Research Grants Council Meeting in June 2017

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) Five proposals amounting to $200 million1 were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 12 July 2017
Early Career Scheme (ECS) 151 proposals amounting to $84.3 million were funded.

Letter to Heads of Universities dated 29 June 2017

General Research Fund (GRF) 962 proposals amounting to $592.6 million were funded.
Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS) Five proposals amounting to $3.7 million were funded.
1 The amount includes $180 million funded by the RGC and $20 million matched by the universities concerned.

Research Schemes

Theme-based Research Scheme

In view of the decrease in the rate of investment return forecast of the Research Endowment Fund (REF) and to ensure that there would be stable funding for the TRS in the coming years, the RGC decided to set the TRS budget at $180 million per year starting from TRS 2017/18 until the financial position of the REF improved significantly.

At present, universities are required to match 10% of the total approved budget for TRS projects. The RGC announced in December 2016 that starting from the next call, i.e. the TRS 2018/19 (Eighth Round) and Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme 2018/19 (Eighth Round), universities would be required to provide a compulsory matching funding for equipment items. Regarding the implementation arrangement for this new matching requirement, the RGC decided the implementation arrangement in its latest meeting. Universities would be required to provide a matching funding of 50% of the total equipment cost of each funded project if the total equipment cost of the project was at $2 million or above (irrespective of the number of items) and such cost of equipment would be discounted from the total budget of the project for the purpose of calculating the existing 10% matching requirement.

The RGC proposed some modifications to grand challenge topics at its meeting in December 2016. Universities were consulted and their comments on the proposed modifications and their suggestions on new topics were considered by the RGC at its latest meeting. Considering that the grand challenge topics should not be too narrow, the RGC decided that no further changes should be made to the proposed grand challenge topics. The modified grand challenge topics will be implemented in TRS 2018/19 (Eighth Round). The next comprehensive review on grand challenge topics were scheduled in 2019.

The second TRS Public Symposium will be hosted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong on 9 December 2017. The project teams of the TRS projects funded in the first two rounds of exercise will present their research results and achievements in the Symposium.

Early Career Scheme

Out of the 396 ECS applications received, 151 projects were approved amounting to $84.3 million (including $6.4 million for educational activities). The success rate was 38% and the average funding per project was $0.56 million. The average funding level was comparable to that of the General Research Fund. Among the 151 approved projects, five projects were rated "outstanding". The Principal Investigators (PIs) of these five outstanding projects would receive "The Early Career Award 2017/18" and also an additional $0.1 million per project for engaging in educational activities. The RGC will hold an award presentation ceremony for these awardees and the winners of the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowships in October 2017.

General Research Fund

In the 2017/18 GRF exercise, the RGC approved a total of 962 proposals amounting to about $592.6 million. The overall success rate decreased slightly from 34% last year to 33% this year, while the funding amount per project maintained at about $0.62 million.

Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme

The Prestigious Fellowship Scheme was launched by the RGC for awarding outstanding academics in the Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines. Five proposals amounting to $3.7 million were approved. The overall success rate was 24%. The average funding amount per project was $0.74 million. The selected Fellows are considered to be of high quality.

Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme

For the Eighth Round exercise for admission in the 2017/18 academic year, 10 908 initial applications and 6 454 full applications were received from 158 and 123 countries/regions respectively. A total of 468 nominations were made by eight UGC-funded universities. Of the 468 nominations, six applicants were each nominated by two universities under the Science, Medicine, Engineering and Technology Panel, making a total of 462 unique applicants for consideration of the award. After rigorous selection, 231 candidates were selected for the award of fellowship while another 70 candidates were put on the waiting list and would be awarded the fellowship in case any of the recommended candidates decline the offer. As of 7 April 2017, 231 of the total 275 candidates who received offers (i.e. 84.0%) had accepted the awards.

In order to maintain the competitiveness of the HKPFS and to contain the number of Research Postgraduate (RPg) places to be reserved for the HKPFS within the 4% limit endorsed by the UGC, the number of RPg places to be reserved for the Ninth Round exercise would remain at 231.

At its meeting in December 2014, the RGC approved a new formula for calculating the nomination quota with effect from the Seventh Round exercise, as follows -

Nomination Quota2 = Number of approved quota in the previous round × [1 - (Relevant Success Rate3 - University's Success Rate)] subject to the baseline and upper limit of the quota at 20 and 90 respectively.

2 Rounded up to the nearest integer.
3 For working out the nomination quota for 2018/19, the Relevant Success Rate is the average of 2016/17 and 2017/18 success rates which is 67.0% [i.e. (68.3% + 65.6%) ÷ 2].

The RGC also approved at its meeting in June 2017 the proposed measures as recommended by the HKPFS Steering Committee to strengthen the refunding mechanism of the unspent conference and research-related travel allowance under the HKPFS as follows:

  1. universities are required to provide the amount of conference and research-related travel allowance spent annually for awardees who had completed or withdrawn from the fellowship in the past calendar year to the Secretariat by end of January each year;
  2. the Secretariat will verify the universities' returns against the relevant information provided in the annual progress reports and graduate reports, and liaise with the universities on any discrepancies identified on the returns from February to April, with a view to mutually agreeing on the amount to be refunded to the RGC by May; and
  3. the agreed amount of unspent allowance to be refunded will be offset from the recurrent grants allocation to be disbursed to the university concerned in June.

On the advice of the RGC, the Secretariat promulgated the above arrangements to Research Office of each university on 30 June 2017 for implementation effective from 2018. In the meantime, universities are required to return the refund amount in 2016 to the RGC by cheque.

Project Management and Research Conduct

Incomplete Disclosure of Submission/Grant Records in Funding Applications

The Subject Panels noted that some applicants had failed to provide a complete disclosure of their submission/grant records, including the disclosure of similar/related proposals/projects, in their applications; and some applicants had not declared properly in their applications that their proposals were re-submissions. Universities should remind their colleagues to read carefully the requirements stated in the application forms and the related guidance notes to ensure compliance; and alert them to the serious consequences of improprieties.

Quality of Research Proposals

The Subject Panels also noted that some of the proposals were of poor quality. The RGC would like to suggest that universities could organize workshops in future for senior academics to share their experience in writing sound GRF/ECS proposals with potential applicants.

Acknowledgement of Equipment Funded by the UGC/RGC

The RGC noticed that many UGC/RGC funded facilities/equipment had not been properly acknowledged. To ensure that proper acknowledgements are made, additional guidelines have been drawn up for compliance by the Project Coordinators and Principal Investigators and their universities and the UGC Secretariat will inform Research Office of the details separately.

Assessment of Research Impact

In his 2017 Policy Address, the Chief Executive set out a number of new initiatives to promote the development of scientific research in Hong Kong, and to encourage more research projects with impact. As one of the measures to take forward this initiative, the RGC has reviewed the current assessment criteria and mechanism of the various research funding schemes and decided to include research impact as one of the assessment criteria and use research impact as a criterion for evaluation on completion of the projects for the research funding schemes concerned.

Research Endowment Fund (REF)

The RGC noted that the rate of investment return of the REF for 2018 to 2021 had further decreased to 2.4% - 3.3% per annum. At this lower rate of return, it is anticipated that the principal of the REF would start depleting in 2020/21. The Secretariat is exploring with the Education Bureau the possibility of injecting additional resources into the REF to ensure a steady flow of research funding to UGC-funded universities.

Visit to The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Members of the RGC, Subject Panels and Committees visited The Hong Kong Polytechnic University on 15 June. The RGC was grateful to The Hong Kong Polytechnic University for their warm hospitality and the interesting programs arranged for the visit. The RGC's observations and feedback will be separately sent to The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The university for the next visit will be The Chinese University of Hong Kong in June 2018.

RGC Review

A Task Force was set up by the UGC in July 2016 to oversee the first phase of the Review (Phase I). The Task Force has now completed its work on Phase I of the Review. It concluded that the current system had worked well and kept reasonable pace with comparable jurisdictions. It found no compelling evidence to support a case for radical change of direction or restructuring of the RGC or the system of research support it operates, such as the creation of an independent body separate from the UGC. The Task Force also made recommendations on various aspects of the RGC's work, such as communication and engagement, data collection, impact and benefit and grant processes.

The RGC provided comments on the review recommendations after the Phase I Review. The Secretariat has also written to the Heads of Universities/Institutions for comments on the review recommendations in June 2017. The RGC's comments, together with other stakeholders' response, will be discussed by the UGC in September 2017. Subject to the UGC's endorsement, the full report of the Phase I Review will be published afterwards. The UGC will also formulate an integrated action plan to follow up the review recommendations. A symposium to engage the front-line researchers will be held after September 2017. The RGC looks forward to working in partnership with the UGC, universities/institutions and other parties concerned with a view to sustaining its achievements and seeking further improvements.

The Phase II Review will study less macro issues such as grant processes. It will be overseen by the RGC. The RGC will regularly report the progress of the review to the Research Group under the UGC for its consideration and endorsement. The UGC will consider the framework for the Phase II Review in September 2017.

The Research Impact Fund

The UGC had approved the establishment of a new competitive funding scheme called the Research Impact Fund (the Fund) on a pilot basis, the funding requirements of which would be met initially from the UGC's Central Allocation Vote. A total of $150 million, representing $50 million in each year in the 2016-19 triennium, will be available in the first call for proposals. The Fund will be administered by the RGC. The Heads of Universities and the academic community will be consulted on the implementation proposal in the second half of 2017. A detailed operational framework for launching the Fund will then be worked out for further consideration and endorsement by the RGC and UGC in December 2017 and January 2018 respectively. Subject to the endorsement of the operational framework for the Fund, the first call for proposals will be issued in early 2018.

Handling of Research Misconduct Cases

To enhance public accountability and transparency of RGC's handling of research misconduct cases, the RGC uploaded the related guidelines and procedures to its website early this year. The RGC decided at its latest meeting to publish the statistics of misconduct cases and the summaries of RGC's decision on all substantiated cases with names withheld on its website with the aims of further enhancing transparency, educating researchers the kinds of behaviour not acceptable and deterring them from committing similar misconduct. We hope that the number of alleged misconduct cases would decrease in the long run.