The Future of Singapore R&D Landscape through the Lens of a Young Scientist

Mr Duan Jiafei, Chairperson (Studying Scholars’ Committee) of the A*STAR Scholars Network and Research Engineer at the Institute of Infocomm Research, shares his view on how Singapore’s long-standing strategies of investing in scientific talent and maintaining a robust and vibrant research ecosystem have contributed to the nation’s global  competitive advantage in science, technology, and innovation.

Young research engineer Duan Jiafei shares his insight on Singapore’s R&D landscape.


Despite being an island state with a small domestic market and a lack of natural resources, Singapore has one of the world’s most competitive and stable economies, with zero foreign debt and a surplus of foreign reserves.


Various factors such as a stable market, robust IP protection, and the development of professional talent, have made Singapore a favourable destination for foreign investment.


In particular, Singapore’s investment in STEM talent and the fostering of a vibrant research ecosystem has helped it to harness science and technology for building capabilities in new areas and developing new competitive advantages. This innovation drive is important for Singapore to address national challenges, and pivot in this rapidly evolving world.


One of the primary drivers of Singapore’s R&D talent is our five-year Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plans, which reflects the scientific needs of Singapore to maintain our economy’s competitiveness.


I deeply admire how the RIE plan was formulated with great foresight by the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council (RIEC).

The RIE plan is particularly significant to young scholars and scientists like myself, as it provides a beacon of light to help us align our research interests to the nation’s needs.


Science, tech, and innovation are integral in securing Singapore’s future


Like other countries, Singapore’s challenges—such as an ageing population or sustainability—need solutions that involve multi- and interdisciplinary research and collaboration. Here is what I think are the emerging fields of science that may have wide-ranging benefits to Singapore.


Food science and engineering: Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food today and is vulnerable to global trends that impact food supply and safety, such as climate change and growing complexity of food systems.


To ensure a steady, secure supply of safe food, Singapore has diversified its import sources and invested heavily into developing a robust food science and technology ecosystem.


The Singapore Food Story R&D Programme was jointly developed by A*STAR and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to grow a forward-looking agri-tech and food ecosystem, with one key research theme being “Future Foods: Advanced Biotech-based Protein Production”.


This looks at supplementing Singapore’s protein needs through R&D into future foods, such as alternative proteins. The next stage in strengthening Singapore’s food supply resilience would be the development of future foods that meet the nutritional needs of Asian consumers in a healthy and sustainable manner.


“It has been encouraging to see the diversity of career development pathways in STEM today that allow young scientific talents to grow their competencies in areas other areas, yet still be rooted in the national Science and Technology ecosystem.
Duan Jiafei


Embodied AI: Singapore is presently facing an ageing population. If this trend continues, we will be left with a diminishing workforce and a shortage of individuals to care for the elderly. Robotics and automation will be critical to help bridge gaps in eldercare.


However, despite recent advances in robotics and automation, one of the areas receiving little attention is developing the technical capabilities to ensure the safety of human-robot collaboration.


Embodied AI is a paradigm shift from the current state of AI, which relies heavily on curated datasets for learning.


Embodied AI agents learn through interactions with their environments from an egocentric perception, similar to the way humans learn and interact in a social context.


Research in embodied AI will lead to the development of AI systems that can work seamlessly with humans in a collaborative manner.

Synthetic biology for a bio-based economy: With human capital as its only natural resource, Singapore needs to invest in research in renewable biological resources and sustainable production and processing systems.


Synthetic biology, an important aspect of a bio-based economy, is a process of editing and redesigning organisms for useful purposes, by engineering them to have new abilities.


Being able to harness its benefits will help us to streamline current processes, which are more expensive and inefficient. NRF’s Synthetic Biology R&D Programme provides Singapore with a good first step into this foray.


Fusion power: Fusion energy is recognised as an advantageous energy source.It is reliable, low carbon, produces no high-level radioactive waste and has no risk of catastrophic failure, making it suitable for deployment near urban centres.


The fuel for fusion can be extracted directly from seawater, eliminating the need for long supply lines and enabling self-sufficiency.


There have been significant strides made in fusion recently, and various new experiments are coming online soon. In some respects, the science of fusion is well-established.


Exploring alternative sources of energy such as fusion energy is the first step in diversifying Singapore’s options, and strengthening our energy resilience in a sustainable manner.


Building a vibrant scientific community


For Singapore to remain competitive and strategically harness such emerging fields in science, I believe we should continue with our strategy of making Singapore a global nexus for scientific talent.

Synthetic biology, an important aspect of a bio-based economy, is a process of editing and redesigning organisms for useful purposes, by engineering them to have new abilities.


Today’s research landscape is diverse and spans academia, public research, and industry.


It has been encouraging to see the diversity of career development pathways in STEM today that allow young scientific talents to grow their competencies in areas other areas, yet still be rooted in the national Science and Technology ecosystem.


These efforts have enabled the growth of generations of scientific talents and contributed to Singapore’s position as a global leader in science and technology.


Opportunities like A*STAR’s scholarships also allow young talent to pursue their passion in science and learn from top universities and labs locally and internationally.


Our public research labs and institutes of higher learning have strong academic collaborations all over the world and close links to industry, allowing STEM undergraduates to learn from top minds as well as to understand the importance of applied research.


At the national level, grants and resources provided to young scientists help them establish their research labs and support their career development, which contributes to the diversity and vibrancy of the RIE ecosystem in Singapore.


Beyond scholarship and fellowship opportunities, building networks and communities helps to create an open environment for exchanging ideas and knowledge.


For example, the A*STAR Scholars Network was established 10 years ago in 2012, as a platform to provide peer-to-peer support and help to foster relationships for interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars.


This community of support lasts beyond the duration of the scholarship and continues into their research careers. Other professional societies for early career researchers across A*STAR, the universities and academic medical community provide opportunities for professional development and networking.

The A*STAR Scholars’ Network was launched in 2006 as a professional network for its scholars. Headed by the scholars themselves, the Network organises activities to bring the A*STAR scholar community closer together.


Inspiration behind the aspirations


I was inspired to pursue science because ever since I was young, I was always fascinated by the inner workings of things, from machinery, to how we think.


This passion for uncovering the inner mysteries of science propelled my research interest in artificial intelligence that drew inspiration from cognitive science.


I have had the opportunity to pursue my research interest through the A*STAR Graduate Academy— the scholarship, as well as the ecosystem’s support, enabled me to establish connections and collaborate with some of the world’s leading experts in my field of study. It also exposed me to an environment where I can devote my time to conducting high-quality research.


Today my research focus is embodied AI, and I aspire to develop humanoid social robots that would be critical in tackling the challenges that Singapore’s ageing population presented.


The RIE ecosystem has provided young scholars and scientists like me with a vibrant research environment for global collaboration and research funding, leading to new discoveries and opportunities.


This excites me as I look forward to my own research career after I return from my graduate studies abroad.


I am certain that with the support of the RIE ecosystem, returning scientific talents can greatly contribute to the development of Singapore’s R&D and continue to cement the nation’s position as an innovation-driven knowledge-based economy.


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