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Singapore risks seeing worthy local research sidelined in hurry to climb up global university rankings

  • The publicly funded Presidential Young Professor scheme, with its high salaries and big research grants, exacts a large opportunity cost for non-PYP faculty
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 7:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 7:03am

Professor Danny Quah’s December 16 response to our commentary on the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Presidential Young Professor (PYP) scheme is full of straw men. It avoids engaging with our argument that the scheme involves a huge commitment of public financial resources that is globally unprecedented in non-STEM fields, and unsustainable in STEM fields.

It exacts a large opportunity cost in reduced resources for non-PYP faculty (the money must come from somewhere), exacerbates inequities and divisions among faculty of different ranks (PYP, non-PYP tenure-track, educator), and generates uncertainty and insecurity over faculty hiring and promotion standards.

All of these diminish morale and impede faculty recruitment and retention, undermining collaborative research and undergraduate teaching.

Prof Quah does not dispute that the recent roll-out of non-STEM PYP has been accompanied by administration rejection of job candidates selected by departments for tenure-track faculty positions, and of departments’ and external reviewers’ recommendations to tenure existing faculty, who previously would have been accepted.

Overseas Graduate Scholarship and Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship recipients have told us that some returnees have been unexpectedly placed on the educator track, which is “a career dead-end for Singaporean PhDs”, given the “higher teaching load and little research support”.

These decisions result from “raising the bar” for required research standards. Unfortunately, as we have noted in our commentary, a point Prof Quah does not dispute: “The new standards themselves, and the distinction between standards for PYP and non-PYP hires, are vaguely defined and retroactively applied without notice.”

If, as is likely, standards are determined by research publication in highly ranked global disciplinary journals, locally specific research is less likely to “make the cut”. This disadvantages faculty pursuing such research, who are more likely to be locals.

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Prof Quah does not specify the “frontier technologies” in which Singapore “leads the world”, and we know of no local policy or business innovations that emerged from “highly ranked” research by non-STEM PYPs or their predecessors. Nor do we know the national benefit-cost calculation of achieving such results.

Research, the lifeblood of academia, is valuable to the nation and the world. So there must be a secure place in our universities for local tenure-track faculty and others doing local research that may not be published in highly ranked international journals or contribute to global university rankings. The opportunity costs of publicly funded schemes such as NUS’ PYP must also be considered.

We do not believe that this scheme, as currently conceived and implemented especially in non-STEM fields, is necessary or sufficient, efficient or equitable, in furthering research and the national interest.

Linda Lim, professor emerita, University of Michigan; and Pang Eng Fong, emeritus professor, Singapore Management University