Feature Story | 23-Feb-2024

Research for impact, making a difference in the community

Singapore Management University

By Alvin Lee

SMU Office of Research – The aim of SMU Research is stated clearly on its website: “[T]o create significant impact by addressing societal challenges within three key Focus Areas” of Digital TransformationSustainable Living, and Growth in Asia. Various Institutes, Centres, Labs and Initiatives (ICLIs) at SMU work on these focus areas, such as the Centre for Research on Successful Ageing (ROSA) on Sustainable Living and the Centre for AI & Data Governance on Digital Transformation.

But how does one know if the research is indeed impactful?

“Winning grants from external funders show that your research is valued by policymakers,” observes Tang Hang Wu, Lee Kong Chian Professor of Law at SMU’s Yung Pung How School of Law, and the Associate Provost for Research Governance. “In my role as Associate Provost for research governance, this is the message I’m transmitting to the ICLIs: You can produce wonderful academic research, but you have to also think about research impact. 

“ROSA is a good example. It produces quality research and it makes the effort to reach out to policymakers and relevant stakeholders. ROSA reaches out to the Agency for Integrated Care, and they work with industry such as the Ngee Ann Kongsi to change policy. My role is to tell the ICLIs, ‘It’s possible to reach out and make a difference.’”

Research for impact

Speaking to the Office of Research seven months into his role as Associate Provost for Research Governance, Professor Tang notes the need for an expanded regulatory framework to ensure compliance for a growing SMU. He explains: “Governance has got to do with the application of regulations. As SMU grows, there are more regulations and soft laws from policymakers to follow. Data protection and ethics are important within the regulatory framework. It’s part of my job to ensure that the regulatory aspect of research is fully compliant.”

Among other things, Professor Tang highlights the importance of upholding the integrity of academic research, ensuring that external parties do not exert influence in its conduct or results. Good governance, muses Professor Tang, is somewhat like being a sports referee: No attention is drawn to oneself when the job is done well. ‘No news is good news’ in an indicator of good governance, he says.

But how would he measure success in creating impact?

“For the ICLIs, I would feel that I have achieved some success if I could bring people together instead of leaving them in silos,” he says. “By bringing them together I mean they should ask larger questions, to produce high quality research, and work across schools. Our problems are complex and they will not be solved in silos.

“Faculty should think about reaching out to faculty in other schools to collaborate. When you collaborate with other faculty, you can look at a problem from a multidimensional perspective rather than one’s small worldview. You can ask bigger questions.”

He cites the example of the SMU Urban Institute, to which Professor Tang has a natural affinity due to his interest and work in land regulation and legislation. “Legislation is black-and-white, but when you work with faculty in other fields, you can ask larger questions such as the policy behind a particular regulation. You can also ask why it has worked in one jurisdiction but not in another? You can also ask questions beyond the legal aspect, be it the social or economic dimensions of the regulation.”

By the community, for the community

Looking at the wider picture is also a feature of Professor Tang’s research, be it on land legislation or his other passion, trust and wealth management.

“Every piece of work I do, or publish in an academic journal, I think back to a piece of advice I got when I was a fresh Assistant Professor: In every piece of work you do, speak to the scholars in your field but don’t forget to speak to your community and see what is relevant.

 “How do I speak to my community? I work closely with the Law Society, giving seminars to share research and get a sense of what the lawyers are thinking about. Besides that, I also participate in a lot of organisations. I’m on the Donor Advisory Committee of the Community Foundation of Singapore. I’ve worked on the Strata Titles Board dealing mainly with condominium disputes. I’ve worked on that for 15 years.”

As for trust and wealth management, Professor Tang points out Singapore’s capabilities as a financial hub ensuring proper regulation and transparency in the handling of a growing pool of philanthropic funds. While pointing out that as part of the Growth in Asia focus area, he stresses that knowing where to use the money is perhaps more important than the amount available.

“It’s not just about donating to any single organisation. It’s about: ‘How do you achieve maximum impact for your donation?’” explains Professor Tang. “If we meet a donor who wants to focus on education, then organisations such as the Community Foundation of Singapore would find out which are the underserved needs which are not currently funded, or funded adequately, by the government, and there are many such needs.

“It’s not just about donating money. I could be donating money to an institution that’s flush with cash, or the institution might not need the money at that point in time. But there are all these underserved needs.”

He concludes: “Ultimately, it’s not just about getting the money but thinking about how to use the wealth and donation to achieve maximum social impact to meet needs that have been underfunded, and to think about it from a regional perspective. Outside Singapore you’ll see that the needs are great in the region. It would be great to play a part. These questions fascinate me.”

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