Friday, September 15, 2006


Just In Case You Missed It

Singapore: A David to Our Goliath?

The July 23 rd issue of Time magazine featured an article under the headline “Stem Cell Central.” A portion read as follows: “Just last week President George W. Bush used the first veto of his presidency to block a congressional action that would have lifted his 2001 ban on federal funding for most stem-cell research, ensuring that cell lines will remain scarce and money short at research centers lacking the state funding or private wealth to thumb their nose at dollars from Washington.”

It continued, “While Bush’s action infuriated U.S. scientists, political catfights aren’t the only things that make stem-cell research a challenge. The science is complex, the cost is high, and the efforts are scattered all over the world. Enter Singapore, which has begun offering itself as a combination sanctuary and think tank for scientists in the field.”

Most of the media coverage of the veto action dwelled on what was perceived as an effort to placate Bush’s core constituency—the religious right wing of the Republican Party. This was inferred from the fact that public opinion polls indicate that 70 percent of Americans favor stem cell research. Also covered was the fact that the vote that passed the original bill was 67 to 32 (only four votes short of the number required to overturn the veto), indicating that more than a few Republicans voted for it. What most of the media overlooked at the time however, was the reference to Singapore contained in the Time magazine article.

Despite the fact that Google has what it claims to be 86,700 links to the subject, it took almost four weeks for another major publication, The New York Times, to run an article on the “Singapore Biopolis.” So, what in the world is a “biopolis” and if there is that much information on the Internet about it, why isn’t it better known? I can’t answer the second question, but here is the answer to the first.

“Biopolis” is a play on the word “metropolis,” so it is a city-like environment devoted to biotech and biomedical research and development. Time magazine describes it as “A group of seven asymmetrical buildings with sci-fi names like Nanos and Proteus, all connected by transparent sky bridges. Biopolis is meant to be a self enclosed science city, housing government research institutes, biotech start-ups, and global drug companies.”

Currently it consists of two million square feet of space, 95% rented, with an additional 400,000 square feet to be completed by the end of this year. However, it is not just the space factor that makes this area so attractive to numerous multi-national scientific organizations, not only from America, but also from all over the world. The concept behind Biopolis is ingenious. The companies that have established R&D facilities there can share in a state-of-the-art infrastructure and specialized services at highly competitive rates, thus reducing their R&D costs significantly.

According to Time, “The facilities at Biopolis include a US $1 million Proteomics Laboratory for analyzing proteins and peptides; a Microarray Center to provide resources for printed and commercially produced chips; a 9.4T MRI machine housed at the Bioimaging Lab for animal imaging; a laboratory to provide routine and ultra-high speed confocal microscope; imaging solutions on animal samples; and a research facility with specific pathogen free research animals.” (I’m not sure what all that means but it sure sounds impressive.)

In addition to snaring some of the world’s leading clinical research organizations, the R&D operations of numerous multinational companies, and the research as well as the manufacturing facilities of many of the top pharmaceutical companies, Singapore has already attracted more than 50 of the best scientific minds in the world, especially those dealing with stem cell research. Researchers from such prestigious establishments as the National Cancer Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a husband wife team from the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine, and a Scotsman who helped clone Dolly the sheep have all been attracted to Singapore for multiple reasons.

The Time article is particularly discouraging to American’s as it states, “Given its small size, Singapore will never really threaten the U.S.’s overall biomedical muscle, nor is it trying to. But it’s impossible to witness the buzz at Biopolis or meet scientists who have chosen Southeast Asia over Stanford and not wonder how much the U.S. could achieve in stem-cell research if it were as science mad as this city-state of 4.4 million. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars Singapore has devoted to high-tech lab equipment and recruiting top scientists from around the world, it is spending just as much to educate a homegrown core of young Singaporean scientists to continue the work. Until they come of age, Yeo [a Singapore recruiter of scientists] will be just as happy to come shopping for talent in the U.S., and as long as the stem-cell debate stumbles on in the U.S., American scientists will be just as happy to go.” —a sad commentary on a sad state of affairs. David found a weakness in Goliath’s defense and attacked it. Singapore has used the same strategy on us. It seems that is happening all too often these days.

What in the World is a Wikipedia?

Several years ago, and then again last November, I described the ideas of the legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter who, almost 65 years ago, wrote about “creative destruction.” Elaborating on the subject in 1997, Clayton M. Christensen, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, coined the phrase “disruptive technology” and subsequently renamed the phrase with the term “disruptive innovation,” both of which were a take on Schumpeter’s theory. The fine distinction aside, the definition is the same: a new technological innovation, product, or service that eventually overturns the existing dominant technology or product in the market.

There are numerous examples: steam engines and internal combustion engines; automobiles; minicomputers; container ships and containerization; digital photography; semiconductors. The question then arises, is Wikipedia a disruptive innovation?

Ah! You ask, what in the world is Wikipedia? As you might have gathered from the word, the simplest, but hardly the most complete definition would be that it is an online encyclopedia—with the added peculiarity of being open and interactive.

As described in the September 2006 edition of The Atlantic Online (, “Instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You and I and any wired up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted.”

In what sounds like a rave review, The Atlantic enthuses that, “Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaboration gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind. The English language version alone has more than a million entries [It’s 1.3 million as of July 1, 2006 compared to Encyclopedia Britannica’s 85,000 in print form and 120,000 online]. It is consistently ranked among the most visited web sites in the world. A quarter century ago it was inconceivable that a legion of unpaid, unorganized amateurs scattered about the globe could create anything of value, let alone what may one day be the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history. Back then we knew that people do not work for free; or if they do work for free, they do a poor job, and if they work in large numbers, the result is a muddle.”

While hardly a muddle, the Wikipedia effort is not without shortcomings and faults. Interestingly, its relative importance can not only be judged by its usage (launched in 2001, it is now the seventeenth most popular site on the internet, with the number of visitors doubling every month, receiving as many as a staggering fourteen thousand hits per second) but by the fact that at the same time that The Atlantic article appeared, The New Yorker (07/31/2006) published a very lengthy article on the same subject, both in print and online (

The major downside to the Wikipedia concept is the opportunity for vandalism, in that the open interactive option could lead to deliberate misrepresentations. According to The Atlantic, “…it is a widely accepted view that Wikipedia is comparable to [Encyclopedia] Britannica. Vandalism also has proved much less of an issue than originally feared. A study by IBM suggests that although vandalism does occur (particularly on high profile entries like ‘George W. Bush’), watchful members of the huge Wikipedia community [200,000 registered members] usually swoop down to stop the malfeasance shortly after it begins.”

It is obvious from its huge popularity that Wikipedia could be a very valuable information resource. However, since there is a slight chance that a particular article could contain misinformation, it would be desirable to double check against a second source. Good hunting.

Dietary Supplements? Certainly—Not!

With more and more Americans focusing on health issues, industry marketers are not oblivious to this trend, and have developed a lexicon of words to impress, mystify, and perhaps confound consumers. At one point in what now seem to feel like the distant past, the word “vitamin” was adequate to describe products that might provide some health benefits and even prolong life—then came phrases “nutritional supplements” and “dietary supplements.”—that sounded more professional. Now we have “functional foods,” “phytochemicals,” “cosmacueticals,” and “neutraceuticals”—they sound more doctoral.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the agency required to approve “real” drugs and pharmaceuticals, has proposed to permit health claims for dietary supplements without prior FDA approval on the same basis as for foods. In addition, a court decision held that the FDA musts allow a dietary supplement to make a health claim without it being based on an authoritative statement so long as the label bears an appropriate disclaimer. The dangers to consumers here are obvious.

That brings us to two different supplements that appear to be favorites of seniors here and elsewhere. Both have finally undergone rigidly controlled studies to determine their effectiveness. Results of both studies were recently reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. The first was reported as follows: “Saw Palmetto is used by over 2 million men in the United States for the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia and is commonly recommended as an alternative to drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).” The studies conclusions were quite brief and specific, “In this study, saw palmetto did not improve symptoms or objective measures.” Too bad guys!

The second is the popular combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate. Until now, there was little in the way of empirical proof that this supplement actually provided relief from osteoarthritis. The few studies that had been done were suspect.

A National Institute of Health press release in February stated, “In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the popular dietary supplement combination of glucosamine plus chondroitin sulfate did not provide significant relief from osteoarthritis pain among all participants. However, a smaller subgroup of study participants with moderate-to-severe pain showed significant relief with the combined supplements.” However, it then stated, “Because of the small size of the moderate-to-severe pain subgroup the findings in this group…should be considered preliminary and need to be confirmed in a study designed for that purpose.” In other words, that part of the study is a maybe, but for the mild and severe pain group, Celebrex provided significantly greater relief.

The most puzzling aspect of the results was the fact that while Celebrex reduced pain by 20 percent or more (that was the benchmark) in 70 percent of the mild and severe pain groups, a placebo had that same result in 60 percent of the participants. Hey, you guys in the supplement business, there’s your next hot item, the neutraceutical placebo for osteoarthritis. Maybe I should patent the idea.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Are We Losing the War For Innovation? Part IV

“The next time there’s a moon shot, don’t expect the United States to take the prize. Over the past century, Americans have become accustomed to winning every global battle that mattered: two world wars, the space race, the Cold War, the Internet gold rush. Along the way, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and live lives that were the envy of the rest of the world.”

That was the opening paragraph in the first of an ongoing recent series of articles in U.S. News & World Report titled “Can America Keep Up?: Why so many smart folks fear that the United Sates is falling behind in the race for global economic leadership.” Interestingly, this U.S. News article could easily have substituted the “Innovation” headline above, since the cautionary tale outlined in the U.S. News series is so similar to that described in the “Innovation” series. This becomes obvious when the next paragraph of the U.S. News article is read:

“It was nice while it lasted. Today, while unemployment remains low, home values continue to surge and fearless American consumers keep spending beyond their means, the land of the free is slowly, but unmistakably, yielding advantages earned over decades to foreigners who work harder, expect less, and, often are better educated. Taken piecemeal, these shifts are virtually imperceptible to most Americans. But business leaders, top academics, and other experts—especially those who travel abroad frequently—increasingly see America as a nation that has pulled into the slow lane, while upstarts in a hurry out-hustle Americans in the race for technological, industrial, and entrepreneurial supremacy. ‘Every one of the early warning signals is trending downward,’ frets Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. ‘We’re all fat, dumb, and happy, which is one reason this is so insidious.’ ”

The danger that the United States is losing its principal position is escalating as a result of inferior educational standards, and a distinctive drop in student interest in scientific and engineering careers. This is typified by a comment by General Electric Chief Executive Jeff Immelt in a January speech, “We had more sports exercise majors graduate than electrical-engineering grads last year. If you want to be the massage capital of the world, you’re well on the way.”

As described in Business Week, “General Motors, America’s biggest industrial company is a poster child for America’s waning influence, as it staggers toward possible bankruptcy.” The article continues, “...while GM’s woes may represent an ‘old company’ hangover, the same patterns are emerging in modern technological areas too. Many of the leading breakthroughs in semiconductor development, telecommunications, nanotechnology, and Internet services once dominated by U.S. companies—are steadily migrating overseas. [You’re welcome to throw stem cell research into that pot.] American businesses are seeking legions of talented technical specialists abroad, partly because they’re cheaper but also because they’re far more plentiful than in the United States.”

If you think that the outsourcing of jobs to India is limited to workers in low skilled call centers, or to Chinese engineers who do low level copycat work, here is a startling statistic—half of IBM’s 190,000 engineers and technical experts now reside overseas. This movement away from American workers is explained in part by David Calhoun, Vice Chairman of General Electric, “When we have to look for deep technical talent, not just 10 or 20 people—especially in high technology—the places you can go to and know you can hire somebody every day are India and China.” The force driving this movement is best expressed by the CEO of a software consultancy with offices in the United States, India, and China who observes, “When you’re in college watching the Super Bowl and drinking beer, you’re counterpart in China is on his fourth book.”

As a consequence of the United States dominating scientific, engineering, social, and economic disciplines, history has already identified the 20 th century as the “American Century.” It is becoming distressingly obvious that the title for the 21 st century will be, if not the China Century, at least the Asian Century.

As reported in The New York Times in February, a study reported to the National Academies, the nation’s leading advisory groups on science and technology, suggests that more and more research work at corporations will be sent to fast-growing economizes with strong education systems like China and India. (My underline.)

That this trend is accelerating is validated by the total number of foreign invested research and development (R&D) centers in China, surging from 200 four years ago to about 750 today. It should be noted however, that one knowledgeable observer discounts that number, pointing out that perhaps as few as 50 percent of these centers are doing genuine research. Nevertheless, it has been established that certainly many, such as those run by General Electric, IBM, Motorola, General Motors, Oracle, Intel, and Proctor and Gamble are indeed working to develop innovative products for global distribution.

China is not the only country with its foot to the innovation pedal. India’s list of multinationals with R&D aspirations is equally impressive although not as plentiful. Nevertheless, with a well-educated English speaking population, it is not surprising to see companies such as General Electric, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Intel, General Motors, Astra Zeneca, Motorola, Texas Instrument, and Hewlett Packard vying for India’s best and brightest. (Note the overlap with companies in both countries.)

American multinationals are not alone in establishing R&D positions in China. European and Japanese companies are also already deeply involved—companies such as Bayer, Siemens, Philips, Novartis, SAP, Volkswagen, and Honda for example.

In an environment where national boundaries are no longer viewed as an impediment to a company’s goal of seeking out and employing intellectual talent, there are many who view intellectual capital as the most important asset of any company. It is not surprising therefore, to see whole countries support their intellectual capital base with funds to optimize that value. Obviously, both China and India are pursuing this path, but one small country is doing so at a heretofore-unparalleled level. You can read about Singapore’s remarkable effort to establish a scientific infrastructure like no other in an upcoming article.

Unfortunately, the United States has been lagging in efforts of this nature as well as falling behind in providing encouragement to foster an interest in the science and engineering fields. This has been well documented in a report originally requested by the Senate Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. It was produced by a 20-member committee appointed by the National Academies that included Nobel Prize winners, CEO’s, university presidents, and former presidential appointees, and published in October, 2005.

Unlike most reports of this nature, particularly those produced in our nation’s capital, this one, titled “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” certainly must have been considered unique since neither campaign fund contributions nor other nefarious inducements were necessary to get the Bush administration to sit up and pay attention. Of course the fact that it was strongly supported by an influential group of Republican executives such as Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin, and Charles Vest, former president of MIT, enabled the group to set up meetings with Dick Cheney and Josh Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget to discuss how best to implement the report’s recommendations.

The report, begins, U.S. “workers in virtually every sector must now face competitors who live just a mouse-click away in Ireland, Finland, India or dozens of other nations whose economies are growing. Having reviewed the trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength. We are worried about the future prosperity of the United States. We fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lost and the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost—if indeed it can be regained at all.”

In addition to emphasizing the dangers and severe negative aspects inherent in our educational system and the dismal overall performance of American students in general, especially when compared to those in other, even less developed countries, several key recommendations were made. The report emphasized the following among the top priorities:
  • Annually recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers by awarding four-year merit-based scholarships, to be paid back through five years of K-12 public school teaching.

  • Strengthening the math and science skills of 25,000 other teachers through extracurricular programs.

  • Creating opportunities and incentives for many more middle school and high school students to take advanced math and science courses by offering, among other things, $100 mini-scholarships for success in exams, and creating more specialty math-and-science schools.

  • Increasing federal investments in long-term basic research by 10 percent a year over the next seven years.

  • Annually providing research grants of $500,000 each, payable over five years, to 200 of America’s most outstanding young researchers.

  • Creating a new Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Energy department to support creative out-of-the-box transformational energy research.

It was reported that even those in the group who met with the Bush administration leaders were surprised when the concepts recommended in the report ended up as key features in the State of the Union address in January. President Bush said, “…to keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all. We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious peoples—and we’re going to keep that edge. Tonight I announce an American Competitive Imitative (ACI) to encourage innovation throughout our economy, and to give our nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science. ”

He then proposed to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research. (See #4 above) Another proposal was to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science (See #1 above), and to bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms. He also spoke about providing permanent tax credits for research and development.

In a rare show of bi-partisanship, key members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives quickly developed legislation that recognized the desperate need for implementation of many of the proposals outlined in the National Academies report, and in the president’s ACI program

Indeed, following up on his ACI program, the president subsequently requested for his 2007 budget $5.9 billion for targeted research and development and $380 million for education programs, pro-business tax policies and skilled worker training programs. The president commented that, “My 2007 budget recognizes the importance of innovation to our economic future—fostering and encouraging all the components that make our economic engine the envy or the world.”

While it remains to be seen whether even this amount of funding is adequate (or that legislation will be passed) to fully resolve the immediate problem, even greater quandaries exist that might prove the greatest stumbling block to creating a permanent solution—a most contentious, and perhaps irresolvable challenge—the implications for progress in education as a consequence of a growing minority population and questionable cultural attitudes. This is the sensitive topic for next month’s article, the last in this series.