The Biopolis is one of the many thrusts the government of Singapore has embarked on in support of its aim to make the biomedical sciences the next pillar of our economy. However it would only be incorrect in suggesting that Biopolis has successfully promoted industrialization in Singapore, as it has not fulfilled several important characteristics of industrialization.
A common definition of industrialization is the process by which a pre-industrial society undergoes social and economic changes to become an industrialized one. This process usually involves technological innovation, improved production leading to economic advancement. Given the fact that Singapore was already an industrialized nation before the existence of Biopolis, we should to be fair assess its impact on the biomedical industry.
Has Biopolis brought about a social change for those Singaporeans involved in the biomedical field? Biopolis is a hub in which knowledge, innovation and talent comes together for the advancement of the sciences. Under the umbrella of the Agency of Sciences and Technology Research (AStar), it not only creates jobs, but offers opportunities for students to further their training, attend courses, and finally engage in real research. Many foreign post doctoral fellows have come to partake in the research work, and similarly, many young aspiring scientists have had the opportunity to mingle with them, and to perhaps go overseas to enrich themselves. Biopolis has indeed made a new way of life for all involved with it.
Is there technological innovation? That has to be one of the purposes of Biopolis, advancement in science and technology. However one must note the fact that much of Biopolis’s research is academic and fundamental, and that like many groundbreaking areas in science, takes many years to nurture and bear fruit. It is impossible to judge the results achieved by Biopolis as similar as those of the shipbuilding and electronics industry. Fully understanding human protein folding tendencies, for example, is a much longer process than building a larger and more powerful ship engine.
For that same reason, Biopolis does not achieve the typical industrialization traits of improving production and driving economic advancement. One must remember that Biopolis does not actually produce products, but rather ideas and advancements. Despite having commercialisation support, academic research does not always lead to new products and technology, in fact they are few and far between. Even industrial research, where scientists seek to create improved methods of production, takes much time to generate outcome. In terms of biomedical industrialization, the efforts of the Economic Development Board in bringing in multinational firms such as Abbott and GlaxoSmithKline to set up manufacturing operations in Singapore are probably what is more akin to industrialization. These firms produce goods, create jobs and importantly, are able to generate profits from their operations. As it is, the groundwork being laid for scientific breakthroughs at Biopolis means the entire organization is yet unable to fund itself, relying heavily on government money. Such is the nature of research.
Biopolis was set up as an intellectual hub. The science it generates may one day move on to drive a whole new industry, or at least a facet of the existing biomedical industry. However it was never meant to be an industrial organisation, and should not be seen as one. If we start applying the expectations from a typical industrialization process to Biopolis, we might lose sight of its real goals and start judging it by the wrong sort of indicators which might not be applicable to it. Neither should we see it as the be all and end all of the biomedical pillar in our country, as it is merely one of the many components.