"Anyone who wants to do research in Singapore should get in touch now!"

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Manu Kapur has been Director of the Singapore ETH Centre (SEC) since the beginning of the year. In this interview, he talks about which research programmes will be continued in Singapore, which new programmes will be created, and how researchers from across the ETH Domain can get involved in the SEC.

Manu Kapur, you started your academic career in Singapore. Now you have returned there after eight years in Switzerland. What was the biggest change for you?
Sure, it’s a different Singapore to the one where I started my career. But my experiences in Switzerland have changed my view of science. In Switzerland, and especially at ETH Zurich, we are in a very privileged position, as we not only have access to a lot of talent, but also enjoy a great deal of trust and autonomy, which allows us to innovate from the bottom-up, and do so quickly. Singapore, on the other hand, tends to take a more curatorial approach, emphasizing certain priority areas while leaving enough white space for bottom-up ideas. Both approaches work, and ultimately, I see it as a privilege to be able to work and live in and bridge two amazing cities - Zurich and Singapore.

What exactly does the Director of the ETH Singapore Centre (SEC) do?
The Director is the overall in-charge of the SEC, reporting to the Governing Board of the SEC. I work closely with my Deputy Director of Research, Nicole Wenderoth, who brings in her research experience at the SEC, and Managing Director, Thomas Meyer, who looks after the operations. As Director, I focus on strategy, program development, and external stakeholder management. At the moment, our main priority is to develop the next generation of proposals for our research programmes that we would like to implement between 2026 and 2030. This is mission critical, as the funding for all’our ETH programmes will largely expire at the end of 2025, so we need new ideas going forward.

Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC)

The Singapore-ETH Centre was founded in 2010 by ETH Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) as part of the NRF CREATE Campus. The research centre brings together around 350 researchers from various disciplines. They work within the framework of three flagship programmes - Future Cities Lab Global, Future Resilient Systems and Future Health Technologies - and several smaller programs as well on around 50 short to medium-term projects, such as Cooling Singapore and Urban Microalgae-Based Protein Production. The programmes and projects are mainly funded by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and carried out by researchers of ETH Zurich and other universities.

Existing programmes have been continued so far. Will you send all programmes into a new round?
Our longest running program, the Future Cities Lab (FCL) is coming up for renewal. The program directors Sacha Menz, Arno Schlüter and Thomas Schroepfer are in the process of developing the fourth cycle of the FCL. Feedback from the NRF on the Future Health Technologies (FHT) programme has also been positive. Here, Nicole Wenderoth and Benedikt Helgason are working intensively on version 2.0. The Future Resilient Systems programme will come to an end, but resilience is such a cross-cutting theme that it will find its way into other existing or new programmes.

And what new programmes are planned?
We currently have a pilot program on food sustainability and technology, directed by Alexander Mathys. And we have just received good news from the NRF to develop the next version of this program. Another completely new programme that I am working on focuses on learning and human potential. This is a topic that is very important to Singapore, alongside health. Finally, there is a huge interest in AI for Science. Here, I am excited that several programs could emerge, such as AI for drug discovery, sustainability, climate, materials, education and so on. The future is brimming with new possibilities.

Please tell us a little more about the programme you are working on.
It is currently titled Future Embodied Learning Technologies, or FELT for short. The program focuses on the connection between the mind and the body for learning. We are used to thinking learning as thinking in new ways. But learning is also moving in new ways. If you think about learning a new sport, musical instrument, or dance, it is obvious that learning is both thinking and moving in new ways. Yet, when we learn abstract concepts in STEM, Arts, Humanities, and so on, we tend to forget the movement part, we forget the body. FELT is designed to exploit the coupling of thinking and moving to learn abstract concepts better. In doing so, this programme brings together many fields, including computer science, AI, learning, psychology, robotics, and neuroscience.

You mentioned AI-related programmes. Are there opportunities for researchers to get involved here?
Yes, as I mentioned, AI for Science is a huge priority in Singapore, and we are excited that the Swiss National AI Initiative can play a big role in setting up AI for Science programs at the SEC. But there is also room for other areas as well. Anyone interested in participating in a research programme at the SEC or setting one up themselves as a leader should get in touch with me. We welcome new ideas and are happy to share our experience of setting up programmes in Singapore. I must also point out that the offer applies to researchers from EPFL as well, and more broadly to the ETH Domain. We want to bring much broader expertise from Switzerland to Singapore in order to deepen cooperation between the two countries.

Your predecessor Gisbert Schneider spoke of the growing importance of the SEC in science diplomacy. Should this expansion also be seen in this context?
Yes, that fits together very well. Increasingly, the SEC is seen as not just an ETH Zurich institution in Singapore, but a Swiss institution, and that brings more weight and, of course, more responsibility. Relations between Switzerland and Singapore are indeed very good, and cooperation between the NRF in Singapore and the Swiss National Science Foundation would be very desirable. It would also make it possible to develop joint funding programmes.

Manu Kapur

Manu Kapur is Professor of Learning Sciences and Higher Education at ETH Zurich and has also been Director of the Singapore ETH Centre since the beginning of the year. Born in India, he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and a Master’s degree in Education at Nanyang Technological University (NUT). He then moved to New York to Columbia University, where he first completed a second Master’s degree in Applied Statistics and then a doctorate in Learning Sciences. His professional career took him back to Singapore, where he worked as a professor in the Ministry of Education and at NTU. A professorship in Hong Kong brought him to Zurich, where he has lived with his family for the past seven years before moving to Singapore to run the SEC.
Roland Baumann