Hong Kong steps up research collaboration with China

Hong Kong will top up its research endowment fund to the tune of HK$20 billion (US$2.6 billion) to boost innovation as it steps up research collaborations with the Chinese mainland and with other countries, the Hong Kong government has announced.

The sum is in addition to HK$50 billion (US$6.4 billion) announced in February this year to support innovation and technology development in key areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, smart city technology and financial technology, in particular for research clusters in collaboration with mainland Chinese institutions.

The funds would be used on re-industrialisation projects to improve production through smart technologies and robotics, and to promote research and development in universities that would fuel the upgrading of industries in Hong Kong and the neighbouring Pearl River Delta in China as part of Beijing’s ‘Made in China 2025’ project, according to the announcement on 10 October.

The latest cash injection into the endowment fund administered by the Hong Kong Research Grants Council under the University Grants Committee brings the fund to a total of HK$46 billion which will produce an annual income for research spending. Some HK$26 billion has been injected in the endowment fund between 2009 when it was set up, and 2017.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam also announced a HK$3 billion matching grant scheme over three years to Hong Kong universities to match funds from private companies.

According to experts, the endowment top up and the matching scheme will double the annual current research funding from HK$2 billion to HK$4billion, at a time when Hong Kong has been slipping behind Singapore’s huge rise in research spending in recent years.

Lam also announced a blueprint to address the shortage of local IT talent, including new fellowship schemes for ‘outstanding academics’ in Hong Kong with 50 additional post-doctoral positions and funds for 25 professors and associate professors to free them from teaching duties in order to concentrate on research.

Heightened tensions between China and the United States, including the US-China trade war and a greater US focus on China’s legitimate and backdoor technology transfers from the US, has highlighted the importance of Hong Kong as a research and technology partner with China, and as a Chinese gateway to research collaboration with other countries.

Institutions that have already expressed interest in Hong Kong-based research clusters with China include Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which last year set up an innovation node in Hong Kong, “to educate the next generation of global innovators” and serve as a hub for collaborative research and innovation.

Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology and RWTH Aachen University recently announced a new centre for industrial technology and digital manufacturing in Hong Kong as part of the‘re-industrialisation’ project, and is planning a second centre in Hong Kong in what it sees as an opportunity to connect with China.

According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, MIT, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University and the University of Waterloo in Canada have been interested in forming a consortium for biotechnology research and development in Hong Kong – all are strong in stem cell research.

Also expressing interest is École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, a specialist engineering institution which is strong in areas such as drone technology. China is a leading manufacturer of drones.

Sweden’s Karolinska Institute has already set up a research centre for regenerative medicine in Hong Kong – its only branch outside Sweden, funded by a US$51 million philanthropic donation from a Hong Kong property tycoon.

Other recent collaborations include a new joint institute for innovation between Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Shenzhen University in China.

In May China’s vice minister for science and technology, Huang Wei, announced that China’s national science research funds would be open to applications from Hong Kong institutions, opening the way for Hong Kong-based research clusters.