No scrimping, no RAE, no cynical old men...

July 8, 2005

Top scientists are being wooed by an oasis of healthy salaries, hi-tech facilities and freedom. Anna Fazackerley joins them in the sun.

David Lane discovered p53, the tumour suppressor gene that is linked to half of all human cancers. He has been knighted and has long been tipped for a Nobel prize. But it wasn't until he and his wife stepped on an aeroplane bound for a new life in Singapore that he really impressed his children.

"Our kids had gone to university, and they were very supportive of their boring parents doing something exciting," he laughs. He remembers the January day when they touched down in the ambitious city-state: "You arrive at an airport in America and you're treated like a criminal - at the passport desk in Singapore airport I was given sweets." Nearly five months on, Lane looks happy. Indeed, he is so excited as he talks about his new world that he can hardly sit still in the chair in his impressive office.

It is hardly surprising that Lane was tempted by the package Singapore put on the table. Locals say the city-state operates more like a big fast company than a country. It has ploughed £165 million into a futuristic bioscience park, Biopolis, and it needed some big names to project the venture into the premier league in areas such as cancer and stem-cell research. Lane, who was based at Dundee University, became part of the Government's business plan.

They told him that he would be the executive director of Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, one of the gleaming new buildings in Biopolis, with a staff of 500. In addition to a sizeable salary, generous travel budget, cutting-edge science facilities and a consistently hot climate, the Government would arrange somewhere for him to live, and there would be a position for his wife, Brigitte, who is a well-respected scientist, and other researchers they were keen to bring with them.

But, perhaps most important, Singapore promised Lane freedom. Institute leaders are handed a large research budget by the Government and they are free to distribute it. There are no grant applications and no research assessment exercises. "There is no constraint on what I do, so we've started all sorts of wacky projects," Lane explains cheerfully. "Scientists here are not really writing grants at all. We have government money and we spend it. It's very nice."

Although he still raves about the quality of UK science, Lane has fallen out of love with what he calls "the British obsession with the underdog" - the idea that brilliant scientists have to suffer for their calling in a world of bureaucracy and cash problems. "If you're enthusiastic and want to do something, the Government here is likely to just give you the money and tell you to get on with it," he says. "In the UK, you'd have to appear before a committee of 20 cynical old men."

This all sounds like an easy sell, but the Singapore Government takes no risks. Long before the job offer was made, the Government had started quietly wooing Lane. First it invested in his Dundee-based biotechnology company, Cyclacel. Then high-level figures from the country started phoning him, and he was invited to become chair of Singapore's science advisory board. "That was a great recruitment strategy," he acknowledges. "I met lots of ministers. They all had engineering degrees, and most had MBAs from the US. They were like businessmen, not politicians. And this vision of Biopolis amazed me."

Lane is not the only big name to have been tempted in this way. Some, aware of how much Singapore wanted them, negotiated even better deals. Edison Liu was poached from the National Cancer Institute in the US to run the Genome Institute. He is renowned for insisting that before he signed a contract, work on other buildings in Biopolis had to grind to a halt until his own was completed. He now lives in the penthouse of the Four Seasons hotel in Singapore.

The Government is open about its willingness to do whatever it takes to get the right people. Kong Peng Lam, executive director of the Biomedical Research Council, the funding agency that oversees Biopolis, explains how he "slowly" gets his man. "I would try to find out about their interests or hobbies and then, when they arrived in Singapore to visit, I'd let them see they could do that here," he says.

Furthermore, his agency runs a distinguished-visitors programme, with the aim of bringing one world-class international scientist to Singapore every week. These distinguished visitors are taken on a whirlwind lecture tour of institutes, schools and public venues. But, perhaps more important, Lam explains, they become a "resource pool" for Singapore to fish in - even if they can't be tempted out, they will know people who can.

Sir George Radda, former chief executive of the Medical Research Council, has been persuaded to chair Singapore's new bioimaging consortium, and his trips are becoming far more frequent. Nancy Rothwell, MRC research professor at Manchester University, was so impressed after a lecture tour that she vowed to recommend Singapore to her PhD students rather than automatically directing them to the US or elsewhere in Europe.

It seems that industry is not immune to Singapore's charms either. The Government offers huge tax incentives to woo established biotech firms and this has had the desired effect. GlaxoSmithKline has recently moved its neuroscience research to Biopolis, alongside Cambridge University spin-off Paradigm and Novartis's Institute for Tropical Disease.

Alan Colman, one half of the scientific duo that cloned Dolly the sheep, heads stem-cell company ES Cell International within Biopolis. He explains that the Government's strategy seems to be to invest heavily in the academic science base and to create centres of excellence that will act as a honeytrap for big pharmaceutical companies. He says that bioscience is being painted as "the fourth miracle, the fourth pillar of the economy".

The financial situation suits Colman. "This is an incredibly rich place.

There is a lot of money sloshing around," he says. "They don't throw it away - they are very careful with it - but they're much more generous than the UK."

As Singapore is politically authoritarian, Westerners might expect it to be a restrictive place. Yet the scientists who have taken the plunge and moved there argue that the reverse is true. Victor Nurcombe, an Australian stem-cell scientist, who is now a principal investigator in Lane's institute, says that he got his life back when he came to Singapore.

"That feeling of a six-and-a-half day week being necessary just to keep your head above water, let alone keep up with all the reading that has to be done, is just so completely draining," he explains. "I don't know a single Australian academic of any substance who isn't suffering the effects of burnout at some level." Without the endless round of grant applications and with proper government support, he says simply: "I have become a scientist again."

Nurcombe adds that while scouting out Singapore - when the Government also flew all his senior staff over to give them a taste of the country - he asked a respected developmental biologist what he considered to be the worst thing about living there. The biologist replied: "That there are no excuses anymore."

"There is pressure here, but of the very best kind," Nurcombe says. "It is not how do we survive until next year, but that with all this largesse, we damn well better do a fantastic job to justify it. Which is scary, but in the right way."

Lane is similarly adamant that his life has grown rather than shrunk in this small place. "People think about the regimented society, but I've met scientists here who are as inspired and crazy as anywhere else in the world." A host of ideas for science projects tumble out as Lane speaks, and he admits he has vague plans to set up a company in Singapore, possibly focusing on clinical trials.

Lane agreed to be a "talent ambassador" for Scotland before he left. But although he signed up for only a two-year secondment in Singapore, it doesn't seem at all certain that he will give up his newfound freedom and return to the UK. "I was restraining myself and didn't realise I was doing it until I came to a different place," he says. He won't be drawn about the future, but says with a big smile that he will definitely maintain a "strong connection" with Singapore. Then, looking out of the window at the sunshine, he adds wryly: "I can feel a danger. Once you've done it once, it becomes very possible and you start to wonder - where next?"

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