MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XIX No. 2
November / December 2006
Student-Driven Activities at MIT
Financial Foundation for MIT's Future
Undergraduate Education Reconsidered
Stephen J. Madden, Jr.
MIT and Singapore
Teaching and Challenging Engineers . . .
to Engineer
Adèle Naudé Santos
Written in Pencil; February Lunch
First Response Education:
New Orleans Comes to MIT
Do MIT Students Ever Sleep?
The Implication of Mega-Partnerships
for MIT Faculty
Helping Students Become Better Writers
A Century of MIT at a Glance
MIT Faculty and Students (1900-2007)
Printable Version

MIT and Singapore

Tom Magnanti

Tom Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering, has been actively involved in MIT’s Singapore programs from the beginning of the Institute’s large-scale institutional collaboration there in 1997. His own participation has been as a member of a broad faculty assessment team in 1997, as a faculty member in one of the initial Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) programs, as the Dean with primary responsibility for SMA and, most recently, as a member of a Steering Committee for the proposed Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, or SMART, program.

As the Institute has been considering a major new research initiative in Singapore during the past several months, our community has been engaged in a lively dialogue that has raised a number of significant issues. Some faculty members have asked “Why Singapore?” “What are the benefits of MIT’s engagement in Singapore?” “What are the required commitments of MIT's faculty and staff in Singapore?” As expressed in an editorial in the previous Faculty Newsletter, “Have faculty been sufficiently involved in the deliberations concerning our international activities?” And generally, “Would participation in international programs, and Singapore in particular, adversely affect education and research on our campus?” These are important questions.

MIT and International Engagements

First, from what I know, and from what has been reflected in various forums such as the recent report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, there is considerable enthusiasm on campus for international engagements. Indeed, many, if not most, would assert that MIT must be engaged internationally if it is to maintain its status as one of the world’s great educational institutions. (Large engagements such as the recently announced program in Portugal, as well as programs like MISTI and many faculty engagements throughout the world, already provide considerable diversity in our international portfolio.) Other forums have reinforced the importance of MIT’s international engagements, including a series of sessions held on internationalization by Academic Council this past spring, a subcommittee of Engineering Council convened two years ago to examine internationalization, and an open faculty forum on international programs held at MIT on May 17, 2006. As is evident from the feedback at these forums, the question is not whether we should be engaged internationally, but how and with whom we should engage. Rather than attempting to answer these questions in general, I will focus specifically on Singapore.

Why Singapore?

There are many reasons. Singapore has made a significant national commitment to education and research. It has:

  • excellent resources and physical infrastructure;
  • a stable, corruption-free government;
  • English as the official language;
  • technically-savvy national leaders at the highest levels who embrace science and technology;
  • a strategic location in a rapidly growing part of the world at the crossroads of Asia (especially China and India), having also emerged as one of India’s largest trading partners;
  • a stable, multi-ethnic society (Chinese, Malays, Indians, Australians, and Europeans/Americans);
  • a world-renowned standing as a leader in math and science education at the K-12 level; and
  • an established international focus as home to a number of American, European, and other academic institutions/partners (for example, INSEAD, Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, Duke, U. of Chicago), and it has become a key hub for major activities of a large fraction of the Fortune 500 American companies.

Of course, Singapore is also a young country without a rich research history; it is 12 times zones and 12,000 miles away. Its culture is different from that of the United States, and its government policies on some matters are not the same as those of this country. Participation by MIT in activities there could attract precious human and other resources away from our campus.

Any major initiative the Institute might undertake in Singapore, or anywhere else, will have associated risks and benefits to MIT. We need to be cognizant of these and prudently manage them.

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How does MIT benefit from a relationship with Singapore?

Let me answer by indicating how the Institute has already benefited from the Singapore-MIT Alliance since its inception in 1999. Through SMA, we have:

  • invested in and created new educational and research programs of considerable value to our faculty, departments, and to the School of Engineering, including new Master’s degree programs in Computation for Design and Optimization, Manufacturing Systems and Technology, and Advanced Materials for Micro- and Nano-Systems.
  • supported important emerging initiatives at the interface of molecular biology and chemical engineering and the Institute’s new initiative in Computational and Systems Biology, as well as a traditional core area, computer science.
  • been able to devote considerable resources to education. Many faculty have indicated that their teaching has improved as a result of their SMA experiences.
  • brought together faculty from multiple departments in unusual ways to educate MIT students and foster interdisciplinary research and education.
  • provided many of our faculty and some of our students with the opportunity to spend quality time, for the first time, in Asia.
  • provided MIT opportunities to experiment with distance education and demonstrated that we can educate students effectively at a distance. For example, most of the SMA courses have been offered simultaneously to students at MIT and in Singapore. The classroom performance of these two student groups has been indistinguishable.
  • not only been able to support current educational and research interests of our faculty and students, but also provide resources that support the long-term health of the Institute through investments in infrastructure (distance education-equipped classrooms and seminar rooms) and endowment to hire additional faculty and to create graduate student fellowships.

Has MIT attempted to address issues related to SMA and engage faculty in the SMA deliberations?

The SMA program has, of course, required faculty presence in Singapore. Moreover, it has provided considerable resources to some faculty and not to others. This raises legitimate concerns. We have tried to mitigate these concerns in part by ensuring that most courses have been taught to students both at MIT and Singapore, by providing considerable discretionary resources to the participating departments, and by having an open competition for the SMA-2 programs (within a broad set of problem areas jointly defined by MIT and Singapore). SMA-1 and SMA-2 both benefited considerably from faculty input.

SMA Students
Dean Tom Magnanti and SMA Students from Singapore, China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia at a Welcome Reception in Singapore, July 6, 2006
(click on image to enlarge)

Before launching SMA, 25 faculty spent over six months to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Singaporean universities. The assessment subsequently led to the definition of SMA-1’s educational and research directions. Presentations at MIT faculty meetings, at FPC, CGSP, CoC, and CUP, at Engineering and Academic Councils, and in articles in this newsletter provided faculty with information and opportunities to offer input on SMA-2. Click here for some SMA Facts.


What deliberations have led to the proposed new Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Center?

Based upon the perceived success of SMA, the Singapore government invited MIT to consider being the first of several international universities to establish major research collaborations in Singapore through a new research complex that would contain a building devoted to MIT. (ETH, Zurich, has recently announced its intention to participate and an institution in Israel and research laboratories of American and overseas corporations could be other likely participants.) By leveraging eight years of MIT faculty experience and input with SMA, the proposed new SMART Center would be intended to offer similar benefits as SMA. It would expand our relationship to include a non-degree-granting, broader research engagement that would include collaborations with universities, industrial organizations, and research institutes in Singapore and the rest of Asia.

In January of this year, the Provost led a delegation with deans, department heads, and laboratory and program directors to explore this possibility. Subsequently, a Steering Committee was formed, composed of the Provost, the Vice President for Research, and the Deans of Engineering and Science and a former head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the heads of the Biology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments, as research theme leaders. The committee began to develop a process for faculty engagement that included several direct communications from the Provost to the MIT faculty, presentations at Academic Council, at several School councils, the Faculty Policy Committee, and an MIT faculty meeting. Through 82 submissions of Concept Papers, 212 faculty from across all five Schools responded to a call for possible research collaborations – an expression of a strong grass-root interest in MIT’s expanded research engagement with Singapore and to the initially defined broad program themes of biomedical sciences, interactive digital media, and water resources and the environment.

After reviewing submissions, the Steering Committee clustered several concept papers and invited a number of faculty to submit research proposals. Singapore provided funds for MIT faculty to travel to and learn more about Singapore, and recently multiple delegations of research colleagues from Singapore traveled to MIT to meet with faculty and help design joint research projects for the proposed initial research activities.

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What is SMART intended to be?

Broadly speaking, SMART aims to provide a unique opportunity for a major experiment in global research and to perform interdisciplinary experimental, computational, and translational research that presently could not be conducted at MIT. SMART also provides MIT an opportunity to be a pioneer in an international research campus of distinguished institutions in a strategic location within a rapidly-growing region of the world that is predicted to dominate technological growth in the twenty-first century.

The program activities are still under development, but would include a major research program with approximately 10 focus areas, each envisioned to involve a team of MIT faculty, PhD students, post docs, and collaborators from universities, research institutes, and companies in Singapore and from countries throughout Asia, including India and China, as well as potential collaboration with other universities elsewhere in the world (including those establishing similar programs in Singapore). Research would be conducted both at MIT and in the new building in Singapore dedicated to SMART. The research themes would be targeted for topics providing unique opportunities for MIT to conduct research on problems of significance to society, such as infectious disease. The program would also create new opportunities for MIT to facilitate technology transfer in the region through the creation of a technology innovation center similar, and perhaps linked, to the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation at MIT. The SMART building in Singapore is also expected to have staffed wet lab facilities with capabilities not available on the MIT campus and a world-class supercomputing facility accessible through special Internet access to faculty and students at MIT. Opportunities for appropriate undergraduate student participation, such as UROP projects in Singapore, summer internships, and MISTI internships, are also possibilities.

Faculty participation in SMART

Of course, having a building in Singapore devoted to MIT research carries expectations of residency in Singapore for participating MIT faculty. It also carries an expectation that more research funding will be spent in support of the MIT-directed research of SMART@Singapore than of SMART@MIT. As currently envisioned, about 10 faculty would be expected to conduct research in the MIT center in Singapore at any given time, taking turns through periodic faculty visits within a well-coordinated research theme. A number of meetings held with faculty members preparing the first round of proposals are helping to design models for faculty presence and research expenditures in SMART. The provision of resources to endow up to 10 new faculty positions at MIT would offset, to some degree, the reduction in faculty time on our campus because of time spent at the SMART Center.

SMART is intended to provide new and unique research opportunities and technologies that would be very attractive to our faculty. No faculty member would be required to participate.

Next steps in developing SMART

Throughout the process to date, discussions have continued with Singapore concerning the structuring of the new relationship. Faculty input, most obtained through meetings with the cluster leaders and groups of faculty members with prior involvement in Singapore through SMA and/or with a strong interest in participating in the future activities of SMART, has been essential in shaping these deliberations.

If all goes well, the current plan would be to launch a small number of research themes (three or four) next summer and use these as opportunities to gradually learn about, and better frame, the SMART Center and research program. Over the next three years, we would solicit additional proposals from a broad cross-section of MIT faculty and expand to the 10 envisioned research thrust areas (one of which is likely to be a cluster of small projects). The areas of research would be broad, beyond the initial areas identified already, and would be formulated based upon input from MIT faculty.

Several issues remain to be resolved, including residency requirements in Singapore for participating MIT faculty, allocation of funding between Singapore and the MIT campus, resources and accommodations to be provided to faculty and families while in Singapore, and the relationship between SMA and SMART, as well as the implications and management of the impact of the SMART program on the MIT campus. We are currently working on these issues with several MIT faculty groups and with colleagues in Singapore.

Would large-scale research funding in SMART present too much risk for MIT?

Although the funding details are still under discussion with the Singapore National Research Foundation, the combined funding for SMART@MIT and SMART@Singapore is likely to be at a level comparable to some of the largest research centers at MIT. 

Some faculty have asked if we are devoting too much of our resources to programs in a single country and if research in some areas might become too dependent on a single source of funding through SMART. These are judgment calls but I believe that, for reasons I have already stated, Singapore represents an unusual opportunity that, although requiring careful oversight, is worth pursuing. The Institute certainly needs to closely monitor situations when it receives a large amount of funding from any single source as it does with sponsors that provide core support to large labs and centers and those that provide large fractions of the research funding across campus. Concerns about large-scale concentrated funding are partially mitigated by the fact that SMART would be organized around several diversified research themes, introduced gradually over three years, and would be supporting a spectrum of MIT faculty and research domains. In each of these domains SMART would provide only part of the Institute’s research. Nevertheless, we need careful oversight and management as we introduce any approved SMART programs with the benefit of input from a wide cross-section of researchers from MIT and Singapore.

Other faculty ask if we are responding too much to availability of resources.  We have many other opportunities, some potentially very well funded, that we do not pursue.  Funding is an issue, but more important are the intellectual, strategic, geographical, and programmatic opportunities Singapore offers, such as those I have suggested previously.

Concluding Comments

I hope that this communication has provided some insight concerning our relationships in Singapore, about the processes we have and are using, and about some of the possible benefits and costs to MIT.

If SMART is to be successful, it must provide clear benefits for both MIT and Singapore. The process must strike a balance between centralized institutional planning that is essential to any long-term and large-scale program like SMART on one hand and bottom-up faculty governance and input on the other. I strongly believe that the program holds enormous potential and exciting new opportunities for MIT, for Singapore, and for science and technology worldwide.

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