Research wins world recognition
Reports by Michael Taylor
Hong Kong's universities are increasingly relying on their internationally acclaimed inventions and published papers to boost funding
HONG KONG'S OLDEST university is also its most prolific in terms of research output.
As a result, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) routinely attracts most of the funding from the University Grants Committee (UGC) and the Innovation and Technology Fund.
'In terms of publications, we are No1 in per capita research output in refereed journals,' Anthony Yeh, dean of the graduate school at HKU, said.
'Internationally, our output it quite well recognised. Therefore, it is easy for us to attract quality people to join our research teams.'
For this and other reasons, HKU has the largest ratio of non-local students - 41 per cent - engaged in postgraduate research at local universities. While most are from the mainland, a respectable 12 per cent hail from 33 countries around the world.
'The standard of our research students is very high,' Professor Yeh said. 'Some graduates have been recruited by top universities in Britain, Canada and the United States.'HKU started putting increasing emphasis on research about 20 years ago.
'We have been increasingly active in research since the 1980s, when we started transforming from a mostly teaching to a research university,' Professor Yeh said.
'The process sped up in the 1990s. You can see from the competitive grants that we are always top in Hong Kong, double the university in second place.'
The research carried out at Hong Kong's other graduate schools has also been gaining a growing international reputation for excellence.
Take the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), the city's largest tertiary institution in terms of student numbers.
A P-Phos ligand system developed by researchers at the university has been taken up by Johnson Matthey for potential commercial development. The London-based chemical company focuses on catalysts, precious metals and speciality chemicals. It employs 7,500 in 34 countries worldwide.
Novartis has also collaborated with the university, filing three international patents based on its inventions.
The Swiss-based group's sales reached US$24.9 billion in 2003. Employing 78,500 people in more than 140 countries, it focuses on pharmaceuticals, consumer health, generics, eye-care, and animal health.
Researchers at PolyU have also collaborated with their counterparts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on the modernisation of Chinese medicine.
The Chemical Resolution Method developed by its researchers won second place in the 14th National Inventions Exhibitions of China, which was organised by the Ministry of Science and Technology.
Other areas of research that the university has been active in include logistics, tele-care, tele-health, and tele-rehabilitation, and urban hazards mitigation.
Fashion and textiles has also been a key area of interest. With a research team of 100, PolyU's Institute of Textiles and Clothing is involved in more than 100 projects, successfully attracting more than $32 million in external funds in 2003.
'Our emphasis at PolyU is on applied research,' Andrew Young, the head of the university's Partnership Development Office, said. 'So the ability to promote our technology to industry and see it successfully commercialised is of paramount importance to us.
'It demonstrates the application nature of our research, it provides real case studies to support our teaching and academic research, it demonstrates a relevance to the society we live in and it provides some financial resources for the university to promote more research,' he said.
The office co-ordinates about 900 projects per year, bringing in between $80 million and $100 million annually through consultancy, contract research, licensing, and commercial joint-venture projects.
Most of the 500-plus partners are locally based small to medium-sized enterprises, but a number of multinationals from countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US have also partnered successfully with the university.
Individual researchers have also been making a name for themselves at the city's graduate schools.
Guo Hong was a physician at the teaching hospital of the Beijing Medical University after receiving her bachelor's degree in medicine. She came to Hong Kong as an Ivy Wu Fellow in 2000 and was then accepted into the MPhil programme of the Department of Medicine at HKU.
Dr Guo's MPhil thesis exploring the effects of anti-DNA antibodies on pleural mesothelial cells was presented at the Annual Scientific Meeting of the British Society of Rheumatology in 2003.
The data was published as a full paper in the scholarly journal, Rheumatology, the following year. She is now working on her PhD at HKU's medical school.
Gregory Fairbrother studied international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, in the US. After that he did his master's at California's prestigious Stanford University. His dissertation compared school curricula in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
He then enrolled at HKU, where he is a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Education. His doctoral thesis was on political socialisation and critical thinking and their influence on Hong Kong and mainland university students' attitudes toward the nation. It received the Li Ka-shing prize in 2001-2003 for the best dissertation across six faculties.
The ability to attract scholars of this calibre is a feather in Hong Kong's cap.
'We are attracting some very good young academics with very good publication records,' Professor Yeh said.
'In terms of research, you need international exposure. It is good for international networking, it keeps us abreast of the latest trends, and it lets us know what is being done elsewhere. We need this if we are going to remain competitive with our rivals in the region.'