Scientists in Hong Kong will not bend to Beijing just because they get state funding, local scholars say
Comments underscore earlier call to provide local researchers with national support or risk losing talent
Two top Hong Kong scholars have dismissed concerns of academic freedom being compromised under a new policy allowing access to national-level funding for local researchers, as Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung hailed the move as a boost to the city’s innovation and technology development.
Professor Andy Hor Tzi-sum, vice-president for research at the University of Hong Kong, said reputation was very important for academics, and he did not believe any of his peers would feel obliged to follow orders from the central government on research just because they were receiving funding.
Another scholar, Joseph Lee Hun-wei, a professor of engineering and public policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, echoed Hor’s views, saying approval of projects on the national level is done by independent experts.
The remarks were made after President Xi Jinping last Monday directed state agencies to give the city’s scientists greater access to national funding – previously only available to mainland Chinese applicants – to transform Hong Kong into an international innovation hub.
The move was in response to an appeal by 24 of Hong Kong’s leading scientists and university professors who wrote to him last year to “express their pressing hope to make a contribution to the motherland”.
“Research is very simple,” Hor said, speaking on a radio programme on Sunday.
“Top professors will not come to Hong Kong if we do not have good funding and resources and if we limit what topics they can do.”
He also said fears about academic freedom being compromised were a form of flawed thinking.
Lee, who is also a former vice-president at HKUST, pointed out there were non-Chinese researchers taking part in projects with the mainland.
On Hong Kong’s academics’ appeal to Xi, Lee said he did not think they had bypassed the city’s government. He believed it was only natural for scholars to communicate with the central government directly as the matter was about collaboration with the mainland.
Lee said money was not the only issue faced by the research sector as there was a need for a coherent and clear policy for research and development, and how to collaborate with the mainland.
As an example, he noted there were currently many major science projects in Guangdong province, but it was not easy for local researchers to participate due to a lack of policy support.
In a blog post on Sunday, Cheung, Hong Kong’s No 2 official, said the government would work hard to promote the development of research in the city and Greater Bay Area – Beijing’s scheme to link nine cities in Guangdong province with Hong Kong and Macau into an integrated economic and business hub.
Hor, who only returned to Hong Kong three years ago after spending three decades in Singapore’s top research institutes, warned the city’s talent would leave if support for them were lacking.