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Singapore to invest more in digital, food tech, cell therapy R&D

FOLLOWING the mid-term review of the five-year Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 (RIE2020) plan, Singapore will be investing more in research and development (R&D) in the three areas of digital technology, cell therapy manufacturing and sustainable urban food production, including cultured meat and microbial proteins.

This was announced by National Research Foundation (NRF) chairman and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat at the end of the 11th Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council Meeting on Wednesday.

At a press conference at the end of the meeting, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said of the mid-term review: "We have affirmed that we are on track, but we are sharpening our focus and making fine-tuning adjustments to the plans." 

For Singapore to succeed in its research, innovation and enterprise efforts, the country must first continue to emphasise science and technology throughout society, said Mr Lee. He warned against the danger of having people who are "fearful and distrustful of science" and held captive by anti-scientific beliefs such as distrusting vaccines.

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Second, Singapore must develop a strong core of talented researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs, both local and from abroad, he said. Third, the country must build international partnerships to pool expertise and undertake more ambitious projects. 

Responding to questions from the media, Mr Lee noted that private-sector spending on research is "not quite what we had hoped". In contrast to the aim of having private-sector R&D spending at 2 per cent of GDP, compared to public spending of 1 per cent, the current level is about 1.2 to 1.4 per cent of GDP, he noted.

He and Mr Heng both called on the private sector to invest more, though the latter noted that private spending has been growing at some 5.7 per cent per annum compounded.

Launched three years ago with S$19 billion set aside, the RIE2020 plan for 2016 to 2020 covers four broad areas of advanced manufacturing and engineering, health and biomedical sciences, services and digital economy, and urban solutions and sustainability.

On Wednesday, Mr Heng said the government will invest an additional S$500 million in digital technologies under the RIE2020 plan.

About S$300 million of this will go towards supporting growth in services and the digital economy. This includes additional funding for existing programmes in areas such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, as well as new capabilities in areas such as digital trust, social science of digital technologies, and computational law.

Almost S$200 million will be used to improve supercomputing infrastructure. There will also be a S$41 million top-up for the National Robotics Programme.

Secondly, supporting the recently-announced goal of locally producing 30 per cent of Singapore's food needs by 2030, funding of up to S$144 million will be allocated from within the RIE2020 plan for the new Singapore Food Story R&D programme.

This will focus on sustainable urban food production, including aquaculture and urban agriculture, biotech protein production, including microbial protein manufacturing and cultured meat, as well as food safety science.

Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong noted that the RIEC discussions pointed to food security and climate change as two existential areas that Singapore should pay more attention to, alongside the long-standing physical constraints of water, energy and land.

Thirdly, Singapore's established biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry will get a boost in the area of cell therapy manufacturing, with S$80 million allocated for three R&D programmes related to the cell therapy manufacturing process.

Apart from these areas of increased investment, Mr Heng spoke on the importance of Singapore's positioning as a node of technology, innovation and enterprise. He noted that this year, for the first time, the RIEC meeting included a dedicated session on innovation and enterprise, with entrepreneurs and representatives from venture capital joining the discussions. 

Furthermore, this year, the Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology or Switch will be held together with the Singapore Fintech Festival in the week of Nov 11 to 15. This will facilitate the meeting of innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and firms in deep-tech areas.

Even while Singapore pays more attention to the downstream areas of innovation and enterprise, however, it is not neglecting basic research, noted Mr Lee.

The NRF announced that the government is committing to fund one or two more Research Centres of Excellence in areas of basic science, though details have yet to be determined.