EVER WONDERED IF Two IFC in Central, the tallest building in Hong Kong, can withstand the impact of a typhoon or earthquake? Apparently it can, thanks to studies made by local and overseas researchers, predominantly in the area of construction engineering focused on preventing disasters. The subject is among Hong Kong's top research areas, alongside IT, electronics and Chinese medicine, according to Professor Roland Chin Tai-hong, the new chairman of the Research Grants Council, the body under the University Grants Committee responsible for dishing out about $400 million in research funding to academics each year. Professor Chin, who is also vice-president (research and development) of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was appointed chairman in July for a three-year term, replacing Chinese University pro-vice-chancellor and physicist Kenneth Young. But due to his heavy commitment towards promoting research, Professor Chin's own investigations in his areas of expertise, which include image processing and multimedia technology, have taken a back seat. On top of his duties at HKUST, the computer scientist is also a member of the UGC and the Steering Committee on Innovation and Technology Fund. Over the past few years, he has ceased teaching except co-supervising some students with his colleagues. 'I don't feel I'm being fair to students when I am so busy that I cannot meet them more than once a month,' he said. He knows where his priorities lie. Pointing to the dearth of research funding available in Hong Kong - at 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with more than 2 per cent in countries such as Japan, the US and Singapore - he pledged to lobby 'whoever' in government to get more support. 'It is low even when excluding military research which is not done here and when compared with Asian countries like Taiwan and South Korea,' he said. 'I miss full-time teaching but it is also important to help more people receive funding for their worthwhile projects. It would be a waste of talent if after we have spent so much time and effort recruiting academics, many from overseas, they get frustrated and their ideas are wasted because there is no money for research.' Professor Chin left Hong Kong for further studies in the US after completing Form Five, at the age of 17. Upon receiving his PhD from the University of Missouri in 1979 he spent two years working as a researcher at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland prior to joining the Faculty of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1981, where he became a professor in 1989. Professor Chin returned to the territory and joined HKUST in 1992 and soon extended his influence beyond the university. A few years ago he served for a stint on the government's Applied Science and Technology Research Institute on secondment from HKUST. The competition for research funding in the US is also tough, but a key difference compared with Hong Kong is the sizable pool of funding there. This year a record 1,947 applications - a 4 per cent increase from last year - were submitted from staff at the eight government-funded tertiary institutions for the RGC's Competitive Earmarked Research Grant. A total of 734 projects worth $404.6 million were approved, representing a success rate of about 38 per cent, similar to the rate for projects seeking funding from the US National Science Foundation, Professor Chin said. However, in Hong Kong each year about 500 to 600 projects are judged to be 'fundable' by the panels of international reviewers yet remain deprived of funding. 'Because of our limited annual budget for the competitive grant, we can only award about 38 per cent of the projects. We are talking about another $200 million to provide money for the fundable ones. It is not that much money given Hong Kong's wealth and booming property market. I am hoping to get more money into the system so the worthwhile projects, the worthwhile students [working for their professors] can get funding,' Professor Chin said. This was important not only for the research, but also to enable talented young people to complete their doctorates. Professor Chin has high hopes for locally-based researchers. 'We have built up a research culture that every citizen of Hong Kong should be proud of. I am happy to see that we are up to international standard. Are we the top in the world? Definitely not, but we are very high internationally,' he said. The government is putting in an additional $20 million each year to RGC over the next three years to promote public policy research. Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on academics as they brace for a new round of Research Assessment Exercise run by the UGC, the outcome of which will largely affect the research funding allocated to an institution as part of the UGC's triennial block grant. The exercise has been criticised for having forced staff to focus on research at the expense of teaching. Complaints have also been raised that research on local issues is undervalued in the measure of the quality and quantity of research produced by each institution. Professor Chin dismissed the criticisms, saying juggling teaching and research was what was expected of academics. 'As long as their peers say that they have done good work, that's all it takes to give them a good rating. It is a misconception that some journals don't count. We look at the quality of the piece of work. We have to be fair, open and accountable. We can't say here's the money, come and get it. Yet we don't micromanage by measuring them every day, month and year.'