For a serial kidnapper, Philip Yeo looks harmless enough. But to hear some people tell it, he's a dangerous man. Over the past six years, Yeo has been roaming the world, trailing talented scientists in Washington; San Diego; Palo Alto, Calif.; Edinburgh and elsewhere, and spiriting them back to his home country of Singapore. Like any proud collector, Yeo never tires of ticking off his most prized trophies: former National Cancer Institute star Edison Liu, American husband-and-wife team Nancy Jenkins and Neal Copeland, British cancer researcher David Lane. "I'm a people snatcher," he says unashamedly.
What distinguishes Yeo from other kidnappers, of course, is that his targets go willingly. They happily relocate to Singapore's new 2 million-sq.-ft. Biopolis research center, where they can concentrate on one thing they can't always study so easily back home: stem cells. Just last week President George W. Bush used the first veto of his presidency to block a congressional action that would have lifted his 2001 ban on federal funding for most stem-cell research, ensuring that cell lines will remain scarce and money short at research centers lacking the state funding or private wealth to thumb their nose at dollars from Washington.
While Bush's action infuriated U.S. scientists, political catfights aren't the only things that make stem-cell research a challenge. The science is complex, the cost is high, and the efforts are scattered all over the world. Enter Singapore, which has begun offering itself as a combination sanctuary and think tank for scientists in the field.
The idea that buttoned-up Singapore, better known for punitive caning and a onetime ban on chewing gum, should emerge as a center of enlightenment seems unlikely. But the government sees both scientific and fiscal promise in the biomed field. This month, Singapore announced a doubling of its R&D budget, to $8.2 billion over the next five years, making it a regional research hub, particularly in stem cells. That's attractive to frustrated American scientists--and worrisome to people who want to see the U.S. retain its scientific edge.
"I think there is a risk of a brain drain, and we are seeing it," says Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of the Stanford Program on Stem Cells in Society. Yeo, for one, is blunt about taking advantage of the American political climate. "I go to the U.S., and I tell those scientists, Come to Singapore and finish your work," he says.
Singapore's leadership in stem-cell research is not new. In 1994, Ariff Bongso, a Sri Lanka--born embryologist at the National University of Singapore, became the first person to isolate human embryonic stem cells, and in 2002 he discovered a way to grow stem-cell lines without the use of animal cells, which could make it easier to find clinical uses in human beings. Bongso achieved those breakthroughs nearly alone, but that would not be the case anymore, thanks to Biopolis, the government's $300 million bet on bioscience.