SCMP Saturday, September 1, 2001

Higher science funding 'peanuts', say academics


SAR scientists have condemned the Government's research funding policy as inadequate to develop and diversify into new fields.
Hong Kong's spending on research lagged behind that of Taiwan and Singapore, said dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at City University, Professor Roderick Wong Sue-cheun.
A study by the Hong Kong Institute of Science, a collective of local academics founded in 1992, last year reported that Hong Kong's gross expenditure on pure research and development accounted for 0.36 per cent of its gross domestic product in 1998, trailing behind Taiwan's 1.74 per cent and Singapore's 1.62 per cent.
The current available funding in the SAR was "peanuts", Professor Wong said. "Hong Kong should have an independent funding body like the National Science Foundation or the National Institute for Health in the United States endowed with huge budgets," he said.
The institute has called for a substantial increase in the research and development budget over the next decade to train a bigger pool of talent in high-end technology and attract increased private investment. Professor Wong thought Hong Kong had huge potential for becoming a leading centre for the development of electronic engineering, material sciences and IT, and was especially suited due to the limited space and facilities required for research in those areas.
Criticising the Government's policy of reducing funds for universities, president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Paul Chu Ching-wu revealed this week that HKUST was seeking sponsorship from US companies to support research and development.
Professor Tam Kwong-hang, chair professor in paediatric surgery at the University of Hong Kong, has also criticised as too small this year's funding allocation for bio-medical study by the Research Grants Council (RGC), the University Grants Committee's research funding body. The council announced in June that $127 million would go to 145 specific bio-medical projects. In total this year, the council has announced awards of $402 million for 693 projects across all eight universities, out of 1,630 applications. The figures did not augur well for development of advanced research, Professor Tam said, compared with what was being offered abroad.
"The British Government provides a start-up fund of about £1.5 million (HK$17 million) for each top academic coming from outside the country. The money spent by the Hong Kong Government on scientific research in the past decade is less than the budget of an average American university."
He said medical researchers were also baffled by the only other source of funding - the Innovation and Technology Fund launched in late 1999 to raise technology standards in local industries. Its $5 billion budget funds projects with practical application value at universities, in the private sector or as collaborative ventures. But $3 billion is reserved for the planned Applied Science and Technology Research Institute in Sha Tin. The range and restrictions were such that scientists did not know what research topics would be worth applying for, Professor Tam said.
ITF science adviser Professor Vincent Shen said the fund was intended for entrepreneurial-minded individuals. He also disagreed with claims about inadequate government support for research. "The amount of the RGC's earmarked research funds has been on the increase each year and any active researchers should be able to get support," he said.