Academics say they may shun a public policy research grant scheme because of questions about its impartiality and academic rigour, after the government took management of the fund away from scholars and gave it to the administration's top think tank.
One professor said if scholars accepted funding for projects from the new scheme, academic careers may not be helped as universities and other scholars could discount such research.
The Public Policy Research Funding Scheme, which until last month was administered by the Research Grants Council (RGC), has been one of the major sources of research funds for social scientists since its establishment in 2005. The scheme has dispensed HK$20 million annually, and last year it sponsored 25 projects, researching topics that ranged from columbariums to cross-border low-carbon transport.
The research fund was generally considered to bear academic merit as it was awarded after a rigorous peer review process, which sometimes included external evaluation by international experts in the field.
Since the start of the year, the Central Policy Unit (CPU), which had allocated the funds to RGC, has taken control of the scheme, a move that many academics fear could turn research into propaganda work for the government.
Professor Roland Chin Tai-hong, provost of the University of Hong Kong and a former chairman of the RGC, said the scheme's funding "would not count" in scholars' appraisals as the projects would not have been independently assessed, but, he added, that could change if the CPU established a professional review committee. Scholars are typically assessed by both their research and the quality of their funding.
The CPU insisted the revised model would attract more researchers and allow for "more timely and issue-specific public policy research". But scholars familiar with the situation were sceptical.
An academic source said many scholars "would think twice" about applying for funds from the CPU this year. "If the assessment is politically driven and not going to count as research, why bother? We'd be better off applying for funding from credible sources," the source said.
Professor Eliza Lee Wing-yee of the University of Hong Kong, who earlier launched a signature campaign against the changes, said it would be impossible for the CPU to match the rigorous peer review process of the RGC.
"The unit is a government department, instead of a research granting body," she said. "I would not be surprised if universities said the scheme no longer bears academic merit."
Dr Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, believed it unlikely the scheme could maintain academic standards.
"I'd like universities to exclude the scheme from scholars' appraisals," he said.
Pan-democrat education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen also said the new scheme would not be an attractive source of research funds for scholars.