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FAQs for Theme-based Research Scheme

Theme-based Research Scheme
Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is Theme-based Research Scheme?

To reaffirm its continued support to research and development, the Government set up the Research Endowment Fund with an injection of $18 billion in 2009. The investment income from up to $4 billion will be used to finance research projects on specific themes under the "Theme-based Research Scheme". The objective of the scheme is to focus academic research efforts of the University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded universities on themes of strategic importance to the long-term development of Hong Kong.

2. How the Themes and Topics be defined?

Following a consultation exercise, the Government identified the following three themes for the scheme in March 2010: 

  • Promoting Good Health
  • Developing a Sustainable Environment
  • Enhancing Hong Kong's Strategic Position as a Regional and International Business Centre

A total of 11 grand challenge topics were identified under the three themes. These grand challenge topics were regularly reviewed and modified as and when necessary by the Research Grants Council (RGC) in consultation with the UGC-funded universities.

In February 2015, the Government decided to introduce a new theme, "Advancing Emerging Research and Innovations Important to Hong Kong". Subsequently, the RGC reviewed the grand challenge topics of the new and original themes in consultation with the academic community. A town hall meeting was organised on 19 June 2015 to facilitate the discussion, refinement and recommendation of the grand challenge topics for the new theme. The new theme and the new/revised grand challenge topics were endorsed by the Government and implemented in July 2015. Under the four themes, there are a total of 16 grand challenge topics for invitation of research proposals.

3. What are the current grand challenge topics of the Theme-based Research Scheme?

The following are the current grand challenge topics of the Theme-based Research Scheme:

The theme on "Promoting Good Health"

  • Infectious Diseases
  • Understanding Disease Mechanisms to Improving Health
  • Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine
  • Wellness Enhancement

The theme on "Developing a Sustainable Environment"

  • Water Pollution and Water Treatment
  • Sustainable Built Environment
  • Energy Harvesting, Conversion and Conservation
  • Air Quality

The theme on "Enhancing Hong Kong's Strategic Position as a Regional and International Business Centre"

  • Hong Kong's Future as an International Financial Centre
  • Promoting Hong Kong's Business through Networking Capability
  • Promoting Hong Kong as a Centre of Excellence for Business Services
  • Innovation and Business Creation

The theme on "Advancing Emerging Research and Innovations Important to Hong Kong"

  • Big Data
  • Imaging, Robotics and Smart Manufacturing
  • Urban Infrastructure
  • E-learning and Digital Citizenship

4. Who can be the Project Coordinator (PC)?

Researchers who are eligible to apply for RGC research funding could apply.

5. Can a PC of an on-going major project (i.e. project funded under the Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) or the Areas of Excellence Scheme) apply again as a PC/Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI)?

To ensure that the PCs of major projects will spend reasonable time on project management, a PC should hold no more than two on-going major projects at the same time. Non-compliance may lead to disqualification of applications. However, there is no restriction on a PC of major project to apply as Co-PI. Nevertheless the applicant would have to convince the TRS Selection Panel that he/she could deploy sufficient attention to the projects under his/her charge.

6. Is there any restriction on the Co-PIs? Can they be overseas (including Mainland) researchers or non-academics?

Though there is no restriction on the Co-PIs, the RGC would like to see the funding benefiting local research community. Hence, the PC should justify why local researchers could not take up the respective role(s).

It should be noted that TRS project grant should primarily be used in undertaking research work in Hong Kong by the PCs and their teams in order to train and groom research talents in Hong Kong. It would be legitimate for the PCs to subcontract out a small part of the research work (regardless of geographic locations) only if specified conditions are fulfilled. For subcontracting services or research work to be conducted outside Hong Kong, the RGC's approval is required. The RGC would deal with the matter on a case-by-case basis, having regard to the merits and justification given by the PCs and whether the specified conditions have been fulfilled. The detailed guidelines on outsourcing of research work are provided in the "Disbursement, Accounting and Monitoring Arrangements for Funding Schemes Administered by the Research Grants Council" (DAMA). Also, the RGC grant should only be used to cover project expenditure which would not otherwise be separately incurred, and the RGC funding policy governing the remuneration of research support staff and purchase of equipment as stipulated in the DAMA should be followed.

7. Can a PC be involved as Co-PI in another proposal?

Yes, but again, he/she needs to justify that he/she could deploy sufficient attention to each of the proposals.

8. Can a PC submit more than one proposal?

No, each applicant could only submit one application as PC. He/She could however be involved in other proposal(s) as Co-PI.

9. Can I submit a proposal with a single PC and no Co-PI?

Yes, but collaboration across universities and discipline is encouraged. Besides, as the scheme intends to tackle complex problems, we expect that the problems would be better solved by a pool of talents instead of a single PC.

10. As RGC is also calling for CRF and GRF applications, can I apply for TRS grants using the same proposal?

It is the responsibility of applicants (all the PC, Co-PIs and Co-Investigators(Co-Is)) to ensure that no duplicate funding from any sources will be sought for the same/similar research project. Breach of this rule or failure to declare similarity of proposals may result in disqualification of the application and debarring the applicants from applying UGC/RGC grants in future. Hence, once it is known that a proposal is awarded funding from other sources, the applicant, in the capacity of PC/Co-PI/Co-I, should decide whether he/she will decline the funding from other sources or withdraw his/her application under TRS.

The PC, Co-PIs and Co-Is will be asked to make declaration on similar/related research proposal(s)/project(s) when they are invited to submit the full proposals. It is the RGC to decide whether two proposals/completed projects are similar or related. The judgment of the RGC is final.

11. Is matching funding required?

Yes. Starting from the TRS 2016/17 (Sixth Round), universities are required to commit at the application stage that they would contribute 10% of the total approved budget, in monetary terms, for a funded project. This matching requirement (i.e. 90% (RGC) : 10% (university)) applies to direct project cost, on-costs and annual allowance of the PC.

Starting from the TRS 2018/19 (Eighth Round), universities are required to commit at the application stage that they would contribute 50% of the total equipment cost (irrespective of the number of items), in monetary terms, for a funded project if the total equipment cost of the project is at $2 million or above. This matching requirement applies to the direct project cost of the equipment item(s). For the purpose of calculating the aforesaid 10% matching requirement, the total equipment cost of the project will be excluded from the total approved budget if the total equipment cost of the project is at $2 million or above (irrespective of the number of items).

The detailed operational arrangements are set out in the Call for Preliminary Proposals.

12. Is there any ceiling or quota on the number of proposals to be submitted by each university?

There is no ceiling or quota on the number of proposals to be submitted by each university.

13. Can TRS funding be used for initiating a Centre?

Funding may be awarded if the PC could justify that the proposal is relevant to the current call and merits award of funding. Nonetheless, any proposal submitted is expected to comprise research element.

14. Is there any upper or lower limit for the funding applied for each proposal?

The total approved budget for a funded project comprises (i) direct project cost; (ii) on-costs to be provided directly to university's management to cover overhead expenditure for the project; and (iii) annual allowance of the PC. The ceiling of direct project cost per project to be awarded by the RGC is $75 million (or $15 million per year for up to five years). Projects with exceptional reasons and justification may be allowed to exceed the $75 million direct project cost limit. There is no funding floor for the projects. Within the $75 million direct project cost limit, projects of different scale can apply. With reference to the past exercises, the typical funding per project is expected to be in the range of $10 million to $40 million, inclusive of on-costs and annual allowance of the PC.

The PC should justify the proposed amount and why the application was submitted under TRS instead of other funding schemes.

15. Is there any relief arrangement for the PC?

Starting from the TRS 2012/13 (Second Round), an annual allowance of up to a maximum of two-month average salary of a Chair Professor will be provided to each funded project to release/partly release the PC from his/her normal teaching and administration duties to focus his/her efforts on the research project. There is no need for the PC to apply and the allowance will be disbursed to the respective coordinating university.

Starting from the TRS 2016/17 (Sixth Round), universities are required to commit at the application stage that the PC will spend sufficient time on the project throughout the project period. The length of time spent should be commensurate with the annual allowance of the PC for a funded project.

16. Can I bid for Research Postgraduate places?

No, there is no provision of Research Postgraduate place under the TRS.

17. Some researches may need a longer duration (more than five years) to achieve the desired result/impact. Can I still submit the proposal?

The maximum duration of projects is five years. The project team may submit a proposal towards the end of the project with a view to continuing the research initiative or bringing the research efforts to a more advanced phase. The PC should justify the funding applied for. The proposal will be treated as fresh application in peer-review and handled in an identical manner to other new applications.

18. Will the funding allocation to each theme or each topic be the same?

Funding is granted to proposals primarily on the basis of academic excellence. There is no preset proportioning of the funding. The RGC does not have any disciplinary priorities or preference on the proposals.

19. It seems that most topics under the Theme "Promoting Good Health" are on the 'treatment' rather than 'preventive' side. Should the proposal follow the direction of the theme or the topic?

The theme aims to promote health and prevent disease of special importance in Hong Kong and to contribute to the well-being of society at the regional and global levels. To this end, it will be necessary to understand the relevant diseases from the treatment as well as preventive side. Related aspects, including the social perspectives, may also form part of the proposal.

20. Does the topic "Air Quality" under the theme "Developing a Sustainable Environment" cover both air pollution and air treatment?

The proposals under this topic should focus on the challenge to improve the air quality of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta region. The applicants should make use of their own professional judgement to decide if the proposed work is relevant to the topic/theme.

21. What are the assessment criteria?

The proposals are primarily assessed on academic excellence and whether they fall within the chosen themes. The general criteria (as listed in the Call for Preliminary Proposals) are:

  • Qualification as world-leading by international standards
  • Impact to Hong Kong
  • Credentials of the project team
  • Existence of a clear strategy
  • Sound structure for an excellent research project

22. When will be the start date of the project?

The project should start within six months from the date of funding result announcement.

23. Will there be interviews with the project team?

There will not be interviews during the preliminary proposals assessment stage. In the full proposals assessment stage, project teams of further shortlisted proposals may be invited for interview.

24. When and how will the themes / topic be revised?

The research themes are decided by the Education Bureau (EDB). In late 2014, the EDB conducted a review on the themes and decided that on top of the three existing themes, a new theme "Advancing Emerging Research and Innovations Important to Hong Kong" be introduced starting from the 2016/17 exercise. For the grand challenge topics, a round of consultation with the academic community was conducted in early 2015 to modify the existing topics and identify the new topics under all four themes. The RGC will review the topics regularly and make modifications as and when necessary. Input from the academic community will be invited when there is a need to change the existing topics or add new topics.