Research Grants Council Meeting in June 2020

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) Seven proposals amounting to $263 million1 were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 9 July 2020
Areas of Excellence Scheme (AoE) Seven proposals were shortlisted for submission of full proposals. Letter to Research Vice Presidents dated 30 June 2020
Early Career Scheme (ECS) 165 proposals amounting to $108.78 million were funded.

Letter to Heads of Universities dated 30 June 2020

General Research Fund (GRF) 1063 proposals amounting to $782.41 million were funded.
Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS) Eight proposals amounting to $2.82 million were funded.
RGC Research Fellow Scheme (RFS) / RGC Senior Research Fellow Scheme (SRFS) Ten RFS awardees with fellowship grant amounting to $51.6 million were funded.

Ten SRFS awardees with fellowship grant amounting to $78.0 million were funded.
Letter to Heads of Universities dated 9 July 2020
1 The amount includes $230 million funded by the RGC and some $33 million matched by the universities concerned.

Research Funding Schemes

Theme-based Research Scheme

The trial arrangement of "right of reply" continued in this round of the TRS exercise. Panel Members had mixed views on the arrangement. Some Members considered that the project teams' response to the external reviewers' comments were not useful for the final evaluations of the proposals. The trial arrangements would be implemented in the current AoE Scheme 2020/21 (Ninth Round) exercise and continued in the next TRS (i.e. 2021/22) exercise, before a review was conducted in mid-2021.

Early Career Scheme

Out of the 416 applications received, 165 projects were approved, amounting to $108.78 million. The success rate was 40% and the average funding level per project was $0.66 million. Among the 165 approved projects, nine projects were rated "outstanding" and also had their education plans rated "satisfactory". The Principal Investigators (PIs) of these nine projects would receive "The Early Career Award 2020/21" and also an additional $0.1 million per project for engaging in educational activities.

General Research Fund

In the 2020/21 exercise, the RGC approved a total of 1 063 proposals, amounting to $782.41 million. The overall success rate was 37%, which was higher than last year's 34%. The average funding amount per project was $0.74 million.

Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme

In the 2020/21 exercise, a total of 26 applications were received, of which eight proposals amounting to $2.82 million were approved. The overall success rate was 31%. The average funding amount per project was $0.35 million.

Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme

The RGC noted the results, relevant statistics and analysis on the Eleventh Round exercise of the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme (HKPFS) for the 2020/21 intake. In gist, a total of 13 668 initial applications from 166 countries / regions were received. 7 828 full applications by 6 052 applicants from 112 countries / regions were received by the eight UGC-funded universities by the deadline of 10 December 2019. In January 2020, the eight universities submitted 458 nominations for selection under the HKPFS. Since eight applicants were nominated by two universities, there were only 450 applicants for consideration of the award. Of the 450 nominated applicants, 143 were from Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies disciplines and 307 were from Sciences, Medicine, Engineering and Technology disciplines. Due to the pandemic situation, the selection process was conducted electronically as well as by video conferencing. After vigorous selection, 250 applicants were selected for the awards with another 85 applicants on the waiting list. Eventually, 286 offers have been made before the 250 awardees were confirmed. The RGC also approved the nomination quota for universities for the Twelfth Round exercise for the 2021/22 intake and noted the statistics and accomplishment of the graduates of the HKPFS.

RGC Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme

The quality of nominations received was high in the debut exercise (2020/21) of RGC Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme (PDFS), reflecting the attractiveness of the new scheme which is aimed to provide new opportunities for PhD graduates to pursue career in research in Hong Kong. Out of the 83 nominations received (33 from the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies (H) disciplines, and 50 from the Science, Medicine, Engineering and Technology (S) disciplines), the RGC selected 50 awardees (22 were from H disciplines and 28 were from S disciplines) and ten waitlisted nominees. After confirmation of acceptance or declination by awardees, the mix had changed to 21 from H disciplines and 29 from S disciplines.

The first cohort of 50 awardees should all start the 36-month fellowship appointment with their respective supporting university within the year of 2020. For each awardee, the supporting university would be provided with an annual stipend of $396,600 to fund the awardee's basic salary as well as conference and research-related travel allowance. Subject to the relevant terms and conditions, the annual stipend for the subsequent years would be adjusted according to the Composite Consumer Price Index announced by the HKSAR Government.

RGC Research Fellow Scheme and RGC Senior Research Fellow Scheme

In the debut exercise (2020/21) of RGC RFS and RGC SRFS, the RGC received 33 and 32 nominations for RFS and SRFS respectively, among which 17 were from Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies (HSSB) disciplines, and 48 from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. A total of 28 shortlisted nominees were invited for interview via video-conferencing. The high quality of the nominees as well as the research proposals submitted for consideration was commendable. In sum, the finalists were remarkably meritorious, displaying high enthusiasm during the interview, and the inaugural RFS / SRFS exercise had set a very high benchmark for future exercises.

The selection results for the ten RFS awards (two from HSSB and eight from STEM disciplines) and ten SRFS awards (three from HSSB and seven from STEM disciplines) were endorsed by the RGC in June 2020. A total of four finalists were recommended to be placed on the waiting list – one RFS and one SRFS from both HSSB and STEM disciplines. The success rate was around 30% for both RFS and SRFS (with the same rate for both disciplines). All awardees would start the research project on 1 January 2021. Each RFS and SRFS awardee would be supported with a fellowship grant covering a period of 60 months at around $5.2 million and $7.8 million respectively.

As the two new schemes are intended to provide sustained support to exceptionally outstanding academics for their full dedication to research, nominees would be required to, for future exercises, provide in the nomination form more information relating to research leadership, research impact, training / engagement of local young researchers and evidence of contribution to the research community and society at large.

Implementation of Research Matching Grant Scheme

Universities / Institutions continued to achieve encouraging results in securing new donations amid a challenging social and economic environment, with a rebound of donations from $295 million in the second processing cycle (2019 Q4) to $383 million in the third processing cycle (2020 Q1). Since the launch of the Scheme on 1 August 2019, 18 out of 21 participating universities / institutions (including eight UGC-funded universities and ten local self-financing degree-awarding institutions) had submitted applications for matching grant under the Scheme. At the close of the third processing cycle on 31 March 2020, donation / sponsorship / research contract applied for matching had amounted to about $1.13 billion in total. Matching grant at a total amount of $768 million had been disbursed to participating universities / institutions accordingly, with seven universities reaching the matching floor of $50 million. The remaining balance available for matching stood at about $2.23 billion after three processing cycles. The Scheme would continue to operate till 31 July 2022.

Review of Collaborative Research Funding Schemes

The RGC endorsed the interim recommendations of the review of collaborative research funding schemes and the allocation of the additional funding of $175 million proposed at the third Collaborative Research Review Working Group (CRWG) meeting held on 23 March 2020, namely:

(a) putting the three collaborative research funding schemes, namely the Collaborative Research Fund (CRF), the TRS, and the AoE Scheme, under the supervision of a new Steering Committee with an additional apportionable budget for strategic allocations on top of the existing independent budgets of the three schemes;

(b) repositioning the AoE Scheme to support collaborative research on topics outside the four standing TRS themes, including but not limited to interdisciplinary projects involving humanities and social sciences;

(c) reviewing and synchronising the parameters and the funding cycles of the TRS and the AoE Scheme;

(d) installing an "exploratory" option for supporting "high-risk-high-return" research projects in the three schemes' funding mechanisms; and

(e) strengthening the research pipeline to encourage continuation of successfully completed projects funded by the RGC for further academic exploration and impact by adjusting the application process.

A consultation exercise was conducted in July 2020. The CRWG would consider the feedbacks received and finalise its recommendations of the review, which is scheduled to be concluded by the end of this year.

Review of Staff Eligibility Rules for RGC Research Funding Schemes

In view of the increasing collaboration between the UGC-funded universities and the Mainland as well as overseas jurisdictions, Members approved the relaxation of staff eligibility rules for RGC research funding schemes whereby a PI who was seconded to conduct research in a university or a research institute / body / agency in the Mainland / overseas jurisdiction while retaining his / her full-time appointment and position with his / her parent university and was still on the payroll of the parent university, should still be eligible to apply for RGC project grant if the PI would continue to carry out the RGC project and supervise research students and post-doctoral fellows during the secondment. The relaxation of staff eligibility rules would also be extended to the local self-financing degree sector. The revised eligibility rules would take effect from the 2021/22 exercise onwards.

RGC-Fulbright Programme

The RGC approved the adjustment for the stipends for senior and junior scholars and the research expenses for senior scholars of the RGC-Fulbright Programme starting from 2020/21 and the increase of the annual quota for junior scholars from eight to a maximum of 12 per year starting from 2021/22.

However, the United States Consulate-General in Hong Kong wrote to the RGC on 28 July 2020 that the RGC-Fulbright Programme would not operate in the 2020/21 academic year in accordance with the Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization signed by the US President on 14 July 2020. The UGC Secretariat had notified the concerned universities of the latest arrangement and suspended all preparatory work for the 2021/22 programme.

One-off CRF Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and Novel Infectious Disease (NID) Research Exercise

In view of the COVID-19 epidemic and its evolving global impact, the UGC and RGC had allocated a one-off additional funding of $150 million for the launch of the One-off CRF COVID-19 and NID Research Exercise. By the deadline of 17 July 2020, over 170 full proposals were received under this new initiative. Shortlisted proposals, together with those under the CRF 2020/21 exercise, would be considered by the CRF Committee in December 2020. Funding results would be announced by early January 2021.

Review of Research Grants Council Documents and External Reviewer Database

As one of the major recommendations of the Review of the RGC (Phase II), the RGC has engaged an external consultant to conduct the Review of Research Grants Council Documents and External Reviewer Database. The review commenced in May 2020. The Consultant would develop "mock up" document templates for consultation with the stakeholders. Mixed methods of individual conversation and online survey would be adopted in the consultation exercise. Consultation with stakeholders, including universities, RGC and its committees / panels, would take place from late June to September 2020. The review is expected to be completed by the end of 2020.