Singapore Ups Social Science Research Budget by 45 Percent

Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Tharman Shanmugaratnam
Following up on the promise evinced by the launch of its Social Science Research Center in January, the government of Singapore this week promised to spend an additional S$350 million – roughly a quarter billion in U.S. dollars – on social science and humanities research in the next five years.

Singapore’s deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for economic and social policies, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, has been talking up the social sciences ever since he announced the idea of the research council in March 2015. At that time, while saying that the Ministry of Education’s “current investments in SSR are not negligible,” he added that “we will put more resources into social science research and its application, to complement existing funding.” This week’s announcement is a 45 percent increase of funding for similar research in the last five years.

Speaking at the Monday launch of the Singapore Management University’s Institute for Societal Leadership, Tharman said, “We have to build a stronger core of local researchers and thought leaders in the social sciences and humanities,” and promised that these actions would allow citizens of the nation-city to approach social science as “a viable career option in academia.”

That’s actually a big paradigm shift, Yojana Sharma wrote at, since Singapore has traditionally focused its research dollars on applied physical science and technology, and not on social science. She described the social sciences as “the poor cousins of basic and applied research in the sciences,” but said the infusion of new money suggested “now social science research will be better funded as part of bigger research projects that will include the impact of science and technology on societies.”

Not that technology doesn’t factor into the interdisciplinary approach Tharman has promoted.  “You might have technical solution to the problem,” explained Peter Ho, the senior adviser for the Centre for Strategic Futures and chairman of the research council. “That technical solution needs to be complimented and supported by an insight into how society might respond.”

Tharman said he intends to have the research outputs figure in public administration. “We can and must build up this scholarship in the region that can inform and spur both policy reform and the initiatives of societal leaders,”

While Tharman has emphasized the surge as having “strong local character and local expertise,” he’s also promised to “tap on some of the best minds in social sciences around the world.” In that vein this week, he noted that the Singapore SSRC has started to build collaborations with institutions like the New York-based Social Science Research Council and the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. (Ho spoke at CASBS in 2015 as part of panel examining the future of the city state. You can see video of that discussion here.)

Demonstrating the reality of that “local” initiative, the government has identified several key areas for social science to investigate, including the dynamics of an aging population, strengthening cohesion in multi-ethnic societies, and striving for “quality living” in cities.

Research council funding initially will come in two sizes: grants of S$100,000 to S$1 million for investigator-led projects lasting up to three years, and grants of S$1 million to S$10 million for key interdisciplinary research over three to five years. The council’s first call for papers, which concluded in August, drew 70 proposals.

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