Singapore discontinues JHU research initiative

By ANUM AZAM | September 20, 2006

An eight-year-long partnership between Johns Hopkins University and the government of Singapore ended in a torrent of blame in late June, as each side accused the other of failing to meet goals pertaining to the use of government funds, the recruitment of qualified faculty and student enrollment, according to a press release issued by Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR).

The break followed a troubled collaboration and over $50 million of Singaporean investment into the project, an educational and research scheme called the Division of Biomedical Sciences Johns Hopkins in Singapore (DJHS). The school is currently in a "wind-down period," during which the 60 faculty members and staff in the facility will continue to receive salaries until the facility closes down on May 31, said Johns Hopkins Medicine spokesman Gary Stephenson.

"We thought it unwise to continue putting money into something that is not working," said Dr. Andre Wan, director of the Biomedical Research Council at A*STAR, in an August interview with Nature. He added that the DJHS mission was violated by Hopkins failing to meet eight out of the 13 key performance indicators (KPIs) in the last two years, being unsuccessful in attracting faculty whose qualifications met previously agreed requirements and botching its attempts to establish a Ph.D. program.

The four-part mission statement, as published on DJHS' Web site, cites as its goals the development of "treatments and therapies for illnesses, with an emphasis on diseases endemic to unique Asian populations," the provision of international leadership in the education of physicians and the treatment of the ill, and the attraction of "clinician-scientists, and health care and scientific professionals of the highest character and greatest skill" to the Singaporean facility.

Stephenson declined to comment on the grievances issued by A*STAR.

A claim by an anonymous spokesperson published in Singapore's Straits Times on July 22 said that A*STAR had failed to meet "financial and educational obligations," and that Johns Hopkins "had done its part to recruit faculty and graduate students as stipulated in its agreement with A*STAR."

The spokesperson cited the break as a "reputational issue for Singapore and A*STAR."

A*STAR has strongly denied these claims with a barrage of press releases and interviews, "to make it clear that Singapore had lived up to our financial obligations and had been more than generous with support and opportunities for the project to succeed," Wan said.

According to a press release issued by A*STAR on July 25, "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 press release read.

"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," it continued.

The Singapore government has maintained that DJHS failed to achieve these KPIs for several reasons. The primary failure they highlight is faculty recruitment. The agreement 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 fact only one of the 13 recruited by DJHS fulfilled these requirements. Of the other five who held the full title of professor, one had already resigned from JHU, two lived in Baltimore, one was based at the JHS International Medical Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and spent only 20 percent of his time at DJHS, and the last was a visiting scientist from Australia with a 12-month contract.

Six of the seven remaining faculty were appointed as Assistant Professors by the University, and for five of these six, the appointment was their first. According to Wan, "academics generally would not consider someone at the level of Assistant Professor to be a senior investigator."

In July 2006, A*STAR learned that DJHS had granted five-year scholarships with no obligation to return to Singapore after the completion of their education to the only four Ph.D. students it had enrolled by that time, even though these scholarships did not qualify for funding support under the agreement. According to the agreement, students to be trained in Baltimore would be required to receive funding from the DJHS or from external sources.

"Though [the Ph.D. students'] 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," said the Singaporean government in a statement.

"[Johns Hopkins] is taking steps to transition the Ph.D. students. We won't leave them high and dry," Stephenson said.

However it was unclear whether the university would provide financial support for the students.

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