Hong Kong is suffering from a dearth of local research talent, it has emerged, as figures show that more than half of those enrolled in doctoral studies at universities are from outside the SAR and either return home or work overseas after graduation. Of the 1,758 PhD students in Hong Kong, 899 - 51 per cent - are not local, according to statistics from the University Grants Committee (UGC). Of that number, 776 are from the mainland. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in his first two policy addresses emphasised a Government plan to develop Hong Kong as an Asian technology hub. But science professors warn that the small number of local PhD students does not augur well for IT research and other science and technology development. In its funding proposal for local universities for the next three years, the UGC has increased the proposed number of research postgraduate students by 720 to support Hong Kong's development in science and technology. But Professor Francis Lau Chi-moon, head of the department of computer science and information systems at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), casts doubt on the plan's potential. 'I am not optimistic about it,' he said. 'Many of the resources are spent on mainlanders now. These students would make greater contributions if they could be allowed to stay after they finish their studies.' Top students from Hong Kong compare favourably with those from the mainland, according to Professor Lau, but few are interested in doing PhDs. Mainlanders make up half of the 30 doctoral students in his department. Most are from top institutions such as Qinghua and Beijing Universities. Compared with HKU and Chinese University (CUHK), the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has the highest percentages of doctoral students from the mainland in its engineering and science faculties, at 69 per cent and 63 per cent respectively. Non-local PhD students are not covered by the Government's Admission of Talent Scheme, introduced in 1999 to import highly qualified professionals from the mainland. Even if they do receive job offers, they can seldom accept them because their student visas run out when they finish their studies and they cannot wait the length of time it takes to process their applications. Getting more local students to pursue doctoral studies in science, arts or social science will require more than a change of attitude, say academics. Today's students opt for limited job opportunities and quick money rather than pursue doctoral degrees, they say. 'Many more students are taking Master's degree courses now, but few would move on to doctoral studies because they can already get better jobs with a Master's,' said Professor Ching Pak-chung, dean of CUHK's Faculty of Engineering. He believes that about as many Hong Kong postgraduates may be pursuing doctoral studies overseas as are foreign students here, but he fears that they could face bleak job prospects on their return. 'There are few jobs for those with PhDs because few companies invest in research and development. Maybe now, after the closure of a string of dotcom companies, people will realise that a knowledge economy goes beyond portals and Web sites.' Stiff competition for academic posts in Hong Kong means that it is hard for locally trained PhD graduates to obtain teaching posts. UGC figures show that in 1998 about 37 per cent of the territory's 5,500 academic staff had undergone higher education here - but many of these could have taken their PhDs overseas. HKUST's mathematics professor Yang Chung-chun said that limited teaching posts aside, there were insufficient advanced research laboratories to absorb highly qualified professionals. 'I had a very good Master's student whom I had asked to move on to doctoral studies. But he said he was married and wanted to teach in a secondary school to support his family. Potential PhD students do not see many career prospects ahead,' he said. Doctoral candidates receive about $14,000 a month. But this is often less than doctoral students receive overseas and far less than the amount a Master's degree graduate could earn in the workforce. Professor Ching said students might have better incentives if the amount were raised and chances of collaboration with the industrial sector were more widely available. He also called for greater flexibility in the Admission of Talent Scheme to help mainland PhD students to remain in Hong Kong on expiry of their student visas. More research jobs should become available through the Cyberport project in Pokfulam and the planned Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, to be housed in the Science Park near Sha Tin when completed at the end of this year. Currently, 60 per cent of PhD students are enrolled in science programmes, reflecting a proportional lack of interest in the arts. 'Writers and humanities scholars have little voice in Hong Kong,' said Professor Leung Yuen-sang, head of the graduate division at CUHK's History Department. 'There should be greater respect for non-commercial views and values. People tend to go for studies that have market value,' he said.