic dividends generated from implying and growing the pool of STEM workers. They also contribute greatly to the innovation aspects of any economy.

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Manufacturing & Innovation

Two sectors in particular – advance manufacturing & engineering and innovation & enterprise – will each receive S$3.3 billion, 17 per cent of the total budgeted RIE2020. While manufacturing may no longer be the largest contributor to Singapore’s GDP, it is still a vital economic sector given the benefits that manufacturing jobs provide.

Most global manufacturing activities are now done in China, but China itself is shifting from being a manufacturing centre towards being an engineering centre as it moves towards value-added, capital-intensive industries. This has led to manufacturing paradigms transforming globally, as well as a shift of low-cost manufacturing to countries like Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.

With manufacturing requiring increasing innovation, in addition to significant knowledge capital, local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are also being encouraged to innovate and collaborate with researchers, rather than simply remaining as vendors to multinational corporations (MNCs).

With a significant contribution to increasing jobs, the rise of robotics and automation are also altering the paradigms and practices of the manufacturing sector, while still generating employment.

Commenting on a research study by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in 2013, Gudrun Litzenberger, the general secretary of IFR explained: “It is a matter of fact that productivity and competitiveness are indispensable for a manufacturing enterprise to be successful on the global market. Robotics and automation are the solution.”

Litzenberger added, “Certain jobs may be reduced by robotics and automation but the study highlights that consequently many more jobs are created!”

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Innovation & Enterprise

The renewed focus on innovation & enterprise refers to an array of schemes and activities aimed at enabling collaboration between labs and local firms to generate revenue from innovations, rather than simply commercialising existing research.

Given the scarcity of land and the urbanised nature of the city-state, the urban solutions & sustainability cluster will also receive S$0.9 billion to further research solutions in the areas of water, energy and land.

For example, while Singapore has strong competencies in water treatment technology, existing water recycling processes still require significant energy, compelling researchers to seek a solution to save costs.

Finally, S$0.4 billion will go towards the services & digital economy, which is targeting how the city-state can integrate existing and new information technology capabilities, as part of the Smart Nation programme.

For instance, smarter machine learning capabilities led to the rise of the automation of knowledge work (AOKW), evident in the finance and legal spheres. Additionally, the rise of blockchain technologies has enabled the creation of decentralised autonomous corporations (DACs), also referred to as a distributed autonomous community (DAC), an entity without a central point of control and operating with specific protocols and operations in mind.

A Bitcoin derivative, Ethereum, is the subject of speculation regarding the deployment of DACs across a variety of sectors and uses.  There are several concerns regarding how DACs will operate, given that they are essentially autonomous ‘computer corporations‘.

While RIE2020 is compelling programme for startup ventures and the entrepreneurial community of business founders, scientists and technologists, it may need to be coupled with schemes like startup visa’s and programmes like Estonia’s e-residency programme. RIE2020 plans to further boost the local entrepreneurial  and innovation ecosystems. And such scientific-industrial complexes require significant human capital.

This is especially relevant, given the increasing competition in the wider Asia Pacific region, a notable scarcity of talent impacting the city-state and concerns regarding the long-term viability of maintaining Singapore’s stature as a startup ecosystem of global significance.

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