Research Grants Council Meeting in December 2020

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Collaborative Research Fund (CRF) 29 proposals amounting to $146 million (exclusive of on-cost) were funded, including 21 Collaborative Research Project Grant (CRPG) proposals and 8 Collaborative Research Equipment Grant (CREG) proposals. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 5 January 2021
One-off CRF Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) and Novel Infectious Disease (NID) Research Exercise 27 proposals amounting to $150 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded, including one proposal supported for one-year seed money and exploratory funding. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 5 January 2021
Research Impact Fund (RIF) 13 proposals amounting to $75 million (exclusive of on-costs) were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 6 January 2021
Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) 28 proposals[1] were shortlisted for submission of full proposals. Letter to Research Vice Presidents dated 24 December 2020
Areas of Excellence Scheme (AoE) Four proposals amounting to $304 million[2] were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 30 December 2020

Research Funding Schemes

Collaborative Research Fund

For implementation of the recommendations of the review of the three collaborative research schemes, the RGC decided to increase the budget for CRF 2021/22 to $180 million, including $120.4 million for CRPG proposals, $50 million for CREG proposals and $9.6 million dedicated for exercising the “Exploratory Option”.  The CRF Committee would exercise flexibility in redeployment of funding allocation between CRPG and CREG after supporting all meritorious proposals in the respective grants to ensure the quality of the proposals supported by CRF.


Research Impact Fund

The RGC noted that the RIF 2020/21 exercise was concluded successfully and the 13 approved proposals were all impactful research projects with great potential to deliver benefits to the wider community.  Among which, four approved proposals were in the Humanities and Social Sciences discipline and accounted for 29% of the approved funding.  This reflected that the RIF supported large-scale projects in all disciplines, including the Humanities and Social Sciences, as long as they satisfied the dual requirements of strong academic merits and high potential impact.  The budget for the RIF 2021/22 exercise would remain at $75 million.


Theme-based Research Scheme

The budget for the routine TRS 2021/22 (Eleventh Round) exercise would be maintained at $230 million.  Adding the one-off allocation of $100 million from the Research Endowment Fund (REF) to support COVID-19 and NIDs related research, the total budget for TRS 2021/22 would be $330 million.

The third TRS Public Symposium was held via Zoom Webinar at City University of Hong Kong on 13 December 2020.  Representatives of 12 projects funded under the Third, Fourth and Fifth Rounds of the TRS exercise showcased their achievements to 210 participants.


Areas of Excellence Scheme

The trial arrangement of “right of reply” was implemented in this round of the AoE Scheme exercise.  The trial arrangement would continue in the current TRS (i.e. 2021/22) exercise before a review to be conducted in mid-2021.


Budget for Various Funding Schemes Funded by the Research Endowment Fund in 2021/22

An indicative broad allocation for the various funding schemes funded by REF in 2021/22 was approved by the RGC as follows -

Funding Scheme Budget
($ million)
(A) Funding Schemes under the Earmarked Research Grants  
     (1) General Research Fund 788.3
     (2) Early Career Scheme 115.3
     (3) CRF 180.0[3]
     (4) Joint Research Schemes 50.2
     (5) Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme 10.0
     (6) Postgraduate Students Conference / Seminar Grants 0.8
(B) TRS 330.0[4]
(C) Funding Schemes for Self-financing Degree-awarding Institutions (the institutions) 100.0
(D) RIF 75.0
(E) Tuition Waiver for Local Research Postgraduate Students 90.0
(F) Apportionable budget for collaborative schemes 50.0[5]
Total: 1,789.6

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

The RGC also noted that additional funds (approx. 10%) would be given to the CRF, TRS and AoE Scheme on top of their existing budgets for exercising the “Exploratory Option” at the Central Board stage of the three schemes concerned on discretionary basis.  About $9.6 million would be allocated to CRF in 2021/22.  The funding arrangement for TRS and AoE Scheme would take effect in 2022/23.


Implementation Progress of Research Matching Grant Scheme and New RGC Research Fellowship Schemes

Regarding the Research Matching Grant Scheme (RMGS), the RGC noted that the amount of donation / sponsorship / research contract applied for matching for each processing cycle remained satisfactory.  At the close of the fifth processing cycle (2020 Q3), the aggregate amount applied for matching was about $1.87 billion in total and the total amount of matching grant disbursed to participating UGC-funded universities (the universities) / the institutions accordingly was about $1.15 billion.  Since a total of seven universities and one institution have reached the matching floor of $50 million and their matching ratio has then been changed to 2:1, the amount disbursed in the recent processing cycles had been decreasing.  The remaining balance available for matching stood at about $1.85 billion after five processing cycles.  The RMGS would continue to operate till 31 July 2022.

For the new RGC research fellowship schemes, the RGC was content with the smooth completion of the inaugural exercise which received commendations from selection panels on the high quality of nominees.  The award presentation ceremony for the first cohorts of awardees of the RGC Senior Research Fellow Scheme (SRFS), RGC Research Fellow Scheme (RFS) and RGC Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme (PDFS) was held on 24 November 2020 with the Permanent Secretary for Education as the Guest of Honour.  The ceremony was held in hybrid mode, with the ten SRFS awardees attended the ceremony and received the award in person at the UGC Secretariat Conference Suite while the rest of awardees and guests joined the ceremony online.  The RGC noted that following the withdrawal and declination by some PDFS awardees on various reasons, the total number of PDFS awardees in the debut exercise was revised to 48 as of early December 2020 upon the exhaustion of the waiting lists.

At the close of nominations for the 2021/22 exercise of the three schemes, 35 nominations were received for SRFS, 32 for RFS and 91 for PDFS.  Concerning the comparatively higher proportion of non-local nominees to Hong Kong permanent residents for PDFS, the RGC noted that in meeting the objective of PDFS to build up a pool of research talent, it would be a natural tendency for local universities to recruit postdoctoral fellows from worldwide for higher diversity of research talent.  On the other hand, SRFS and RFS aimed at building up research capacity and promote research excellence of local universities.  Candidates for SRFS / RFS were required to fulfill the tenure requirement in the selection criteria, implying that they should have completed a considerable service period at the university concerned and obtained Hong Kong permanent residency.  As the three fellowship schemes were still in their initial implementation stage, data of the first two exercises might not be representative for a conclusive evaluation.

The RGC approved the proposed procedures and conditions for handling cases of PDFS concerning change of an awardee’s supporting university.  The RGC also approved the proposed delegated authority for the management and administration of the three fellowship schemes for efficiency and effectiveness.


Review of Research Grants Council Documents and External Reviewer Database

The final consultancy report on the Review of RGC Documents and External Reviewer (ER) Database was accepted by the RGC.  For the documentation review, the major proposed revisions included improved language and tone, improved structure for navigation, reduced duplication, improved format and consistency, and improved transparency on reviewing process.  The revised documents will be launched in the next funding exercise of individual research funding schemes.

As regards the ER database, recommendations on enhancement measures in respect of recruitment / nomination and performance management of ERs were made.  Having considered the existing level of resources and commitments of the RGC committees / panels and the UGC Secretariat, the RGC decided to implement enhancement measures to the ER database, including removal of blacklisted and non-active ERs, systematic assessment of under-performing / non-active ERs etc. by phases starting from 2021.


Declaration of Time Commitments by Principal Investigator

To take forward the recommendation of the Working Group on the Review of RGC (Phase II), it was proposed that in addition to the existing requirements[6], a Principal Investigator (PI) / Project Coordinator (PC) would be required to specify “the number of hours spent per week in relation to teaching and administrative duties” in the application form as well.  The universities and the institutions were consulted on the proposed requirement in mid-2020.  The RGC noted that seven of the eight universities and five out of the 15 institutions had reservation about the proposed requirement.

RGC projects were funded by public money.  It would be in the public interest to know that PIs / PCs had spent appropriate research efforts in their RGC projects.  While the RGC was mindful of the concerns expressed by the universities and institutions, there would be a need to balance public accountability against the sentiment of the research community.

The RGC agreed to consult the universities and the institutions on the following alternative measures in the first half of 2021 -

  1. PIs / PCs are required to declare in the application form the overall amount of time spent on research in percentage terms; and
  2. PIs / PCs are required to declare updated time commitment for other on-going research projects in the application for RGC funding schemes.

The above proposed measures, if adopted, would facilitate the RGC Committee / Panel Members’ understanding of the PIs’ overall time commitment and the existing criteria for assessing grant applications would not be changed.


Recommendations of the Collaborative Research Review Working Group

Given the generally positive feedbacks received during consultation on the interim recommendations of the review of collaborative research funding schemes conducted in July 2020, the RGC approved the adoption of the interim recommendations as the final recommendations of the review as follows and concluded the review -

  1. putting the three collaborative research funding schemes, namely the CRF, the TRS, and the AoE Scheme, under the supervision of the new Collaborative Research Projects Steering Committee with an additional apportionable budget for strategic allocations;
  2. 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;
  3. synchronising the parameters and the funding cycles of the TRS and the AoE Scheme;
  4. supporting exploratory, “high-risk-high-return” research projects under the three collaborative schemes’ funding mechanisms;
  5. encouraging continuation of satisfactorily completed projects funded by the RGC for further academic exploration by adjusting the application process of the three collaborative schemes; and
  6. increasing the budget for the CRF’s CRPG.

The RGC also endorsed the operational changes to the three collaborative schemes for implementation of the review recommendations.  The existing CRF Committee and Major Projects Steering Committee would continue to supervise the three collaborative schemes until after the new Collaborative Research Projects Steering Committee has been set up.


Consultation Results of the Review on Ethical Standards Approval Mechanism

The RGC noted that a consultation exercise on the review on ethical standards approval mechanism for research involving artefacts had been conducted in July 2020.  With the generally positive feedbacks received on establishing the proposed approval mechanism, the universities would be invited to set up the mechanism by Q4 of 2021.  The application forms for RGC’s research funding schemes open for application in or after October 2021 would be revised such that the universities and PIs would be requested to indicate whether the submitted proposals involved the study of artefacts as well as whether relevant approval had been sought and granted.  A separate letter would be sent to the universities to explain the implementation details.


Enhanced Engagement and Communication Activities

The RGC noted the recent engagement and communication activities of the RGC, including the Chairman, RGC’s meeting with the Vice-Presidents (Research) of the eight universities to share with them the latest work of RGC, symposia and public lectures to introduce the achievements of the research teams of the universities to the research community and the public, and engagement sessions with representatives of Research Offices and researchers of the universities on the process and selection criteria of the research funding schemes.


[1] Including five proposals related to COVID-19 and NIDs.
[2] The amount includes $277 million funded by the RGC and about $27 million matched by the universities concerned.
[3] Including $120.4 million for CRPG proposals, $50 million for CREG proposals and $9.6 million dedicated for exercising the “Exploratory Option”.
[4] Including an additional funding of $100 million for proposals related to COVID and NID.
[5] An annual apportionable budget of $50 million would be allocated across the CRF, TRS and AoE Scheme.  Since there would be no AoE Scheme in 2021/22, the budget would be distributed among the CRF and TRS.
[6] At present, a PI applying for RGC grant was required to indicate the following in the application form (i) the number of hours per week to be spent in the proposal; and (ii) the details of each on-going project, including the number of hours per week spent by the PI in the project, irrespective of whether the projects are funded by UGC / RGC.