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Universities in Hong Kong

Baptist University biology researcher claims his political leanings have led to talk of his termination

Roger Wong Hoi-fung says if his contract is not renewed, it would derail ongoing studies to support new medicines for diabetes and fatty liver conditions.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 6:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 4:56pm

A biology researcher on Wednesday claimed his recent participation in the election of Hong Kong representatives to the state legislature had affected his employment prospects at Baptist University, quoting “reliable faculty sources” who said his three-year contract would not be renewed when it expired in August next year.

Roger Wong Hoi-fung, a research assistant professor, said his work to support new medicines for diabetes and fatty liver conditions, endorsed by Hong Kong’s top research funder, would come to a standstill if his sources were right.

A Baptist University spokesman told the Post that “political factors” were not considered when it came to contract renewal for research assistant professors.

Other than research grants, which were taken as a reflection of staff performance, the university would also consider the relevant academic department’s manpower needs and financial situation.

The spokesman said the university would not comment on Wong’s case, citing privacy issues.

Wong, a member of the pro-democracy camp, was not elected as one of the 36 deputies to the National People’s Congress. He failed to get sufficient support from pan-democrats, who made up about 300 of 1,989 Hong Kong electors at the December 19 poll.

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At a press conference on Wednesday, he revealed that “people outside the university” had warned him of the risks to his job if he chose to stand for election as a Hong Kong deputy.

Yet, the head of Baptist University’s biology department Xia Yiji assured him otherwise, Wong claimed.

Wong played an audio recording where a man he identified as Xia said “we will support … recommend your extension” when Wong asked about his contract renewal. Wong said the conversation took place on September 29.

When the Post contacted Xia, he echoed the university’s statement in his e-mail response on Thursday. He said “political factors” were not among the considerations in Wong’s contract renewal and declined to disclose further details on the process, citing the need to protect staff privacy.

Xia added: “Indeed, I had no idea till yesterday that Dr Wong was running [to be one of] Hong Kong’s deputies at the National People’s Congress.”

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Wong was given HK$1.26 million by the city’s Research Grants Council in July 2016 for his work on repressing the synthesis of fat, which could lead to new medicines to treat diabetes and fatty liver conditions. It was one of 10 biological sciences projects supported by the council’s General Research Fund.

He described the project as a “milestone study that had lasted for more than a decade” and added that it would be left hanging if he was booted from the university next August, as the funding was meant to last till July 2019.

He had used close to half, or about HK$500,000 of the funding, and if he failed to secure a position and continue his research in one of the eight public universities in Hong Kong, the government would take back the remaining amount.

“Five students, including doctoral and postdoctoral researchers, working with me for this project would lose their jobs. I have to apologise to them, for my innocent belief in institutional autonomy free of political interference,” Wong said with a deep bow.

Among Baptist University’s 69 projects sponsored by the council in the year 2016/17, the funding for Wong’s research was ranked third in terms of the total amount.

The university requires research assistant professors to get a General Research Fund award for their employment contract to be renewed.

The spokesman of the university’s faculty and staff union, former journalism academic To Yiu-ming, said: “This is the first time we have handled a case where a teaching staff who was granted official research funding [might fail] to get his contract renewed.”

To said all General Research Fund recipients at the university had their contracts extended, except Wong.

Wong recounted that in early December, he learned from some reliable sources – “people who have access to the paperwork and disagree with the way things work” – that Xia wrote to a superior in the Science Faculty, which the biology department is part of, recommending that Wong’s contract not be renewed.

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Wong claimed the sources told him that Xia cited reasons that were not related to his performance or merits as a researcher and teacher.

On December 21, Wong again heard from the sources that the faculty had endorsed Xia’s decision.

Wong said he had made a formal request to the science faculty to explain their decision and show him the relevant documents concerning his contract renewal.

Wong has been active in promoting academic integrity in the university sector and made the news some time back for his dismissal from Hong Kong University, after he accused a professor and two doctoral students of falsifying research results.

The university later retracted the termination but Wong resigned anyway, saying he wanted to show that he had not made the original complaint for personal gain.