Research Grants Council Meeting in December 2018

Implementation of the Recommendations Proposed in the Review Report on Research Policy and Funding

The Research Grants Council (RGC) noted that, as announced in the Policy Address in October 2018, the Government accepted in full the recommendations put forward by the Task Force on Review of Research Policy and Funding. The Government had also highlighted in the Policy Address its commitment of injecting $20 billion into the Research Endowment Fund (REF), launching a $3-billion Research Matching Grant Scheme and introducing three new recurrent RGC fellowship schemes.

On the REF injection cum rationalisation proposal, the RGC noted that it would be presented to the Finance Committee (FC) of the Legislative Council for consideration in the first half of 2019. Subject to the approval by the FC before the end of the current financial year, the injection will likely be in place within 2019. Allowing time for the investment to generate interest, the investment income of the injection can only be drawn for use from the 2021/22 academic year onwards. Given the expectations of the researchers, the RGC has agreed to provide an advanced enhancement of the budgets for the General Research Fund (GRF), Early Career Scheme (ECS) and Collaborative Research Fund (CRF) for the 2019/20 academic year using existing resources.

In taking forward the recommendations as accepted by the Government, the RGC considered the implementation plan as well as the operation principles of the respective recommendations and endorsed them for the consideration of the University Grants Committee (UGC). The RGC noted the consolidated consultation schedule and agreed that the draft operating guide/parameters of the Research Matching Grant Scheme and the three new RGC fellowship schemes should be drawn up in consultation with the universities/institutions in the first half of 2019 after funding approval by FC.

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Areas of Excellence Scheme Three proposals amounting to $248 million1 were funded. Letter to Head of Universities dated 31 December 2018
Collaborative Research Fund 20 proposals amounting to $110 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded. Letter to Head of Universities dated 27 December 2018
Research Impact Fund 30 proposals amounting to $193 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded. Letter to Head of Universities dated 8 January 2019
Theme-based Research Scheme 17 proposals were shortlisted for submission of full proposals. Letter to Research Vice Presidents dated 27 December 2018
1 The amount includes $216 million funded by the RGC and some $32 million matched by the universities concerned.

Research Funding Schemes

Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS)

In view of the Government's announcement of the injection of $20 billion into the REF and the improvement in the investment return rate of the REF, the RGC decided to use existing resources to increase the budget for the TRS to $200 million in 2019/20 (Ninth Round) exercise as a one-off measure. The universities will be consulted on how to utilize the $20 billion injection in due course.

The RGC decided to conduct a one-time trial of "right of reply" in the full proposal stage of the TRS 2019/20 (Ninth Round) exercise. Comments of the external reviewers (without grading or ratings) will be released to the Project Coordinators (PCs) of the full proposals and the PCs will be invited to respond in one week. The PCs' responses will then be considered by the TRS Selection Panel Members together with the external reviews. Revised workflow for the TRS 2019/20 (Ninth Round) exercise and the rules and procedures for the "right of reply" were announced in the call for full proposals in late December 2018.

The TRS Public Symposium 2019 is scheduled for 7 December 2019 (Saturday). City University of Hong Kong has kindly agreed to be the coordinating university to organize the event with contribution from other participating universities. Presentations cum poster displays would be made by the seven project teams of the projects funded in the Third and Fourth Round exercises to foster discussion and sharing. Poster displays would be arranged by the five project teams of the projects funded in the Fifth Round exercise to exhibit the up-to-date accomplishments of the projects. Project teams are encouraged to include a public communication element in addition to technical aspects in their presentations at the symposium. A plenary session would be included in the programme to brief participants of the funding mechanism of the TRS. The Secretariat will contact the Research Offices regarding the event details.

Research Impact Fund (RIF)

The RIF 2018/19 exercise was concluded successfully. Out of the 163 preliminary proposals received (exclusive of one withdrawn proposal), 44 proposals were shortlisted for submission of full proposals. Finally, the RGC approved 30 proposals with a total funding amount of $193 million out of a total budget of $200 million. The RGC was pleased to note that some innovative proposals with bold ideas and significant impact had been funded.

In view of the good response from the research community and the strong support from research end users, the UGC also approved an allocation of $75 million from its Central Allocation Vote for implementation of the second round of RIF in 2019/20. This represents a 12% increase from the budget of $67 million per year in the 2016-19 triennium. The call for preliminary proposal was issued on 21 January 2019.

Joint Laboratory Funding Scheme

To inject further impetus into our research community and encourage local talent to collaborate with the Mainland and participate in major research projects, the UGC decided at its meeting on 7 September 2018 to set up a one-off Joint Laboratory Funding Scheme (JLFS) to provide funding support to the accredited joint laboratories between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Hong Kong universities. This one-off scheme would be administered by the RGC on a competitive basis. Funding will be provided to successful applicants to enhance the research infrastructure of the joint laboratories in Hong Kong so as to better equip them to conduct impactful research. Applications will be project-based and assessed by a RGC selection panel through peer-reviewed mechanism. The call for proposals was issued in late December 2018.

Revision of Staff Eligibility Rules for Various Funding Schemes under the RGC

Under the existing staff eligibility policy of the RGC, the Principal Investigator (PI) of an RGC project grant must be an academic staff member of a UGC-funded university with conditions of employment meeting all of the following requirements:

  1. having a full-time1 appointment in the university proper2;
  2. being in Staff Grades from 'A' to 'I'3 as defined in the Common Data Collection Format (i.e. from 'Professor' to 'Assistant Lecturer');
  3. being primarily engaged in and spending at least 80% of time in degree or higher degree work at the university proper; and
  4. salary being wholly funded4 by the university proper.
1 Excluding part-time staff and staff holding honorary appointments.
2 Excluding schools/arms of continuing education and professional training and other analogous outfits.
3 Excluding polytechnic staff grades.
4 Excluding staff members who are receiving income from paid appointments outside the university proper or who are supported by external research grants.

The Government will establish key collaborative technology platforms to carry out forward-looking research projects that will benefit the society. Funding approval of $10 billion has been obtained from the Legislative Council for establishing two Innovation and Technology (I&T) clusters at the Hong Kong Science Park, with one focusing on healthcare technologies and the other on artificial intelligence and robotics technologies. The Government's target is for the first batch of institutions to set up their laboratories in the two clusters progressively starting from the latter half of 2019.

It is envisaged that if UGC-funded universities set up laboratories in the clusters, they will send some of their teaching faculties to work full-time or part-time at the clusters. For these seconded staff at the clusters, the Government will provide funding for the universities to hire temporary replacement at the universities to undertake the necessary administrative and/or teaching duties. In other words, the seconded staff concerned will retain their full-time appointment and position with their parent universities and will still be on the payroll of the parent universities. Any publications or intellectual property rights generated from the seconded staff's work at the clusters should also give credit to the parent universities. They will also continue to supervise research students and post-doctoral fellows at the clusters. The RGC considered that these seconded staff should not lose the eligibility to apply for RGC project grant solely because of the secondment. The RGC hence agreed to relax the relevant requirements so as to provide flexibility to these seconded staff to continue their research work and enhance synergy between research undertaken at local universities and research at the clusters. The proposed relaxation will be put into effect from the 2020/21 exercise onwards and will only apply to staff on secondment to the two I&T clusters at the Hong Kong Science Park mentioned above.

Panel Guidelines

The RGC approved the general panel guidelines and panel-specific guidelines for the GRF, ECS and the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS). The guidelines will be uploaded onto the RGC website for public information. The guidelines will be continuously revised to take into account the latest RGC and panel decisions, and in response to stakeholder's concerns.

Earmarked Research Grant Budget Allocation 2019/20

The RGC noted that the rate of investment return of the REF rebounded from 2.8% in 2017 to 4.6% in 2018 and the forecast rate for 2019 to 2022 would be in the range of 3.7% – 4.9% per annum. With the Government's commitment to injecting $20 billion into the REF, the RGC approved a 10% increase in the budgets for GRF, ECS and CRF, under the Earmarked Research Grants (ERG), for 2019/20 on a one-off basis with the aim of increasing the average grant size per project. Universities will be consulted on how to utilize the $20 billion injection in due course. An indicative broad allocation for ERG in 2019/20 was approved as follows:

Funding Schemes Indicative Distribution ($ million)
1. GRF 661
2. ECS 101
3. CRF 121
4. Joint Research Schemes 48
5. HSSPFS 10
6. Postgraduate Students Conference/Seminar Grants 1

The allocation above reflects broad indicative figures and may be subject to further adjustments.

RGC Review

The Phase II review is underway. The RGC will consider the report from the Working Group on the Review of the RGC (Phase II) in June 2019. The consultation and engagement activities for stakeholders will take place tentatively in the 3rd quarter of 2019. The final report will be submitted to the UGC for consideration later in 2019.