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Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam soothes storm after Science Park boss accused of interfering in academic freedom of Swedish university branch

Developments prompted leader Carrie Lam to write to Swedish institute to avert diplomatic row, Post learns

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 December, 2017, 11:06am

Actions by the chairwoman of Hong Kong’s Science Park sparked accusations of interference in the academic freedoms of one of the world’s top medical universities and required the city’s leader to intervene, the Post has recently learned.

The developments prompted Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, to write to the 207-year-old Karolinska Institute in Sweden to reaffirm the city’s respect for academic autonomy, narrowly averting a diplomatic row, multiple sources revealed.

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Park chairwoman Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun declined to comment on speculation over the matter, but said she and the park fully respected research freedom and stressed the park had a shared vision to see the research centre succeed. She added, however, that it also had a duty to act in the corporation’s best interests.

Founded in 1810, the prestigious Stockholm-based university produces 40 per cent of Sweden’s academic medical research, and one of its bodies has been responsible for selecting the laureates of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine since 1901.

The university received a HK$400 million donation from Hong Kong tycoon Lau Ming-wai in 2015 to establish the Ming Wai Lau Centre for Reparative Medicine, which opened at the park in October last year – its first and only research branch outside Sweden.

The ruckus began in August when Law and the park’s head of biotech clusters, Daniel Lee, made a visit to the centre in Sha Tin on short notice, requesting to see its research progress. Opened in 2002 by the government, the park is meant to spur technology development in the city.

The account was corroborated by multiple sources close to the park’s management and to the government.

After failing to reach centre director Professor Ronald Li – who was out of town – Law flew to its Stockholm headquarters demanding to meet the university’s management, a source said.

We can never tolerate any restriction of the researchers’ academic freedom
Ole Petter Ottersen, Karolinska Institute

Days later, the university's vice chancellor, Ole Petter Ottersen, published a post on his official blog stressing the need for its researchers “to carry on their activities in complete academic freedom”. The vice chancellor would not confirm to the Post whether the post came as a direct response to Law’s discussions with management there.

“We shall continue to monitor that laws and regulations that apply to Karolinska Institutet in Sweden are upheld in all international contexts – and we can never tolerate any restriction of the researchers’ academic freedom,” he wrote in the September 5 post titled “Establishment in Hong Kong to give successful research”.

“If these preconditions are not met, we will have no choice but to re-examine the decision for this establishment,” the blog read.

In response to Post queries, Ottersen stressed that its researchers “in any country must perform their work under complete academic freedom”.

“We will not tolerate, at any time or place, any restrictions on that matter.”

But he added: “We do not have any indications that this would be the case in our Hong Kong unit.”

Ottersen said the branch was established before his vice-chancellorship started in February and that he would be visiting Hong Kong this month to “form his own opinion” on the matter.

Yet the events proved sufficiently concerning to prompt Lam to write to Ottersen reassuring the university of Hong Kong’s respect for the autonomy and academic freedom of educational institutions. Ottersen said he was “very pleased” to receive Lam’s assurance.

Lam’s office declined to comment on the matter.

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A park spokesman said it was “standing practice” to visit partner organisations to learn about the progress of their research and development projects. Law had sought to share the park’s vision and the role the institute could play in support of the vision, he added.

“This aligns with our mission to connect stakeholders, facilitate knowledge transfer and nurture talents to accelerate technological innovation and commercialisation.”

The aim of the Stockholm visit, the park said, was to brief the vice chancellor on the Lok Ma Chau Loop – a proposed hi-tech loop between Hong Kong and Shenzhen – and on developments in the “Greater Bay Area”, the central government’s scheme to link Hong Kong, Macau and other cities in southern China into an integrated economic and business hub. Other objectives included pledging support for the centre’s success and continuing “discussion with the management team to facilitate mutual understanding on the commitment to a strong translational research focus”.

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The park “fully embraces translational research executed with compliance and integrity,” the spokesman added.

In her reply to the Post, Law referred to the statutory body that adminsters the park and said: “As part of the board, our collective role is to serve the duty to act in good faith in the best interests of the corporation.”

According to the park’s corporate governance guidelines, the chairperson is responsible for leading the board to formulate the corporation’s overall strategic directions and policies. He or she is also expected to maintain close contacts with relevant government officials.

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Law, a member of the Executive Council, was appointed chairwoman of the park in 2014.

The Swedish consulate general in Hong Kong, which had reportedly been upset about the park’s actions, neither confirmed nor denied the events. But consul general Helena Storm said the diplomatic mission regularly expressed “support for academic freedom and the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ assuring this important freedom in Hong Kong”.

The institute made headlines in 2015 when former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, whose son Chuen-yan was a postdoctoral fellow there, was entangled in a conflict-of-interest row when the institute accepted Lau’s donation to set up the research centre in the city. Leung dismissed the accusations as “completely unfounded”.

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Writing in a newsletter to sum up the centre’s first year of works, deputy vice-chancellor for international affairs Professor Maria Masucci said activities had mainly focused on recruitment and the organisation of research facilities and technical platforms.

“A significant part of our efforts was devoted to setting up robust administrative routines that will allow operation in compliance with both Swedish and Hong Kong regulations,” she wrote.

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In her maiden policy address to the city in October, Lam said the government had been striving to attract top overseas scientific research institutions to Hong Kong and cited the Swedish institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s recent innovation node as successful examples.

“The presence of these renowned institutions bears testimony to the fertile ground in Hong Kong for developing innovation and technology,” she said.