Universities in Hong Kong

Top pick for new HKU vice-chancellor faces questions over research links to US military

In online article, academic Ying Chan asks if Chinese American scientist Zhang Xiang will give up research work in US if given university role in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 1:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 7:58pm

A journalism professor who once challenged the ability of academic Peter Mathieson to head the University of Hong Kong turned her attention to his likely successor on Thursday, asking if he intended to continue receiving military funding from United States for his research.

Information available on a university website shows that Chinese American scientist Zhang Xiang, who is expected to be named the next HKU vice-chancellor on Friday, received funding support from the US army and air force research offices for his invention of the world’s first “invisibility cloak”.

On Thursday night, Ying Chan, former director of HKU’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, questioned in her online commentary whether Zhang would safeguard academic freedom and institutional autonomy at the university if he continued to seek funding from the US government and the Chinese Ministry of Education.

A spokesman for the Materials Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told the Post: “Zhang Xiang stepped down as Materials Sciences Division director on July 1, 2016.” But Zhang’s personal profile on the school website still says he is the director, and it is uncertain whether he continues to have any role in the lab’s research.

Zhang met with alumni members at about noon on Friday. The university council will make a final decision the same afternoon.

Zhang is expected to replace the incumbent, Mathieson, who resigned and is leaving by January 2018. The selection process has taken 11 months, compared to two years for Mathieson.

Scholar tipped to lead HKU made his name turning science fiction into reality with ‘invisibility cloak’

Zhang, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is known for masterminding the creation of the world’s first “invisibility cloak”. It involved groundbreaking research in metamaterials, allowing an engineered material to manipulate and bend light in unnatural ways. The feat overcame a diffraction limit barrier that had not been cracked in 200 years. Time magazine called it one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.

According to the UC Berkeley website, Zhang’s research team received support from the US Army Research Office and US Air Force Office of Scientific Research for two papers on invisibility shields, published in prestigious academic journal Nature in August 2008.

“The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research helped fund the project described in Science,” the school said about one of the two papers.

In a paper published in July 2014, Zhang wrote about the development of a tiny laser sensor that “could potentially be used to sniff out a hard-to-detect explosive popular among terrorists”, with support from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

The US Department of Energy funded Zhang’s work on an emerging class of atomically thin materials that could be used in the development of transparent LED displays, according to a paper published in Science in 2015.

Journalism professor questions choice of Briton as HKU head

It has also emerged in local media that Zhang has received at least 10 funding grants from the US Department of Defence for seven research projects related to the “invisibility cloak”, comprising seven grants from the US air force, two from the army and one from navy, since 2001.

Zhang said in the meeting with alumni on Friday that it was common for the US Department of Defence to support various scientific projects. He emphasised that his research was not for military purposes and added that he had not held any position in the department.

Will Professor Zhang, after taking the helm, put aside his dedicated work of 20 years or pass the research to another leading scientist?
Professor Ying Chan

“His research into the invisibility cloak has got funding from the US army, navy and air force. Will Professor Zhang, after taking the helm, put aside his dedicated work of 20 years or pass the research to another leading scientist?” Chan asked.

“History has proven that with one foot each on the two big continents, engaging in high-level research and serving as a school head is not workable,” she added.

Chan cited the example of Chu Ching-wu, head of the University of Science and Technology between 2001 and 2009, who wished to continue his well-known research in physics.

“The plan in the end failed …” she said. “His performance during his terms was considered average within the school.”

Chan also questioned how Zhang could “defend” the university, given his deep relationships with mainland universities and government bodies. A strong concern among HKU alumni is whether the new vice-chancellor will be able to protect the institution’s autonomy and academic freedom.

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A US national, Zhang is one of 90 foreign nationals among the 800 members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences – a national think tank that advises the central government on major science and technology issues.

The Nanjing-born scholar was commended by the academy for setting up Nanjing University’s school of engineering and applied sciences, as well as promoting cooperation and exchange in the field between China and the US.

Chan said she hoped Zhang would answer the questions raised and address the potential problems.

The Post has contacted UC Berkeley for comment, pending a response.

This is not the first time Chan has criticised the choice of a potential HKU vice-chancellor. In 2013, before Mathieson took on the role, she wrote on her blog asking how the Briton could safeguard the university’s academic freedom with “a complete lack of understanding” of Chinese society and history.

Willy Lam Wo-lap, adjunct professor at Chinese University’s Centre for China Studies, said it was common to see scientists, for example, in China, the US and Israel, receive funding from the military.

“In spite of his receiving the funds from the US military, he has managed to maintain a good relationship with the academia on the mainland. Chinese academics don’t see that as a problem,” Lam said. “That shows his funding source shouldn’t cause a conflict of interest with his role in Hong Kong.”

But Lam said it would be impossible for Zhang to continue his research work in the US because the responsibility of being a school head in Hong Kong required his full attention. He predicted that Zhang would have to entrust his research to another scientist.

Top job at the University of Hong Kong proves too hot for most

Political commentator Lau Yui-siu said he was not worried that the funding would give rise to conflicts if Zhang carried on his research after entering the vice-chancellor’s office.

“Both the US and Chinese governments fund research abroad, while the US has been more sophisticated in terms of regulation and more comprehensive in terms of research scope – especially in the field of science and technology,” Lau said.

Lau added that the general concerns over Zhang’s background and his suggestions for HKU to get more resources from China were based more on negative impressions of the political environment on the mainland rather than knowledge of Zhang’s personality.

“China indeed offers more funding than Hong Kong for research in science and technology. Therefore if the transparency of the funded projects’ operation is high enough and the funding requirements do not compromise academic autonomy, Zhang’s suggestion is reasonable.”

Lau said it would not be difficult for both Zhang and the university’s governing council to steer and balance the impressions of the local public.

“If Zhang can openly distinguish right from wrong in some of China’s problems, if the council can inform the public more about the vice-chancellor selection process, impressions they might consider biased can be partly neutralised,” Lau said.

Additional reporting by Su Xinqi