Give Hong Kong academics incentives to pursue research that makes money, researchers urge

City’s universities lagging Stanford in the US in having patents granted, think tank warns

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 9:53pm

A think tank founded by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa has urged the government to create more incentives for academics to pursue research with market potential after it discovered that five of the city’s universities lagged far behind Stanford in the US in having lucrative patents granted.

The five local universities – City University, Chinese University, Polytechnic University, the University of Science and Technology, and the University of Hong Kong – obtained an average total of 98 patents from the US every year between 2011 and 2015, compared with Stanford’s average of 172 a year.

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Yet the five gained an annual average income of HK$54.6 million from patents, higher than Stanford’s average of HK$28.4 million.

Stephen Wong Yuen-shan, head of public policy at the Our Hong Kong Foundation, said this meant Hong Kong’s institutions had the potential to make more money.

Patents authorised by the United States Patent and Trademark Office were most recognised around the world and sought-after by global businesses, the researchers said.

They believe the level of market application of university research is key to Hong Kong’s technological development and the transformation to a creative, entrepreneurial economy. They urged the government to evaluate academics’ performance based not only on their published papers but also on the social impact of their research.

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“Papers published in international publications often tend to discuss global, abstract topics,” Wong said. “That’s why researchers often find very few resources to look at local issues.”

He said the existing performance evaluation system, which focuses only on academic studies, would not help Hong Kong’s technological development. He said Britain had recently added social impact as a factor in its own evaluation system, including the number of patents scholars obtained and the amount of income the patents generated.

Foundation senior researcher Kenny Shui Chi-wai said if other parties wanted to use patented techniques, they needed to either buy them or pay royalties – after a one-off down payment – thus generating income for the patent holders.

“Patent is the best way to find out if research is useful to society or has market potential,” Shui said.

Wong believed the city’s ecosystem for the creative and technological industry was “lifeless”, in that the private sector was unwilling to fund research due to a lack of success stories, leading to fewer students opting for technology related courses in universities, which in turn meant there was a shortage of talent to generate success stories.

This is not expenditure, but investment which will generate long-term returns
Stephen Wong Yuen-shan, Our Hong Kong Foundation

The quickest and best way to revive the system, Wong said, was for the government to invest more in the field to create the first batch of successful cases.

In his budget in March, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah set aside around HK$17 billion for the innovative industry – about 0.7 per cent of the city’s 2015 GDP. Some HK$10.7 billion is earmarked for research and development, accounting for only 0.4 per cent of GDP.

Singapore’s R&D spending is about 1 per cent of its GDP, Taiwan’s is 3 per cent, mainland China’s 2 per cent and America’s 2.8 per cent.

Wong suggested the government raise R&D expenditure to about 1 per cent of GDP, or around HK$23 billion.

“It’s not like Hong Kong doesn’t have the money. The government should not be worried about failures, because failures are a type of knowledge gain. This is not expenditure, but investment which will generate long-term returns.”