Hong Kong has a part to play in China's major scientific quests

Sun Kwok says Hong Kong's science community can strengthen its relevance by contributing expertise to China's quests and providing a vital link between the mainland and the West

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:20am

Since the Research Grants Council was established in 1991, scientific research in Hong Kong has made tremendous progress. Researchers are now publishing many more findings in international journals than they were 25 years ago.

However, we must overcome some major hurdles for research to reach the next level and compete with North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.

The greatest handicap we face is access to medium-sized and large research facilities. Tackling problems at the frontiers of science requires such facilities. For instance, synchrotron light sources are basic tools for research in biology, chemistry, geology, materials science and medicine. High-energy particle accelerators are needed to probe the fundamental structure of matter. To conduct marine and environmental science, access to ocean-going vessels is needed. Satellites are now basic platforms for remote sensing to study the earth, oceans, atmosphere, weather and the universe.

Each of these basic facilities costs tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some large facilities are even more expensive. The best-known example is the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, which cost almost US$10 billion to build and over US$1 billion a year to operate. Nations had to pool their resources: the Large Hadron Collider began as a European project but now involves virtually all the world's major countries. The list of Asian participants includes China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.

The well-known Hubble Space Telescope is a joint project between Nasa and the European Space Agency and cost over US$2 billion. Hubble's successor, the James Webb Telescope, currently under construction, has already cost over US$8 billion. The world's largest radio astronomy facility, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, was built with contributions from the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Taiwan, totalling US$1.4 billion. The Square Kilometer Array, a joint effort by over a dozen countries, is estimated to cost over US$2 billion when completed.

China is participating in the Thirty-Meter Telescope to be constructed in Hawaii. It will cost about US$1 billion, to be shared with the US, Canada, Japan and India. Countries are willing to spend large sums because they recognise that these scientific facilities are investments in future advances in technology and in commerce.

China, a rapidly rising scientific power, has demonstrated a strong commitment to major facilities. It has built a synchrotron light source in Shanghai, sent orbiting satellites and landers to the moon, and launched the 100-metre vessel Kexue for oceanography, climatology and marine biology.

Antarctic research is regarded as a high priority, as evidenced by President Xi Jinping's visit to the Xuelong icebreaker in Tasmania before it departed for the Zhongshan station in Antarctica last year. China has established a permanent research station called Kunlun at Dome A, the highest point of the Antarctic plateau.

Other major Chinese initiatives include a 500-metre radio telescope being built in Guizhou and an underground neutrino observatory under construction in Jiangmen . Hong Kong, as a city, has no such capabilities or ambitions. Although the Research Grants Council has funded small science very well, we are constrained in the types of problems we can solve. And the world cares about solutions to big problems, not small ones.

The only way for us to join the club of advanced science countries is through our mother country, China. By playing a role, however small, in a large project, we gain access to the facilities, allowing us to pursue answers to more important scientific problems.

One may ask: what can Hong Kong do? While China will take care of the construction and operation of hardware and infrastructure, Hong Kong can assist in the building of small instruments, development of software and data analysis. We can provide small instruments for particle accelerators and ocean-going vessels.

Even in large space projects, where the launch and construction of the spacecraft are expensive, there is room for Hong Kong to participate in the design and development of software for control, tracking, downlink and data analysis.

Hong Kong has a community of scientists with extensive experience in the West, and can contribute expertise to the national effort. This will give Hong Kong citizens a sense of belonging and allow them to share the pride of its successes.

The University of Hong Kong has taken some steps to collaborate with China. In March, we hosted an international collaboration meeting on Antarctic survey telescopes to discuss astronomical observations from Antarctica. We hope to assist China in the design and scientific planning of infrared and submillimetre-wave telescopes at Dome A. HKU has also recently taken a first step to expand its space research.

For Hong Kong to advance in science and technology, the status quo is not an option and the best way forward is through collaboration with China. At the same time, we should maintain our contacts with Western collaborators. Acting as a bridge between China and the West is our strongest position. If we fail to grasp this opportunity, the role of Hong Kong science in China and the world will diminish.

Professor Sun Kwok is the dean of science at the University of Hong Kong. He has been guest observer on many Nasa and ESA space missions. He is currently the president of the commission on interstellar matter and vice-president of the commission on bioastronomy of the International Astronomical Union