Carrie Lam

Scientists call for solution to solve funding problem at Hong Kong universities

This second part of a three-part series on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s eagerly awaited maiden policy speech to be delivered on October 11 talks to academics about the importance of research at public universities, which remains underfunded compared to developed countries

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 2:08pm

When Andy Hor Tzi-sum first developed his passion for chemistry in the 1970s, there was a distinct lack of opportunity in Hong Kong to grow that passion.

Most students in those days were chasing degrees, such as accounting and civil engineering, that held the promise of a stable career.

But Hor refused to follow the pack, and set off for the UK to study at Imperial College London, before furthering his studies and research in the University of Oxford and the National University of Singapore.

He flourished overseas, becoming an authority in the field of chemistry and holds prestigious fellowships at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry.

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Hor returned to Hong Kong two years ago to take the lead in the setting of direction and policies for research in Hong Kong’s oldest university. He lamented the insufficient government research funding for universities in recent years and how the society was still focused on business and finance.

“It’s amazing how it hasn’t changed for 30, 40 years,” said Hor, who is a professor and vice-president for research at the University of Hong Kong, last week.

But Hor and fellow scientists in the city may soon see a silver lining. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is expected to announce plans to boost support for research during her first policy address on October 11.

While details have not been made public, Lam said “strengthening funding support” for research in public universities was a top area for further review in July.

In April, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po also earmarked HK$18 billion – from the government’s total budget surplus for the 2016-17 financial year of HK$110.8 billion – for education, including money to improve higher education and provide more resources for research and development.

At 0.7 per cent of the city’s GDP, the research expenditure in Hong Kong is significantly lower than the 3-per cent average in many developed countries.

Hor said he found this puzzling given Hong Kong’s huge government reserves and recognition both from academia and industries of the importance of research.

While government funding for research at public universities has risen from HK$5.9 billion in the 2011/12 financial year to HK$7.9 billion in the 2015/16 financial year, Hor said the increase was not responsive to the growth of universities and mainly catered to inflation.

“Over the last five years, the number of research programmes has grown and there are more researchers,” he said.

Hong Kong saw a massive increase in public universities since the 1990s, beginning with the establishment of the University of Science and Technology and five institutions gaining full recognition as universities. All eight public universities in Hong Kong are also research active.

For the 2015/16 financial year, 64 per cent of departmental research costs for public universities came from block grants issued by the University Grants Committee (UGC), which oversees funding for the eight public universities.

Another 10 per cent of the costs came from the Research Grants Council (RGC), a body under UGC in charge of approving research funding, while 9 per cent came from other government departments such as the Food and Health Bureau.

The rest comes from local and overseas donors.

RGC funding comes from the annual investment income of a HK$23 billion Research Endowment Fund, which has dropped from six per cent to some three per cent over the past few years.

Hor questioned whether relying on the volatility of investments was the best way to fund research because research must be sustained despite the fluctuation in gains.

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The committee’s chairman Carlson Tong Ka-shing earlier called on the government to allocate to it HK$12 billion to just maintain the current level of research funding by RGC.

Hor, who specialises in organometallic chemistry – which is the study of the chemical bond between organic compounds and a metal, which has applications in polymers and pharmaceuticals among other uses, added that the lack of funding stunted promising projects with commercial and technological potential at HKU.

One example would be an application of metallic materials in organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) carried out by the university’s chemistry department.

Hor said OLED provide vivid colours, are cheaper to produce and consume less energy, are ideal for television and mobile phone screens. But the lack of government support meant the project could not be done on a larger scale and the researchers were now finding investments from industries.

The lack of opportunities and funding have also forced other local researchers into a dead end.

Despite making a name for herself in the city after having one of her papers published in the scientific journal Plant Physiology recently, plant scientist Dr Lydia Lam Pui-ying had to go overseas for her postdoctoral fellowship because of the lack of opportunities in Hong Kong.

Lam, a former research assistant at University of Hong Kong, spent three years studying tricin, a component in the cells of cereal plants.

In the end, she and her research team discovered that energy production from rice straw could be increased by 37 per cent after inhibiting the production of tricin in plants and it can also generate a cleaner energy biofuel during the process.

A prominent academic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it took years to secure funding from the RGC.

“Hong Kong’s overall research money is getting so tight now,” he said.

In the past, he said, the RGC money was probably the same as what all Chinese universities received under the State Council’s National Natural Science Foundation.

“Now the situation has reversed with the research budget of a single university like Tsinghua or Shanghai Jiao Tong equivalent to all the RGC money we have.”

Hor suggested following the lead of Singapore, which announced last year a S$19 billion (HK$109 billion) plan – the biggest budget to date – to support its research and development efforts over the next five years.

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Hor said the five-year-planning system carved out a portion of government income, which would not fluctuate for the time span regardless of the economic situation.

Singapore’s quick rise, he said, in research development – in just two to three decades – was a result of cooperation among government, researchers, industries and businesses, and the community, which he did not see in Hong Kong.

“When the government invests money in research, it is not just for academic output. A lot is because [they] want to create jobs,” he said.

But instead of just copying Singapore’s model, Hor said the city should turn its challenges of urbanisation and ageing into opportunities. The two themes encompass a whole range of disciplines including medicine, science, urban planning and education.

He suggested raising the GDP for research to two per cent in 10 years’ time.

“If we increase by say 0.2 percentage points every year, we will reach one per cent in two years, which would then serve a catalytic effect,” he said.

Lam is also expected to announce policies related to enhancing the professional development of teachers and promoting vocational education next Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Ernest Kao

Read the first part of the series here.