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Raising the bar for research excellence

13 Dec 2021

According to A*STAR Deputy Chief Executive (Research) Andy Hor, research excellence can be sustained by empowering scientific talent and working synergistically towards the bigger picture.

Many overseas counterparts often ask: how did a young country like Singapore develop a globally reputable organization like A*STAR within a few decades?

For Andy Hor, A*STAR Deputy Chief Executive (Research), part of that answer is clear: appreciating the importance of R&D in national development coupled with continuous and strategic investment in developing areas of research excellence.

In general terms, research excellence is defined as going beyond a superior standard in research. For A*STAR, Singapore’s lead public sector science and technology agency, however, the bar is set much higher and broader. It also means building deep knowledge and capabilities in advancing cutting-edge science and meeting technological, industrial and national needs. Excellence must be translated into research competitiveness, solving complex problems, meeting societal needs and ensuring sustainable growth.

With A*STAR commemorating its 30th year in action, Hor shares his views on the importance of growing areas of research excellence, how A*STAR has done so for the past three decades and his advice for sustaining such a feat.

Prioritizing people

Identifying key areas of research and achieving excellence are crucial for any science and technology organization, and A*STAR is no different. Through those areas, the knowledge that is generated and shared boosts the reputation of an organization, which then helps attract talents. This cyclical nature of reputation and talent development is central to the agency’s strategy.

“Areas of excellence can only be realized with people,” Hor explained. “When you have the right people with you, you can start building an area of excellence, and vice versa. They come in a package.”

Moreover, having clearly defined areas of excellence ensures sufficient resources are channeled into these areas. The resulting focus allows for deeper research penetration with targeted collaborations, partnerships and eventually impact.

Finally, Hor noted that areas of research excellence complement A*STAR’s mission to empower and enable a vibrant investigator-led research culture. Such a culture encourages people to put forward creative and innovative ideas, solve problems and take on complex challenges such as decarbonization, infectious disease, food security, Industry 4.0 and so forth.

These areas not only put Singapore on the world map of science, but also anchor A*STAR’s work to support the country’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 (RIE2025) plan.

Painting the big picture

Just as it commemorates its 30 years of excellence and innovation, A*STAR is already looking forward to the next three decades ahead—and beyond. For Hor, the agency’s success lies in the ability of its leadership to assess A*STAR’s place within the local and global scientific map—providing a big-picture approach to research in the process.

“It is not a matter of simply selecting research areas or topics. Understanding the scientific frontiers, technological bottlenecks as well as emerging societal challenges, and distilling these into research plans and strategies will shape our value proposition. We need to discuss with our people their interests, strengths and aspirations as these will shape A*STAR’s research agenda,” he said. “We have to look at what is needed, where the challenges and opportunities are and where our resources are coming from.”

According to Hor, the strategy of selecting and then sustaining these areas of research excellence is a delicate balancing act. For instance, there must be the right combination of curiosity-driven, use-inspired basic research and more practical, applied and translational research, both of which hold value for A*STAR. The agency also must be clear on what to pursue, to sustain or to sunset.

Hor also highlighted the importance of keeping the end impact of research in mind.

“Organizations often aim for short-term outputs to meet KPIs. While ‘quick wins’ may be beneficial, it is increasingly clear that we must strive to look beyond that and translate our research into longer-term impact,” he explained. “This is why our fundamentals must be strong and sustained.”

A champion of synergism

In line with the big picture, Hor credited A*STAR’s integration within the nation’s academic, industry and public sector ecosystem as a factor to its success in establishing and maintaining research excellence.

“Some people see Singapore’s size as as a drawback. But I view it as an advantage because it is compact and connected. In such a system, collaboration and partnership becomes our trump card,” he said.

Hor added, “As a public science and technology organization, A*STAR occupies an interesting space where it naturally connects well to the ecosystem. We have deep ties with universities where basic research occurs and where people are trained. At the same time, we have formed strong partnerships with industry and public agencies to deliver business solutions and societal innovations, while also creating jobs.”

Over the years, A*STAR has created a model of public-private partnership that has led to a plethora of industry projects, technology transfers and established consortia such as the Aerospace Programme Consortium. This synergizes well with another established model of public-public partnership, in which A*STAR engages universities in education and training through collaborative projects, as well as the public sector through staff secondment and R&D project co-development.

Hor believes that achieving research excellence within these models requires meeting a number of conditions.

“First and foremost, we cannot exist in isolation,” he said. “We must work together to be relevant by addressing timely challenges and eventually developing the needed technologies. These partnerships enable cross-fertilization, creating new strengths and fueling innovation.”

When it comes to achieving synergy, Hor advised that there must be sustained investments into resources and people, coupled with the desire to work with people across the ecosystem.

The way forward

Returning to the question of A*STAR’s evolution, Hor pointed out with a smile that 30 years is a long time in relation to the city-state’s short history.

“The formation of the National Science and Technology Board (A*STAR’s predecessor) in 1991 was without doubt a major milestone for Singapore. It marked our intention to harness science and technology in building a nation with a vibrant economy,” he shared.

Moving forward, Hor noted that in tandem with its areas of research excellence, A*STAR will continue to groom talent for the R&D ecosystem and translate research outcomes into tangible benefits for the people and Singapore.

“If we do this well, we have every reason to be optimistic that our best days are yet to come. The next chapter is going to be even more productive and enriching,” he concluded with confidence.

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group