China’s research funding is extended to Hong Kong

In a move that has been awaited in Hong Kong for several years, Hong Kong scientists will finally have access to research funding from China, previously restricted to academics on the Chinese mainland, according to guidelines released last week by the ministries of science and technology and of finance in Beijing.

The aim, according to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, is to help Hong Kong become an "international innovation hub".

The first funding totalling CNY22 million (US$3.5 million) is already in place, Chinese officials said.

“In the first stage, the 16 Partner State Key Laboratories and the six branches of the Chinese National Engineering Research Centre in Hong Kong received the funds,” Life Sciences Professor Nancy Ip, vice-president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), said in a statement on 17 May to University World News.

“The research areas under these 22 units could be a start as it is anticipated that additional research areas of excellence will be supported in due course,” she said. “I believe that the new policy will attract more collaborations in science and technology among local and mainland researchers, and encourage more local researchers to participate in, or even lead, major national science and technology programmes.”

“In accordance with Xi’s instruction, related government departments have acted fast and sci-tech cooperation between the mainland and HKSAR (Hong Kong special administrative region of China) has been pushed forward in an orderly manner,” China’s official Xinhua news agency announced on 14 May.

Under a new directive unveiled last week by the ministries of science and technology and of finance, universities and research institutions in Hong Kong and Macau can apply for funds earmarked for technology innovation in mainland China, and use the funds for research that takes place in Hong Kong.

It will enable the two cities “to play greater roles in building China into a technology power and making China a country of innovators”, the ministries’ statement said.

"Following the principle of competition and selecting the best, they can apply to lead the central fiscal science and technology projects and get the funding," said the guidelines. They can also apply to participate or lead such projects in cooperating with institutions on the mainland.

“It is a major breakthrough,” Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said. Nonetheless, Lam said Hong Kong institutions would have to compete with those on the mainland for funding.

Science policy role

Hong Kong would also be encouraged to “participate in national science and tech planning” and play a role in “national policy-making”, Huang Wei, China’s vice-minister for science and technology, said last week, suggesting that Hong Kong could have a say in where funding should be channelled.

Hong Kong researchers have often complained of not being able to tap into Beijing’s generous grants even when collaborating with mainland researchers, adding that it was costly for them to move machines and equipment across the border for research work.

Xinhua said the move was in response to an appeal by two dozen leading Hong Kong scientists and university professors who are among the Hong Kong membership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences or Chinese Academy of Engineering.

HKUST’s Ip is one of 36 Hong Kong deputies to China’s National People’s Congress. She said in March she had proposed to the National People’s Congress that the ban on Hong Kong scientists receiving mainland funding should be lifted.

Her own institution, HKUST, for example, currently has two Partner State Key Laboratories, in the areas of molecular neuroscience, and advanced displays and optoelectronics technologies, and two branches of the Chinese National Engineering Research Centre, in the areas of tissue restoration and reconstruction, and control and treatment of heavy metal pollution, Ip said. “The projects being undertaken in these labs and centres will benefit from the funding.

“Previously, Hong Kong researchers could only apply for mainland funding in conjunction with their mainland counterparts. However, the funds could not be transferred to or be used in Hong Kong. Under the new policy, we can expect there will be more interactions between scientists in Hong Kong and the mainland,” she said.

Strong international research reputation

Hong Kong universities have a strong international reputation and are among the top in research quality in Asia, with many of its research departments attracting significant numbers of mainland Chinese researchers.

But in the past the only way to tap into China’s substantial research funding was to set up centres on the mainland. The Chinese University of Hong Kong has a hospital and research centre in Shenzhen approved by China’s ministry of education, while HKUST, the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University also have research centres in Shenzhen and elsewhere in Guangdong province.

Ip noted that “20 years ago, there was more research funding in Hong Kong than on the mainland, but now it’s reversed”.

Chen Honglin of the State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that on the Chinese mainland a national key lab like his can receive CNY8-10 million (US$1.3-1.6 million) per year from China’s ministry of science and technology, but by comparison his lab had only received HK$5 million (US$637,000) per year from Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Commission, since 2012.

Mainland research institutions and universities spent CNY355 billion (US$56 billion) on research and development in 2017, government data show.

In 2016 Hong Kong spent HK$19.7 billion (US$2.5 billion), or 0.79% of its gross domestic product, on research and development, according to the latest official figures. Some 47% of the total was government funds.

The same year the Chinese city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong and home to China’s technology giants Baidu and Tencent, spent nearly CNY84.3 billion (US$13.2 billion) on research and development – around 94% of it from the private sector.