Research and development plays a critical role in securing better lives for us all. Such endeavours have underpinned NTU’s rise into the upper echelons of academic rankings and yielded innovations to address some of humanity’s most pressing problems.
Prof Lam Khin Yong, Senior Vice President (Research), who has helmed NTU’s research portfolio for the last eight years, reflects on the instrumental role of research in enabling a sustainable future and dealing with rapidly evolving challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In this interview with Pushing Frontiers, he highlights the University’s research outlook and how the NTU community holds the key to transformative research.
Q: What are some milestones you have witnessed in NTU’s journey towards becoming a global university founded on science and technology?
A: I have witnessed the transformation of NTU into an internationally acclaimed research-intensive university. The research milestones we achieved have surpassed our imagination.
NTU is home to a vibrant research ecosystem that engages with more than 200 industry partners. Our research funding has also doubled over the past 10 years.
Fostered by an environment that encourages innovation, NTU’s research impact has grown steadily over the years. Our research is cited more often than the global average and we outscore established institutions around the world. More than half of our researchers’ publications are published in top-tier journals. Notably, about a fifth of the publications are among the top 10% most cited papers worldwide.
We have also excelled in academic rankings and continue to place first globally in key subjects like Materials Science and Nanoscience & Nanotechnology.
Q: What are the important components of NTU’s research success?
A: The milestones and success we have achieved over the years would not have been possible without the collective effort of the NTU faculty, researchers, administrative staff and students.
We are also grateful for the various collaborators and stakeholders who have augmented the University’s success through the years and enabled us to create an impact beyond the NTU campus.
Q: How has NTU shaped the local research landscape?
A: The University’s research directions are aligned with the strategic thrusts of the National Research Foundation, Singapore (NRF)’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plans. NTU 2025, our most recent five-year strategic plan, seeks to leverage interdisciplinary research to tackle complex current challenges.
We also work closely with the industry and public agencies such as the Singapore Economic Development Board. Such partnerships and collaborations enable us to contribute translational and innovation output to the Singapore research landscape.
In addition, the University has established three Research Centres of Excellence, including a new Institute for Digital Molecular Analytics and Science, to address the nation’s long-term strategic research interests.
NTU embraces fundamental research driven by curiosity to promote scholarship and catalyse discovery. Our researchers have received competitive and prestigious funding for multi-year research projects, and we encourage them to participate in cutting-edge research that extends the boundaries of knowledge for the continued development of humanity and society.
Q: Why do you believe that partnerships involving university, industry and public agencies are vital for research innovation?
A: We strongly believe in the triple helix private-public partnership model, in which universities, public agencies and the industry work closely together to achieve industry-focused research outcomes that benefit society. NTU’s numerous laboratories set up with global industry leaders and the output of translational research projects are testaments to our success in this area.
Our industry partners also benefit from these partnerships as they gain access to expertise that will help them develop processes or products that add value to their companies.
Additionally, these collaborations provide students with valuable mentorship and training in research and development. Such experiences are vital for equipping them with the skills and mindset to thrive in a world shaped by technological innovations.
Q: What is the role of interdisciplinary and curiosity-led research in fostering research excellence and innovation at NTU?
A: With environmental challenges such as global warming in recent times, sustainability is a key area of NTU’s research focus. We are also interested in emerging areas such as the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on society and digitalisation.
To generate fresh solutions in these domains, we wish to harness the potential of interdisciplinary research to synthesise ideas across multiple disciplines and come up with new inventions that can benefit societies.
Novel innovations also often arise from emerging and previously unexplored areas of research. For this reason, we encourage our researchers to pursue their research interests. An example is our work in AI. Before AI transformed the research landscape, NTU already had an accomplished team of researchers in the AI field. As a result, we successfully accelerated the applications of this technology to make AI one of NTU’s key research strengths today.
One of our recent efforts that integrates social science and humanities research with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research is the establishment of the Centre for Lifelong Learning and Individualised Cognition (CLIC) with the University of Cambridge under NRF’s Campus for Research Excellence And Technological Enterprise. CLIC focuses on understanding the science of learning and translating it to real-life educational applications.
Pedagogy is another example of an interdisciplinary field that involves both social science and humanities as well as STEM aspects. Our National Institute of Education, Singapore’s national teacher education institute, will continue to advance developments in this domain.
Q: How has NTU’s research contributed to addressing the challenges of our time?
A: In NTU 2025, we identified four of Singapore’s and humanity’s grand challenges: humans and our relationship with the environment; the science, art and technology of learning; technology and its relationship with humanity and society; and healthy living and ageing. These grand challenges are linked to the strategic domains outlined in RIE2025, the most recent RIE plan.
As populations age in Singapore and across the globe, NTU hopes to harness new technologies to provide older adults with an interactive lifeline to the world and empower them to live healthy independent lives.
Another key point in NTU’s strategic plan for sustainable living is sustainable food production. Through national initiatives such as the Future Ready Food Safety Hub and the Singapore Agri-food Innovation Lab, NTU will enhance the safety of alternative foods and ingredients, as well as climate resilient technologies for agriculture.
Q: How is NTU poised to address evolving challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic in an unpredictable world?
A: I believe that every challenge presents an opportunity. In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are putting more resources towards medical and health research to provide ready and rapid solutions for future public health challenges. Our medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, provides a strong catalyst to translate innovative discoveries and inventions into future healthcare applications.
Likewise, the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity was established to understand the societal impact of scientific and technological innovations, and facilitate informed decision-making in their implementation. These aims are achieved by bridging research across STEM and non-STEM disciplines.
Real-world problems are multifaceted. Over the years, NTU has sought to bring together the expertise of the STEM disciplines with social sciences and the arts to ensure our research creates true impact. We have outlined a new cluster, “Culture, Organisations & Society”, as a vital aspect of NTU 2025. This cluster will encapsulate our new Social Sciences and Humanities Research 2025 plan to provide more opportunities and resources for our colleagues in the social sciences, humanities and business schools to collaborate with STEM researchers.
Q: What mindsets should researchers adopt to create impactful research amid these challenges and opportunities?
A: In a rapidly changing world, it is important for researchers to be nimble, adaptable and creative to take advantage of new opportunities that arise with every challenge.
Entrepreneurship can also help accomplish innovative and impactful research. To facilitate the commercialisation of NTU research, NTUitive, NTU’s enterprise and innovation company, helps researchers translate their ideas to reality.
Q: As NTU celebrates its 30th anniversary, what is your vision for research at the University in the next 30 years?
A: We have accomplished a lot in our short history and the work continues as NTU matures as a renowned university on the global stage. Embodying the spirit of OneNTU, our aim is to foster an inclusive and diverse ecosystem that celebrates research in all its forms—basic, translational and commercial. We hope to generate further impact in the next 30 years and continue translating science from the lab into innovations for the real world.
In our journey to becoming a world-class research-intensive university, we must remember that research is a collective effort. Over the last 30 years, support from the NTU community and external stakeholders has been an important ingredient for our success and we should work together as a team to further the impact of NTU’s research.