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an online version of the magazine Fall 2006

Partnership Unraveled

Why a promising research agreement with Singapore has ended.


By Dean/CEO Edward D. Miller, M.D.

two hands shaking

An article in the New York Times recently spread the news that many American scientists are moving their laboratories to Singapore. But the piece also mentioned that “not every foreign move into Singapore works out. A joint venture between Johns Hopkins University and Singapore's top scientific agency is closing down.” Now, I'd like to talk to you about why, in fact, our five-year agreement with the Singapore government's science agency, A*STAR, has ended prematurely. The events of that story have taught us important lessons about our international presence.

Over the past decade, Johns Hopkins International has developed a broad portfolio of programs: hospital affiliations, educational collaborations, customized training in health care management and human resources, consulting services and strategic alliances. In nations around the globe, we have transplanted our models of clinical care and watched them take root. Meanwhile our affiliations in Singapore remained an important focus. We'd established a thriving Hopkins-staffed center for cancer patients at the island's Ten Tock Seng Hospital. And we were setting up research programs in 40,000 square feet of lab space in the gleaming new Biopolis Complex that Singapore expected us to fill quickly with 120 exceptional Hopkins scientists.

It is that research component that has now terminated. In the end, A*STAR determined it wanted to move in a direction that did not support Hopkins' research into viral diseases and cancers endemic to Southeast Asia. How did such a promising international research partnership unravel?

It turns out that persuading senior faculty to forgo their American ties and relocate themselves and their children to a country 27 hours away is one tough challenge. Moving to Singapore meant giving up Baltimore friends, families and neighbors, and relinquishing the collaboration and collegiality that defines the Hopkins campus culture. What sets our environment apart, scientists everywhere say, is that investigators here rub shoulders with hospital clinicians, toss around ideas and come up with new avenues to explore. Hopkins, in other words, considers serendipity vital to the scientific process.

Singapore, meanwhile—understandably—has set out to establish its credentials in biomedical research by assembling a galaxy of senior research stars in just a few years. I applaud this business-oriented drive. It's one of the things that drew us to the island. But history has shown us that discoveries cannot be rushed. New ideas must be nurtured. Eureka moments will happen when they happen, not by a certain date. And building a research division from scratch—with a group of investigators whose chemistry blends—is no easy task.

Indeed, since Nobel-Prize-worthy discoveries usually occur early in investigators' careers, we believe it makes sense to recruit brilliant junior researchers, add a sprinkling of exceptional senior faculty to guide them, and let them loose in the lab. We were beginning to do just that in Singapore when time ran out.

In hindsight, I believe A*STAR's and Johns Hopkins' expectations didn't match. We failed to fully understand one another. Singapore is a business-minded nation, but research, by its very nature, isn't compatible with rigid performance standards.


I can now offer this advice to medical centers contemplating international commitments:

  • Be clear about the value each side contributes to the deal and the resources required.
  • Know what's expected of you and your partner.
  • Be sure you can deliver on your promises.
  • Develop a detailed, mutually agreed-upon exit plan.

Let me say that I respect the Singapore government's decision to end its research affiliation with Hopkins. I also appreciate its substantial commitment over the past eight years. Our cancer center in Singapore will continue, as will the University's other collaborations there, notably the musical ones maintained by the Peabody Institute. Meanwhile, the Singapore scientists who had been recruited by Ian McNiece, our director of biomedical research there, will move to lab space in East Baltimore.

Most of all, I remain enthusiastic about Hopkins' role in international medicine. I'm convinced this is a key area for our future if we're hoping to bring the best in medicine to nations around the world. Our programs abroad also earn a small profit that we channel back into our educational mission. As we reinvent the medical school curriculum and design a state-of-the-art education building, those earnings take on added significance.

Finally, our faculty reaps enormous benefits from our mission abroad. International programs provide them with avenues for expanding their knowledge, gaining new cultural and medical insights and honing their professional skills—as all the while they stay connected to Hopkins. Meanwhile, keeping our name in front of people in other countries gives us access to a huge talent pool.

Every week Johns Hopkins International receives new proposals. We evaluate each and select the ones that we believe will be of the greatest benefit to the country in question. Sure, we'll take some missteps, but that, I believe, is always part of the growth curve.

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 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Annals of Hopkins
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 Triumph Amid the Tumult
 Learning Curve
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© The Johns Hopkins University 2006