25 Jul 2006

A*STAR defends its stand

(This is a follow-up from last Saturday's Straits Times report.)

Still no official press release from Johns Hopkins. However, there is plenty of buzz in the Singapore media about the "messy split".

Monday's issue of TODAY had a letter by one Leong Sze Hian:
The contrast between the statements by the two parties is startling. Considering the immense publicity, amount of taxpayers' money, resources and time spent over the last eight years on this project, I think Singaporeans deserve a more detailed explanation on what went wrong.[...]

If you do not know what went wrong, how do you learn from your experience and mistakes, so that others may learn from it, too? How can there be accountability for failure, if we do not know who was involved and responsible for what happened? What is the financial quantum and consequences of this project and facility that has now to be closed?

I would like to suggest that an inquiry be held so that similar research tie-ups in the future may benefit from the findings.

With Singapore's international reputation at stake, as I understand that this is the first international tie-up of its kind between Singapore and the US, I urge A*Star to tell us more.

In response, the Singapore side has finally presented its view in full force. « Takchek. The most relevant is A*STAR's official letter to the Singapore media, such as the one published in TODAY:

[The Division of Johns Hopkins in Singapore (DJHS) was set up to achieve three goals.] First, to establish a centre of immunology, experimental therapeutics and cancer research with an international reputation. Second, to establish PhD training at DJHS in Singapore. Third, to recruit senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and full-time residence in Singapore.

[...The] statements attributed to the JHU spokesman are both untrue and inappropriate.

The truth of the matter is that A*Star has fully complied with its obligations under the Agreement and continues to do so during the contractual 12-month wind-down period.

Indeed Singapore invested a total of S$54 million under phase 1 of the collaboration (1998-2004) and a further S$28 million under phase 2 to date.

The JHU presence in Singapore began in 1998 with the goals of providing clinical service, education and research. But in 1999, Johns Hopkins Singapore (JHS) was found to have significant problems in the progress of its research and education programs and a restructuring of the collaboration was then effected.

However, problems persisted. A*Star had to negotiate a significant restructuring of JHS in 2003 which led to the establishment of the DJHS, an academic department reporting to the Dean of Medicine at JHU.

A*Star put in place, with the agreement of JHU, stringent oversight criteria and the requirement for a mid-cycle review. The Agreement specified clear key performance indicators (KPIs) that would provide mutually agreed metrics for success.

The mid-cycle review was carried out by two committees in late 2005 and in early 2006. Separate reports were submitted by the independent Scientific Advisory Committee appointed by DJHS itself, and by the A*Star Grant Review Committee. The findings revealed that DJHS was still lacking in senior scientific leadership and had failed to achieve several KPIs.

For example, the Agreement required DJHS to enrol at least eight PhD students by February 2006. However, as the review date approached, DJHS still had no students. In October 2005, DJHS was urged by its Scientific Advisory Committee to take steps to address this issue. Given the pace of development, A*Star had assessed that DJHS was unlikely to meet the target of 40 PhD students enrolled by February 2009.

The Agreement also required DJHS to recruit 12 senior investigators with international reputation to appointments at DJHS and with full-time residence in Singapore by February 2006.

In truth, only one out of the 13 recruited by DJHS fulfilled these requirements.
While there were five others who held the title of full Professor, one had already tendered his resignation from JHU, two were based in Baltimore and did not reside in Singapore, one was based at the JHS International Medical Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and spent only 20 per cent of his time at DJHS, and one was a visiting scientist on a 12-month contract.

Of the remaining seven faculty, six were given appointments as Assistant Professors by JHU. For five of the six, this was their first appointment as an Assistant Professor. Academics generally would not consider someone at the level of an Assistant Professor to be a senior investigator.

When A*Star raised its concerns, JHU responded that at Hopkins they prefer to hire capable and ambitious junior scientists rather than bring in "big names". A*Star feels strongly that neither the letter nor the spirit of the Agreement, in particular the requirement to recruit senior investigators, was being followed.

All in all, DJHS failed to meet eight out of 13 KPIs for scientific capability development specified in the Agreement. For seven of these KPIs, DJHS was unable to even meet the first year targets by the end of the second year.

The Agreement allows A*Star to discontinue funding DJHS if it decides after formal review and with due process, that DJHS is not likely to succeed in achieving its KPIs.

The decision to terminate the arrangement with DJHS was not taken hastily and was based on nearly three years of monitoring and scrutiny. Moreover, discussions between senior management at JHU and A*Star about the potential closure continued for over three months (mid-February to end May 2006) before the decision was finally made.

A joint A*Star-DJHS circular was then sent on June 20, 2006 to all DJHS staff and students to inform them of the decision. The wind-down process then commenced in accordance with the terms of the Agreement.

It was only in July 2006 that A*Star learnt, for the first time, that DJHS had granted its four PhD students five-year scholarships with no obligation to return to Singapore after completing their studies. Such scholarships do not qualify for funding support under the Agreement.

Instead the Agreement requires DJHS to either fund or seek external funding (ie not from A*Star) to support any student to be trained in Baltimore.

We are deeply dismayed at the implication that A*Star is somehow to blame for the current predicament of the DJHS junior faculty and students.

Under the Agreement, should the DJHS program falter, JHU alone is responsible for the redeployment of its faculty. A*Star's obligation is limited to the provision of a 12-month wind-down budget. Notwithstanding this, A*Star has been actively helping DJHS and JHU with the re-location of faculty to Baltimore and placement of those who wish to remain in Singapore.

As for the four PhD students, though their scholarships do not qualify for A*Star funding under the Agreement, A*Star has gone out of its way to offer them assistance. We have renewed offers of A*Star local scholarships to two of them, and we are still attempting to assist the other two. We have yet to hear of any offer of assistance from JHU.

As a government agency, A*Star has a responsibility to review the progress and performance of projects like DJHS that are supported with public funds. Where necessary, we will act decisively to ensure that these projects continue to create value for and contribute positively to Singapore's biomedical sciences initiative.

In this respect, we have been even-handed and fair in our other interactions with JHU as a whole.

For instance, A*Star and Singapore have a productive relationship with the JHS International Medical Centre based at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Much of the clinical research conducted there is funded by the Singapore Cancer Syndicate, which is an arm of A*Star.

A*Star also sends its National Science Scholars to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees at JHU in Baltimore, after which they are obliged to return to serve Singapore.

A*Star and Singapore have, over the past eight years, given JHU every possible chance to succeed. But for DJHS, JHU was unable to fulfill its obligations under the Agreement. We cannot justify the continuation of public funding for a collaboration that has failed to yield results for Singapore.

However, we continue to act in good faith to ease any disruption by the provision of a generous 12-month wind-down period and as much support as possible within the terms of the Agreement.

It is therefore most surprising that JHU should choose to lecture A*Star and the people of Singapore about our reputation when it is JHU which has not delivered on its commitments under the Agreement.

Source: Letter from Dr. Andre Wan, Director, Biomedical Research Council, Agency for Science, Technology and Research; We have kept our end of the deal: A*Star : Agency says decision to terminate agreement with Johns Hopkins taken after three years of monitoring and scrutiny, TODAY, Tuesday, July 25, 2006

This letter was also printed in the July 25, 2006 edition of the Straits Times. TODAY had another article summarizing the press release:
SINGAPORE'S eight-year relationship with Johns Hopkins University (JHU) has gone sour and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) has said the reason was simple: The American medical institution did not deliver what it promised.

Source:Tan Hui Leng, The experiment that failed: A*Star points to problems with Johns Hopkins' PhD programme, senior leadership, TODAY, Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Straits Times also has secondary coverage which is notable. Excerpts:
The agency also produced a series of e-mails between its chairman, Mr Philip Yeo, and the university's president, Dr William Brody, between February and June this year.

The exchange revealed that while there were disagreements, both sides remained positive about the partnership.

On Feb 17, Mr Yeo wrote to 'dispel JHU's misconception that it is not possible to attract top scientists in Singapore to man DJHS'.

Dr Brody replied on May 2 that Johns Hopkins believed in hiring junior scientists who were talented and hungry.

The Hopkins experience 'over 100 years' was that the future belonged to such scientists, 'even though they may not have achieved stardom'.

On May 17, with talks at a stalemate, Mr Yeo informed Dr Brody that A*Star would wind down the facility, and re-focus attention on a new collaboration. Replying on June 12, Dr Brody expressed disappointment with the decision, but agreed that once staff issues were settled, both sides could review 'other opportunities that might be mutually beneficial for A*Star and Johns Hopkins'.

Faculty and staff were told about the decision eight days later.

The university declined yesterday to elaborate on its statement, but its move to stake Singapore's reputation on the failed partnership is 'completely unacceptable', said Dr Edison Liu, chairman of the scientific advisory committee appointed by DJHS.

Dr Liu, an American scientist who heads the Genome Institute of Singapore, said Singapore had done nothing reprehensible in the last five years.

Until the latest broadside from JHU, both sides had seemed headed for an amicable split.

Source: Liaw Wy-Cin, "Johns Hopkins failed to meet goals, says A*Star", Straits Times, Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Like Takchek said, it's always messy when two big egos collide. A*STAR's stand is implicit but pretty clear: they want brand name, famous professors. Don't give us anything else. Johns Hopkins' point of view: young researchers are the wave of the future, not those who have already established themselves. Apparently, neither party was willing to compromise on this issue.

Here's another article from the staff point-of-view. Arguably, these are the people worst affected by this whole spat.

WHILE senior researchers on the Johns Hopkins payroll can return to the university in Baltimore in the United States, the careers of junior staff here hang in the balance.

The Straits Times spoke to four junior researchers who have yet to have be offered an alternative job by either Johns Hopkins Singapore or the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), since they were informed last month of the decision to close the research facility in Biopolis in North Buona Vista.

Said one researcher: 'There's no hurry, we have one year. And it's very easy to find a job here.'

But for one of the foreigners among them, if he does not find a job here, the alternative is to return home. He said he is 'very upset' at the news.

'It was a big surprise[...]

Two researchers The Straits Times spoke to said they were given a termination letter last week informing them that the research and education arm would be 'wound down' with effect from June 1.

The letter indicated that their salaries and pro-rated annual wage supplement and outpatient medical benefits will be paid until DJHS terminated operations on May 31 next year.

Also affected are four postgraduate students who had been offered PhD scholarships by DJHS to study pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

They were to begin their studies in two months, but were told last month that with DJHS closing, there is no more funding for their scholarships.

One of those affected by DJHS's imminent closure, Ms Yap Kai Lee, 23, a recent pharmacy graduate from the National University of Singapore, is worried that her research dreams may be short-circuited with the lack of funding.

But she said Johns Hopkins in Singapore and Baltimore have been very helpful in trying to secure funding for them. Said the youngest of three daughters of a civil servant and a housewife: 'We were told our studies for the second to fifth years would be funded by the labs we work for in the US, so what we're awaiting word on is the funding for the first year.' [...]

Source: Liaw Wy-Cin, "Closure leaves future of junior staff uncertain", The Straits Times, July 25, 2006

The Straits Times also published a summary of the Key Performance Indicators for DJHS. In short:
DJHS met these targets in both years of the review (20040201-20060131):

  1. Cumulative number of postdocs participating in research

  2. Cumulative number of joint projects with other research institutes and centres in Singapore

  3. Number of papers published in top journals per year

  4. Number of papers presented at top conferences per year

  5. Number of conferences/seminars/courses/workshops organised per year

DJHS did not meet these targets in both years of the review (20040201-20060131):

  1. Cumulative number of full-time faculty

  2. Research scientists and engineers hired and trained (cumulative, full- and part-time clinical)

  3. Cumulative number of new technologies originating at Johns Hopkins University and further developed in Singapore

  4. Cumulative number of visiting faculty on sabbatical (none in first year)

  5. Clinical research projects (investigator initiated or industry sponsored) (none in first year)

  6. Training programmes offering JHU degrees (none in first year)

  7. No patents filed

  8. No new technologies originating at Johns Hopkins University and further developed in Singapore

  9. No graduate students

  10. No new products under development or clinical testing

Commentary here.

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Anonymous said...

both sides were being naive; they thought the job to be easier that it was and agreed upon a set of unrealistic goals

Anonymous said...

Ah, the wonderful clash of PRIVATE ENTERPRISE (John Hopkins) and a state institution A*Star.

The Old highly principled Quaker, benevolent to a fault John Hopkins is smiling from the heavens.

Matilah_Singapura said...

The post above is mine.

Anonymous said...

the over optimism is not a private enterprise versus civil service; the "they wouldnt dare" versus "make an example of them" was

we still got the MIT institute coming...

Anonymous said...

Wah Liao ....

SO SMART scientific discovery can be reduced into a set of KPIs!!!!

Wow pay $85M tax payer's money to buy internationally reputed researchers!!!!

I always thought it is best to nurture homegrown talents. But A-star so smart can short cut all the hard work to produce famous talents.

Anonymous said...

this is actually a diplomatic rather than scientific programme

Marcus Aurelius said...

Does the name Chen Jiahao rings a bell...I think he made some statements that had A*Star worried...some truth in those words? Anyone still has the details?

soci said...

Marcus are you refering to Chen Jiahao aka Acid Flask?


I am aware that he now writes under a new name. And if you don't know it then I am not at liberty to disclose his 'new' pen name.

As for the offending blog entries even Acid Flask isn't certain. The gist of the argument seemed to be that they had been making alterations to his contractual obligations after he had commenced his course. He also had some issues with how they were managing the scheme. Philip Yeo's aggressive response was to simply get him to shut up. No discussion on any matter was allowed and so a few years later A*Star is under pressure to disclose what has been going on in yet another un-transparent entity in Singapore funded in part by tax payers money.

Does anyone see similarities with a previous NKF situation when two whistle blowers were dragged through the courts and forced to stay quiet and then a few years later it blows up in everyone's face.

Anonymous said...

"SO SMART scientific discovery can be reduced into a set of KPIs!!!!"

Unfortunately this is the current trend in academia, the primary KPI being the number of papers published. The problem is exacerbated because funding bodies are usually filled with politicians, civil servants and old retired scientists.

Had J J Thompson been a Singaporean, the electron would never have been discovered because way back in the 19th century, no one had any use for it.

Anonymous said...

like the NKF case, if someone had published comments like "JHU research centre is failing to deliver" last year, he/she probably would have been sued

discussion of important issues is for the people in the know; others are to keep quiet

Elia Diodati said...

soci: It's been hardly 14 months since AcidFlask. And he never was one of *their* scholars, just an ex-govt. scholar from some other agency.

matilah_singapura: nitpicky point, but Johns Hopkins has two 's's in the name.

Anonymous said...

It seems the thing would have died relatively quietly had JH not thrown out the accusation that AStar did not meet its "financial and educational obligations".

Does JH have a case to present?

Anonymous said...

I assume JHU thought their academic judgement should have won over the ASTAR bureaucratic measurements; they did not realize the bureaucratic nature of the country they were operating in

Marcus Aurelius said...

well...i read somewhere that Jiahao criticized the [lack of] impact research publications in SG had on the larger academic community, that we had quantity but not quality. any truth in that? perhaps that's why JH left...