Researchers hit new heights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 November, 2011, 12:00am


Research activities in Hong Kong have undergone significant developments in recent years, including a number of breakthrough discoveries.

The University of Hong Kong was at the forefront of research into the severe acute respiratory syndrome, which struck the city in 2003, and became the second-most-cited institution globally for research on avian influenza. The university also hosts one of the World Health Organisation's eight H5N1 reference laboratories.

HKU researchers were the first to discover that second-hand smoke could increase stroke-related deaths by 50 per cent in non-smokers; scientists at the university were also the first to identify Laribacter hongkongensis, a bacterium that causes gastroenteritis and is associated with eating freshwater fish.

But Joseph Lee Hun-wei, vice-president for research and graduate studies at the University of Science and Technology, says the city's recognition of research is divided.

'There is plenty of cutting-edge research taking place in Hong Kong, but it is not appreciated as much as it could be,' Lee says.

'On the one hand, we have the government, which is doing quite a good job in supporting quality research, and on the other we have many in the community who fail to understand the importance of research.'

He says Hong Kong universities are in a prime position to benefit from the rapid development of the Pearl River Delta, which is generating demand for new technologies.

'The mainland's research spending is scheduled to rise from 1.7 per cent of [gross domestic product] at the moment to 2.2 per cent by 2015,' he says. 'We already have many joint research programmes in place with mainland universities and research institutions, but the benefits of increased collaboration would be enormous.'

Research investment on the mainland includes spending on space programmes, aerospace development, manufacturing, renewable energy, computer science and life sciences. The Hong Kong government now spends about 0.8 per cent of GDP on research.

To tap into new opportunities, Lee says, HKUST will launch a Master of Philosophy programme in innovation technology and leadership next year at its Nansha, Guangzhou, campus, located at the mouth of the Pearl River. 'Our MPhil will add to the drive to train a new generation of knowledge workers. We need research that can be turned into commercial applications.'

Anthony Tan, chief executive of the Science and Technology Parks, agrees: 'We need to see more transitional or applied research that sees ideas ... which can be developed into commercial products.'

That is precisely what Polytechnic University is good at. PolyU, renowned for turning engineering and electronics research into scientific or commercial applications, recently scored another success by tying up with a German company, E-T-A Elektrotechnische Apparate, to develop one of its inventions, called Self-Sustainable Magnetoelectric Smart Sensor Technology.

Developed by PolyU's Derek Or Siu-wing, associate professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, the real-time, non-contact sensor measures electric currents and magnetic fields. Applications include current sensing in high-tension power transmission lines, power stations, domestic mains, overhead railway power lines, and car and ship systems.

'Our research students play a hands-on role in developing devices that have multiple safety applications,' Or says.

Fellow PolyU researchers, led by Yung Kai-leung of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, are developing tools to be used during mainland space missions.

Locally, a wealth of research opportunities are on the horizon. Tan says the third developmental phase of the science park, to be completed between 2013 and 2016, will create about 4,000 jobs.

'We are seeing more and more opportunities for worthwhile research here in Hong Kong, whereas previously researchers would have needed to move away from Hong Kong to gain the same opportunities,' he says.

Over at HKUST, postgraduate students are examining brain metastasis, a cancer that has spread to the brain from another location in the body. Annually, metastasis accounts for about 20 per cent of cancer deaths globally. The research, led by associate professor Hannah Xue Hong of the life science division, is part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium, the largest worldwide cancer research effort to date. Comprising 200 members from 12 countries and territories, the consortium aims to decode genomes related to 50 types and subtypes of cancer.

Xue says the research data can be used by scientists who are working on better ways of preventing, detecting, diagnosing and treating cancer.

Xue was the researcher who, in 2003, led an HKUST team to achieve a major breakthrough in schizophrenia. They identified the fifth gene linked to the condition, leading to the discovery of effective treatments.

'The research we conduct is very important for our students,' she says. 'Our discoveries, which are published in high-profile publications, help to get them recognised through their work, which is important for furthering their careers.'