Public research fund should stay out of government think tank's hands

Ip Kin-yuen says the Central Policy Unit's takeover of a key research fund is worrying

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2013, 5:03am

Thanks to Lew Mon-hung's revelations, we have been given the chance to witness some political mud-slinging over claims of promises of an Executive Council seat made during the chief executive election campaign.

The row is a reminder that membership of a public body, which the government regards as a public service, is something many people covet. The authority to appoint members is thus a significant part of the government's power.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his policy address that he would set up no fewer than 14 committees. Critics mostly consider this a strategy to procrastinate, or to create a buffer by appointing elites to serve as middlemen between government and society. Others worry about the effectiveness of relying on part-time members to formulate policies and the risk of confusion caused by too many cooks.

Is it a ploy to create hundreds of positions for "Leung's friends"? It cannot be ruled out, especially after Sophia Kao Ching-chi's appointment to the Central Policy Unit. Part of her work is to help identify candidates for public bodies, requiring that all bureaus incorporate her input. Thus, the de facto power of appointment has shifted from the bureaus to the think tank, where its head, Shiu Sin-por, is considered the chief executive's henchman.

On top of those 14 committees, "Leung's friends" may also find a place in the team within the Central Policy Unit that now manages the Public Policy Research Funding Scheme. The think tank has taken over the administration of the fund from the Research Grants Council, and will be responsible for selecting and monitoring recipients of the annual HK$20 million fund.

With the power to hand out money, the government think tank will be able to build up political muscle in the academic and research network. In addition, it will be able to control research topics, methodology and publication of findings, so as to "lay a stronger theoretical foundation for government policies", according to Shiu's letter to the council.

This, together with his statement that the Central Policy Unit is the administration's tool to drum up public support and battle opposition opinions, has led to concern that the so-called public policy research might end up being nothing more than propaganda.

Hong Kong people won't care what political tactics the Leung administration used in its scramble to gain power, as long as the chief executive can find ways to tackle the city's problems and uphold our core values.

Unfortunately, allowing the Central Policy Unit to allocate the research fund seems like an infringement of academic autonomy. Such a move makes no sense.

Ip Kin-yuen is a legislator who represents the education sector