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  Straits Times 13 Oct 07
Nobel Prize facts and figures - and some of its notable winners

Straits Times 13 Oct 07
Will S'pore ever land a Nobel Prize?

The Nobel Prize is the ultimate recognition for research which has changed the world. Will Singapore ever produce scientists worthy of it? Chang Ai-Lien and Liaw Wy-Cin ask the experts

'Not a single country can plan for a Nobel Prize. What we have to plan for is excellence.

When we plan for excellence and we build a good university, have a good funding system, then in the long run, Nobel Prizes will come just like fruit on trees.

You have to plant a tree, make it grow and then the apples will come.

If Singapore continues to invest in both basic and applied research as it does today, if Singapore continues to foster research, promote good universities and hire good scholars, it is very likely Singapore will get a Nobel Prize or its own Nobel Prize in the next few decades.'

PROFESSOR BERTIL ANDERSSON, provost of the Nanyang Technological University and trustee of the Nobel Foundation involved in the voting for the Physics, Chemistry and Economics Nobel Prizes

'We can only call a real winner our own when he is bred and trained here. That I do not see coming. Our educational structure is still too 'closeted' and narrow. Many past winners have been less than 'responsible'. Some were mavericks, a few troublemakers, many rebellious.

I remember a conversation I had with senior education officers about opening the door to mavericks. It is tantamount to opening Pandora's Box, I said. They told me to open the door a bit but not too much - so young people can grow and be innovative, but still be obedient and follow rules. The door is either open or closed - opening a bit means nothing!

I do not believe good scientists can be 'developed' and 'planned' for. I also do not agree that the best scientists have the best grades in school. The best scientists are those who started with passion and curiosity - asking questions and solving them. Regardless of whether the questions involve a dollar sign. These are the men or women who will change the world.'

PROFESSOR PETER NG, director, Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore


'Professor Oliver Smithies, one of the winners, was a colleague of mine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He won his prize for work, made known in the early 1980s, that was considered at one time very esoteric. He is also an intense man who, at 82, still works at the lab bench and does not do administration. Moreover, even as he heard he won the Nobel Prize, he was preparing a rebuttal for a grant of his that had just been rejected.

One can never predict which discoveries will be prize-worthy. Basic, blue sky research is now as important as applied research in terms of economic impact. If our criteria of funding research with economic potential had been applied to the winners' work, they would never have been funded. If we are to pursue research worthy of a Nobel Prize, we will have to nurture blue sky researchers, protect them from administration, and let them mature through competition.

None of the Nobel laureates pursued research for money or glory. They were interested in science and became famous. Our obsession with being able to pick 'winners' through exam grades is counterproductive.'

DR EDISON LIU, executive director, Genome Institute of Singapore, and former director of clinical sciences at the United States National Cancer Institute


'Some young people today can be very cynical; their career choices are made based on how much money they can make. But we also need a group of young people who are really passionate about what they pursue.

Research is a challenging career that bears fruit only over a long period of persistent hard work. Without a genuine interest in science, it is difficult to sustain a meaningful lifetime career in research.

Scientists should aim to make a global impact - to discover new knowledge of the world around us, and to harness that understanding as novel technologies to improve the quality of life.'

PROFESSOR JACKIE YING, executive director, Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology


'Singapore's chances of having its own home- grown Nobel Prize winner are excellent because of the great research environment, but Singapore has only four million people and it will take time.

The high standard of the education system in Singapore is the bedrock for the Nobel Prize.

The areas Singapore has the best chances in are biology and medicine. Maybe in the future, a fusion between biology and engineering.'

PROFESSOR DAVID LANE, Biomedical Research Council chairman, knighted in 2000 for his work in cancer research


'At the starting point, which is where Singapore is now, it is impossible to predict which path or trail will lead to a discovery that can cause a quantum jump in human welfare.

My personal philosophy is that researchers should aim to answer questions that are relevant to human welfare. If, by chance, their discovery is significant enough to win a Nobel Prize, that is the icing on the cake.

To make winning the Nobel Prize the main purpose for research is like wanting to be Prime Minister for prestige and remuneration, rather than to serve your country.'

DR LEE WEI LING, director of the National Neuroscience Institute


'I stand in awe of the work that these Nobel laureates are doing. Their passion is the key driving force for their success.

For the past two years, the awards were presented to scientists working in the fields of genetics and stem cells. This trend suggests the strong interest in these fields and the emerging field of genomics and proteomics, and personalised medicine. Their work was performed earlier and has stood the test of time.

In Singapore, we should look at our strengths - science that is unique in our region - and make it relevant to the rest of the world.'

DR MAK KOON HOU, a consultant cardiologist in private practice and former director of clinical trials at the National Heart Centre


'Winning a Nobel requires many ingredients. Scientific brilliance, nurtured in the right environment, and in the right place and time to make the important discovery.

There is the networking with the rest of the world's scientists and gaining the respect of peers.

There are certain milieux that seem to produce Nobel laureates. Britain's Cambridge University is associated with more than 70 prizes. A large number of winners are of Jewish descent. There are cities like Budapest in Hungary, or environments like in Calcutta, India - where the human spirit is strong and resilient - that seem to encourage excellence.

Almost without exception, there is the mention of a person of strong influence in a Nobel laureate's life. This older, wiser person is brimming with passion and knows how to inspire the young people under their charge, encouraging inquiry rather than providing answers. Science teachers in Singapore schools can make a very big difference, if only they knew how.

The life sciences hold great promise for Singapore, because of the impressive build-up. The way the field is unfolding gives everyone a fair crack. Genomics and molecular biology are like a newly discovered gold territory: there is a rush of prospectors hoping to strike.'

DR CHEW TUAN CHIONG, chief executive, Singapore Science Centre


'It's not the prize that is the big deal, it is the appreciation of scientific excellence for what it is that gives a society an edge.

In Singapore, we provide tremendous opportunities for our young people to excel in science. What might be a limiting factor is that true scholarship and thirst for knowledge is not a strong part of the Asian cultural heritage. There is no room for doubt at the championship level. If one is not a genuine believer, you can play, but forget about aceing the pack.

Singapore's chances? Better than most countries in Asia. Small but not zero.'

DR MICHAEL CHEE, principal investigator of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Duke ate Medical School


'My ancient generation was discouraged by the PSC (Public Service Commission) from pursuing PhD graduate studies. So no hope of a Nobel Prize winner from my generation.'

With A*Star scholars still relatively new to the game, it would be a wait of at least 30 years before they could prove themselves in this arena, he added.

MR PHILIP YEO, senior science and technology adviser to the Minister for Trade and Industry, chairman of Spring Singapore, and former chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star)


'My philosophy: winning prizes is motivational, understanding the science of life is fundamental, but improving human lives as a result is monumental.

Would I ever get a Nobel Prize? Never thought about that. I just do my science and try my best to understand life in the hope that one day I, too, could save lives.'

DR LIM KAH LEONG, head of the Neurodegeneration Research Laboratory at the National Neuroscience Institute

Straits Times 13 Oct 07
Nobel Prize facts and figures - and some of its notable winners

THERE are six categories: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economics.

Winners for each category are selected by Swedish institutes. For physics and chemistry, the panel hails from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and for physiology or medicine, the Karolinska Institutet does the selection.

Each prize comes with a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (S$2.3 million). If there is more than one winner in a category, they split the prize.

774 individuals and 20 organisations have been awarded the Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901.

The youngest winner: Sir Lawrence Bragg won the Nobel Physics prize at the age of 25 with his father in 1915 for the analysis of crystal structure using X-ray technology. He was director of the laboratory where Francis Crick and James D. Watson made their discovery of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

The oldest: Prof Raymond Davis Jr, who was 87 when he won the Nobel Physics prize in 2002 for his work in astrophysics; in particular, for detecting ghost-like particles - known as cosmic neutrinos - produced in nuclear reactions which power the sun. He shared the prize with two others.

The Curie family - of the Marie Curie bloodline - are prolific winners. Marie Curie won it in 1903, when she was 36, for her work on spontaneous radioactivity.

She shared the prize with two others, one of whom was her husband, Pierre Curie. Pierre and Marie's daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, won the 1935 Nobel Chemistry Prize with her husband, Frederic Joliot, for the synthesis of new radioactive elements.

Singapore has not bred any Nobel Prize winners, but has managed to get one to work here. Dr Sydney Brenner, 80, a Briton, won the prize in Medicine in 2002 as part of a team of three awarded for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

He is scientific adviser to the chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research now and was chairman of the Biomedical Research Council under the agency before cancer expert David Lane took over in July.


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