Research Grants Council Meeting in December 2019

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Collaborative Research Fund (CRF) 2019/20 24 proposals amounting to $121 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded, including three supported for one-year seed money and exploratory funding. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 31 December 2019.
Research Impact Fund (RIF) 2019/20 11 proposals amounting to $72.7 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 6 January 2020.
Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) 2020/21 20 proposals were shortlisted for submission of full proposals. Letter to Research Vice Presidents dated 24 December 2019.

Research Funding Schemes

Collaborative Research Fund

The RGC decided to dedicate $50 million to support equipment proposals in a new grant named as "Collaborative Research Equipment Grant" and $96 million for group research proposals under the "Collaborative Research Project Grant" with effect from the 2020/21 exercise. The CRF Committee would exercise flexibility in redeployment of funding allocation between the two types of grant after supporting all meritorious proposals in the respective grants to ensure the quality of the proposals supported by the CRF.

Theme-based Research Scheme

To facilitate the selection panel's assessment of re-submissions, the RGC decided that future applicants of re-submitted proposals would need to include in the applications a summary of all their previous submissions and the revisions made to each of the previous submissions.

The third TRS Public Symposium, which was originally scheduled for 7 December 2019 at City University of Hong Kong (CityU), was postponed to December 2020 in view of the current condition of the university campus and the coronavirus. In addition to the project teams of the seven projects funded in the Third and Fourth Round exercises, project teams of the five projects funded in the Fifth Round exercise will be invited to present their achievements in the coming Symposium. The Secretariat will announce the date and further details of the Symposium in due course.

RGC's Strategic Plan for 2020-2024

The RGC agreed that a five-year strategic plan covering the period from 2020 to 2024 would be drawn up with the following goals:

(a) Building and sustaining research capacity;
(b) Ensuring sustainability of research funding;
(c) Promoting research collaboration and excellence;
(d) Promoting impactful research;
(e) Developing and sustaining research talents;
(f) Boosting research support from the private sector;
(g) Improving the operational efficiency of the RGC; and
(h) Enhancing communication and engagement.

The strategic plan would ensure RGC's resources were directed towards the achievement of its goals in the coming years and allow the RGC to devise new initiatives and plans in meeting evolving needs. It would be reviewed where necessary to address challenges in a changing environment.

Budget for Various Funding Schemes Funded by the Research Endowment Fund in 2020/21

The RGC noted that the $20 billion injection into the Research Endowment Fund (REF) had been officially placed with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) by September 2019. Prior to receiving annual return from the additional placement with the Exchange Fund by the HKMA, the RGC would use its existing resources to increase the research budgets in the 2020/21 exercise in order to meet the sector's long-standing expectation, to provide more support to young researchers and to implement new initiatives. An indicative broad allocation for the various funding schemes funded by REF in 2020/21 was approved as follows:

Funding Schemes Indicative Distribution ($ million)
(A) Funding Schemes under the Earmarked Research Grants
 (1) General Research Fund 788
 (2) Early Career Scheme 115
 (3) CRF 146
 (4) Joint Research Schemes 57
 (5) Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme 10
 (6) Postgraduate Students Conference/Seminar Grants 1
(B) TRS 230
(C) RIF 75
(D) Tuition Waiver for Local Research Postgraduate Students 90

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

Progress of Follow-up to the Review Report on Research Policy and Funding

On the new Research Matching Grant Scheme, the RGC noted that response from participating universities/institutions was favourable in the first processing cycle, as 12 participating universities and institutions had secured donation/sponsorship/research contract amounting to around $448 million in total. Matching grant amounting to around $376 million had been arranged to be disbursed to the universities/institutions concerned. In response to the expressed difficulties from the participating institutions in submitting the annual published audited financial statements in four months after the end of financial year, Members endorsed to relax the submission period from four months to no later than six months for the participating institutions.

Regarding the three new RGC research fellowship schemes, the RGC noted that a total of 86 nominations had been received for the debut round of RGC Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme (PDFS), while nominations for the RGC Research Fellow Scheme (RFS) and RGC Senior Research Fellow Scheme (SRFS) would be received by mid-December 2019. Assessment of the nominations would be conducted within the first half of 2020. Regarding the concern of universities on the lengthy duration of relief of teaching and administrative duties allowed under the RFS and SRFS, the RGC noted that as set out in the related operation guide, the supporting university had the autonomy and flexibility to reach a mutual agreement with the RFS/SRFS awardee concerned on the actual duration of teaching relief during the 60-month fellowship period, and the supporting university should also observe and ensure the teaching quality of the relief teacher.

Enhanced Measures for the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme (HKPFS)

The RGC endorsed the following enhanced measures for the HKPFS:

(a) the proposed increase of the fellowship places under the HKPFS from 250 to 300 each year starting from the 2021/22 academic year (twelfth round) and a corresponding decrease in the number of places allocated to universities on the basis of past award results of the funding schemes of the RGC;

(b) the proposed adjustment of the upper limit of the nomination quota of the universities for the HKPFS from 90 to 120 starting from the 2021/22 academic year (twelfth round); and

(c) the proposed allocation of additional grant to the universities to strengthen support for PhD awardees under the HKPFS starting from the 2019/20 academic year (tenth round).

The above enhanced measures were considered and endorsed in the University Grants Committee meeting in January 2020.

RGC Review

Further to the promulgation of the final report of the RGC Review (Phase II) in October 2019, the RGC has formulated an implementation plan to follow up the review recommendations. We have already started the work on many of the measures, such as implementing the trial "right of reply" arrangements in the TRS, reviewing the RGC website, revamping the RGC electronic system and enhancing communication and engagement activities with the research community. We also plan to engage a consultant to review all the RGC's forms, documents and guidelines to ensure that they are easy to read/use, fit for purpose and consistent. Opportunity would also be taken to review the management of the external reviewers (ERs)' database and procedures to remove poor performing ERs from the database.

The Approval Mechanism for Ethical Standards of Research Projects

The RGC is studying the existing mechanisms for ethical review and approval adopted by the University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded universities to ensure that the applications submitted by their researchers to the RGC comply with the necessary ethical standards. At present, ethical vetting covers research protocols for human participants and animals, whereas artefacts are seldom included. To highlight the importance of research integrity, it is recommended that the scope of ethical vetting be expanded accordingly to include matters related to artefacts. The RGC will consult and work closely with the universities in the course of formulating suggestions.

Enhanced Engagement and Communication Activities

The RGC noted the recent engagement and communication activities. The newly organised Panel Chairs' Sharing Session with Representatives of Research Offices and Researchers of the UGC-funded Universities held on 5 December 2019 was very well received. During the session, some researchers requested to extend the deadline of research projects due to closure of the university offices in late 2019. The request would be considered at the end of project on a case by case basis, and the Secretariat would take into account the actual difficulties faced by universities due to the social situation and coronavirus as far as possible.

Review of Collaborative Research Funding Schemes

The Collaborative Research Review Working Group (CRWG) held its second meeting on 5 December 2019 to review three RGC's collaborative research funding schemes, namely the CRF, the TRS, and the Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme, and proposed some preliminary recommendations to augment support for collaborative research.

One of the recommendations concerns putting the three schemes under a common aegis, to be supervised by an overarching steering committee with a blanket budget for strategic allocation on top of the existing independent budgets of the three schemes. The CRWG also proposed reviewing and synchronising the parameters and funding cycles of the TRS and the AoE Scheme, the latter of which would be repositioned to support collaborative research on areas falling outside the scope of the TRS. Last but not least, it was suggested that exploratory research be supported through the provision of partial funding to potentially ground-breaking projects for proof of concept and conduct of preliminary analysis.

The CRWG will meet again in March 2020 to firm up its interim recommendations, followed by consultation with universities and frontline researchers. It expects to conclude the review by end-2020.