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Future tech

How science can drive Hong Kong’s economic growth

Matthew R. Evans says universities play a vital role in developing a knowledge-based economy and Hong Kong must not only continue to nurture research, encourage cross-disciplinary study and foster collaboration; it also needs to develop a through train from the science lab to the market

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 11:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 May, 2017, 6:56pm

“Equipped with his five senses, man explores the world around him and calls the adventure science,” Edwin Hubble said. Science is amazingly powerful, almost all the advances that humans have made have been through the application of the scientific method.

This article is being written, and will most likely be read, on a computer screen that is only a few millimetres thick. Such screens are the products of research on organic light emitting diodes that began in France in the 1950s and was continued in New York in the 1960s and is now being conducted at the University of Hong Kong. The contributions of science are so pervasive in society that we tend to dismiss them, but, without them, we would be literally and figuratively lost.

The world around us is changing very fast. There are huge changes in technology occurring almost daily, climate is changing, opportunities and hazards emerge frequently. This is why all economies require a scientifically literate population and universities play a key role in educating people to the highest level. In addition to this educational role, the research activities of universities is critical; I would argue that while the primary function of research is not to generate economic growth, it is critical to achieving such growth.

Sometimes there is a fairly straightforward link via patents and spin-off companies to economic activity. Other times the link is more indirect, we might not have a commercial outcome in mind but one might emerge later, but we do not know at this point.

“The economy, stupid” was a catchphrase used during Bill Clinton’s 1992 US presidential campaign. It was meant to remind Clinton’s team of the importance of the economy to voters. Hong Kong’s economy is dominated by financial services and the import-export trade (each representing just under 20 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product).

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Science-based innovation and science training play a role in these industries. The science faculty’s actuarial science programme has for many years supplied graduates that are in high demand from the financial services sector. However, within Hong Kong, many of the science-orientated industries are absent, although the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks is filling some of this gap by fostering the development of young companies, and developments in the Lok Ma Chau Loop may fill it further.

However, just over the border is a province with a substantial science and technology sector. Biotechnology is especially significant in Shenzhen and its example demonstrates that substantial opportunities exist locally for science-orientated economic activity. I recently met one of the founders of the Beijing Genomics Institute (now known as BGI, with its headquarters in Shenzhen), which was set up to take part in the global project to sequence the first human genome – an entirely esoteric activity.

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When my biology department in a leading UK university was agonising over whether to buy one of the new generation of gene sequencing machines, BGI was already running hundreds. It has developed into the place of choice to sequence the genomes of humans, animals and plants and most people now outsource this activity to it or similar companies.

Today, the company employs about 3,000 people in Shenzhen and had a surplus of US$55m in 2016. This success story illustrates how significant one science-based industry can be. The opportunities are out there – we just need to be bold, ambitious and entrepreneurial enough to take them.

The opportunities are out there – we just need to be bold, ambitious and entrepreneurial enough to take them

A university has an important role to play in the development of a knowledge-based economy. A modern science faculty needs to ensure that it is producing students educated to the highest level in the science they choose to study, with wider attributes that make them ready and able to fit into the regional economy. Only a degree system with huge flexibility can give students the freedom to mix and match the courses they take, and allow, say, a science student to take a major in physics and a second major or a minor in music, maths, French or biology.

A student should be able take a range of courses that suit his or her interests – some might take different sciences, others may take a wider interdisciplinary set of courses. This breadth of knowledge is a great opportunity for students.

A university also has to have mechanisms and processes to ensure that innovations from our staff and students are helped down the path towards the economy. Academics have to split their time between teaching and research and both elements are important for the economy. When someone is teaching, he or she cannot be conducting research. A balance needs to be struck between these two academic functions.

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Academics should be allowed to follow their instincts and interests in developing their research. Some will be motivated to solve real-world problems, others will not. Some will wish to develop products and take them to a commercial level, many will not. We need a pipeline to ensure that all possible innovations are caught, nurtured and developed. This pipeline can be difficult to establish but is essential to ensure that the societal impact of scientific innovation is captured for the benefit of the economy. Responsibility for the development of such a pipeline should be shared between the university and the government.

Great staff conducting innovative research and fantastic students who are graduating with skills, knowledge and abilities are essential to help Hong Kong develop a science-orientated economy. If we work with others to take advantage of the opportunities around the Pearl River Delta, we could build one of the intellectual and economic engines that will be needed to produce benefits from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

This is an opportunity – we must stand ready to help seize it.

Professor Matthew R. Evans is dean of science at the University of Hong Kong