Universities in Hong Kong

10-year vision needed for Hong Kong economy to compete with Singapore on tech, HKU research vice-president says

Professor Andy Hor Tzi-sum urges government to take the lead and set out a plan for diversification and tech development, so universities can focus on producing the graduates needed for the decade ahead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 8:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 10:43pm

Officials must lay out a vision for the city’s economy so universities can focus on producing the type of graduates needed to build a technology-driven society to rival Singapore, the University of Hong Kong’s vice-president for research says.

Professor Andy Hor Tzi-sum called on Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to deliver on her pledge to diversify the economy by drawing up a 10-year plan, with interim goals at three and five years.

Her administration should also specify how much money it plans to invest in research and development each year, Hor said.

“Don’t act now and then make a U-turn in the coming years,” Hor said. “Universities and academics are afraid of that. We hope the government can state clearly what kind of Hong Kong people will need in 10 years’ time.”

Hor, a distinguished chemist, oversees research at Hong Kong’s most highly ranked university, which is home to five of 16 key scientific laboratories in the city receiving funding from the Chinese central government.

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Hong Kong scientists, including those from these 16 labs, had long complained of being denied generous grants from Beijing, even when collaborating with their mainland Chinese counterparts. But that grievance was addressed last week when state news agency Xinhua announced Hong Kong scientists would enjoy access to national-level funding under new directives issued by President Xi Jinping to transform the city into an international innovation hub.

The 16 labs, along with six branches in Hong Kong of the Chinese National Engineering Research Centres – including HKU’s State Key Laboratory for Synthetic Chemistry – have reportedly received 1 million yuan (US$157,000) each from Beijing as part of Xi’s pledge.

The Hong Kong government also funds research. The latest available figures show that in 2015 it spent HK$18.3 billion (US$2.33 billion), or 0.76 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, on research and development. The higher education sector accounted for HK$9.5 billion.

Attract R&D talent that makes HK innovative industries thrive

Lam promised last October that by 2022 research and development spending would increase to 1.5 per cent of GDP.

Hor, who previously spent three decades in Singapore’s top research institutes, said the onus was on officials to set a clear blueprint and ensure innovation and technology would emerge as a sustainabledriver of growth.

“In Singapore the government tells universities that research has to get closer to the economy ... and universities are required to produce very talented people needed by multinational corporations,” Hor said.

But the universities enjoyed the autonomy to decide how to do that, he added.

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The Singapore National Research Foundation, a department under the prime minister’s office, is responsible for setting the national direction for research and development.

But in Hong Kong, while Lam chairs a steering committee on innovation and technology, the relationship between the city’s needs and the universities’ work is only discussed during a planning and funding exercise between the University Grants Committee and tertiary education institutions once every three years.

Hor said Hong Kong had been lagging the Lion City in strategic planning, but that it was a good sign Lam had mentioned in her policy address last October that diversifying the economy was “the only solution” to sustaining economic growth.

“It showed the government is not just looking at commerce, finance, business and accountancy, but engineering, science and medicine as well,” he added.

“They are starting to understand that the city’s lopsided development towards the financial sector is unsustainable.”

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Through detailed planning and execution, Singapore had succeeded in attracting investment to develop its pharmaceuticals and chemical engineering industries as new drivers of growth, he said.

And with a clear action plan, Hong Kong could “compete with Singapore in terms of financial technology and service industry” innovation, Hor believed.

In February Hong Kong finance minister Paul Chan Mo-po pledged to set aside an additional HK$50 billion to support innovation and technology, specifically in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, developing a “smart city”, and financial technology.