Research Grants Council Meeting in June 2021

Results of Proposal Evaluation

Funding Scheme Results Announcement of Results
Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) Eight proposals amounting to $415 million1 were funded. Letter to Heads of Universities dated 5 July 2021
Early Career Scheme (ECS) 177 proposals amounting to $113.12 million were funded.

Letter to Heads of Universities dated 30 June 2021

General Research Fund (GRF) 1054 proposals amounting to $780.64 million were funded.
Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS) Nine proposals amounting to $2.94 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 7 July 2021
1 The amount includes $367 million (including the one-off additional budget of $100 million for research related to COVID-19 and/or other novel infectious diseases) funded by the RGC and some $48 million matched by the universities concerned.

Research Funding Schemes

Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) and Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme

The trial arrangement of “right of reply” was implemented in the full proposal stage of the TRS 2019/20 (Ninth Round), TRS 2020/21 (Tenth Round), TRS 2021/22 (Eleventh Round) and the AoE Scheme 2020/21 (Ninth Round) exercises. A review on the trial arrangement would be conducted after the TRS 2021/22 exercise. Questionnaires would be sent to the Project Coordinators and the Readers involved in the related TRS and AoE Scheme exercises in July / August 2021. Their views and suggestions would be analysed and reported to the RGC in December 2021 for consideration on whether the “right of reply” arrangement should continue in the future TRS and AoE Scheme exercises.

Early Career Scheme (ECS)

In the 2021/22 exercise, the RGC approved a total of 177 projects, amounting to $113.12 million. The success rate was 42% and the average funding level per project was $0.64 million. Among the 177 approved projects, seven projects were rated “outstanding” and also had their education plans rated “satisfactory”. The Principal Investigators (PIs) of these seven projects would receive “The Early Career Award 2021/22” and also an additional $0.1 million per project for engaging in educational activities.

General Research Fund (GRF)

In the 2021/22 exercise, the RGC approved a total of 1 054 proposals, amounting to $780.64 million. The overall success rate was 35%. The average funding amount per project was $0.74 million.

Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (HSSPFS)

In the 2021/22 exercise, a total of 23 applications were received, of which nine proposals amounting to $2.94 million were approved. The overall success rate was 39%. The average funding amount per project was $0.33 million.

Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme (HKPFS)

The RGC noted the results and statistics on the Twelfth Round exercise of the HKPFS for 2021/22. In gist, a total of 13 354 initial applications from 146 countries / regions were received. 9 113 full applications by 6 780 applicants from 108 countries / regions were received by the eight University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded universities (the universities) by the deadline in December 2020. Based on the approved nomination quota system, 474 nominations were submitted by the universities in January 2021. Since eight applicants were nominated by two universities, there were only 466 applicants for consideration of the award. Of the 466 nominated applicants, 149 were from Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies disciplines and 317 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, 300 applicants were selected for the awards with another 89 applicants on the waiting list. Eventually, 356 offers have been made before the 300 awardees were confirmed. The RGC also noted the statistics of the HKPFS in the past twelve rounds, the statistics of HKPFS graduates and the number of research postgraduate places reserved for the Thirteenth Round exercise of the HKPFS for 2022/23. The RGC approved the nomination quota for universities for the Thirteenth Round exercise for 2022/23.

RGC Postdoctoral Fellowship Scheme (PDFS)

For the second (2021/22) exercise of the PDFS, assessment of the 90 nominations (45 from the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies (H) disciplines and 45 from the Science, Medicine, Engineering and Technology (S) disciplines) was completed in March 2021. The selection panels were pleased to note another round of well qualified PDFS nominations, with the list of 50 selected awardees (25 from each panel) and a list of 26 waitlisted nominees (13 from each panel) approved by the Chairman, RGC in consultation with the selection panel chairs. Supporting universities have been notified of their PDFS results in April 2021. Following the acceptance by the awardees and the agreement of the fellowship offers by the supporting universities, the second cohort of confirmed PDFS awardees (2021/22), among whom eleven are local, should commence their 36-month fellowship between 1 May and 31 December 2021, with the supporting universities receiving the first annual stipend of $405,330 for each awardee to fund basic salary as well as the inclusive conference and research-related travel allowance.

For future PDFS exercises, in case more than one nominations of the same candidate are received by the UGC Secretariat, the candidate concerned will be requested to indicate his / her preferred supporting university before the assessment stage commences in order to save the work and time of the selection panel members. Sharing the concern from selection panel chairs over the potential advantages to both a candidate and his / her incoming supervisor in case the supervisor is allowed to act as the candidate’s academic referee in the competition, the RGC has agreed that from next (i.e. 2022/23) PDFS exercise onwards, the incoming supervisor of a PDFS candidate will not be allowed to act as academic referee of the same candidate. Instead, the evaluation by the incoming supervisor on the candidate will be integrated as part of the supporting university’s assessment, and each academic referee will be required to declare in the academic referee’s report that he / she will not be the proposed supervisor of the candidate concerned.

RGC Research Fellow Scheme (RFS) and RGC Senior Research Fellow Scheme (SRFS)

For the second exercise (2021/22) of the RFS and SRFS, a total of 32 nominations for RFS (seven under the Panel for Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies disciplines (HSSB Panel) and 25 under the Panel for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines (STEM Panel)) and 34 nominations for SRFS (ten under HSSB Panel and 24 under STEM Panel) received from the universities were assessed, with 28 shortlisted finalists (15 for RFS and 13 for SRFS) interviewed via video-conferencing. The selection results of the ten RFS awardees (two from HSSB Panel and eight from STEM Panel) and the ten SRFS awardees (four from HSSB Panel and six from STEM Panel) were approved by the RGC at its meeting on 12 June 2021. One RFS finalist from STEM Panel was approved to be placed on the waiting list. All awardees should start the research project on 1 January 2022. Each RFS and SRFS awardee will be supported with a fellowship grant covering a period of 60 months at around $5.2 million and $7.8 million respectively.

The selection panel chairs were pleased to note the highly commendable quality of nominees in the 2021/22 exercise and that the two new schemes continued to confer recognition to exceptionally outstanding academics and also to strengthen opportunities for training up young researchers in Hong Kong. Taking into consideration that senior academics would be expected to take up more responsibilities for nurturing and mentoring younger researchers, the assessment metrics for SRFS will be fine-tuned from 2022/23 exercise onwards to give more weight to a candidate’s attribute in leadership and commitment to mentoring junior researchers. Having considered that senior academics would normally have less teaching load and the teaching relief so required by an SRFS awardee over the five-year fellowship period should also be lesser, the issue of apportioning “teaching relief” within the fellowship budget will be reviewed at an opportune time in future.

Agreeing to better reflect the objective of the two schemes to provide sustained support for exceptionally outstanding academics at their mid-career, the RGC has approved to include an additional eligibility criterion to both RFS and SRFS as follows:

“While no restriction / limit on age is imposed, the candidates’ remaining years of tenured service should be adequate to complete a full course of the fellowship before attaining the supporting university’s official normal retirement age.”

The additional eligibility criterion will take effect from the next (i.e. 2022/23) exercise onwards. Also taking effect for future exercises, the two selection panels for RFS and SRFS would be simplified from “HSSB Panel” and “STEM Panel” to “H Panel” and “S Panel” respectively for alignment of nomenclatures between PDFS, RFS and SRFS.

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

The second round one-off CRF COVID-19 and NID Research Exercise was launched on 18 January 2021 in conjunction with the annual CRF 2021/22 exercise. By the deadline of 22 February 2021, 115 preliminary proposals were received. After the assessment, 35 preliminary proposals were shortlisted and invited for submission of full proposals by 19 July 2021. The full proposals, together with those under the CRF 2021/22 exercise, will be assessed and considered by the CRF Committee (to be renamed as CRF Selection Panel) in December 2021 for funding recommendation. Funding results are expected to be announced by end December 2021 / early January 2022.

Progress of Research Matching Grant Scheme

The amount of donation / sponsorship / research contract applied for matching in the seventh processing cycle (i.e. 2021 Q1) was at about $281.50 million with corresponding matching grants disbursed at about $150.80 million. The applied amount was slightly lower than the previous processing cycles because less amount of application was submitted by one university just reaching the matching “ceiling” of $500 million and no further matching grant would be disbursed above the matching “ceiling”. At the close of the seventh processing cycle, the aggregate amount applied for matching was about $2.55 billion in total and the total amount of matching grant disbursed to the universities / self-financing degree-awarding institutions (the institutions) was about $1.52 billion. The remaining balance available for matching stands at about $1.48 billion, with the scheme continuing to accept applications till 31 July 2022.

Handling of Research Misconduct Cases by the RGC

In the course of handling of a research misconduct appeal case, there was legal advice pointing out that the appeal procedures set out in the RGC’s “Guidelines on Handling of Research Misconduct Cases” (the Guidelines) were more appropriately regarded as a review by the RGC of its own decision and the Guidelines should be amended to reflect accurately the nature of the process. In the light of legal advice, the RGC approved to rename “Disciplinary Committee (Appeal)” and “Appeal Board” to “Disciplinary Committee (Review)” and “Review Board” respectively, and to replace related terms in the Guidelines accordingly. The revised Guidelines will be uploaded to the RGC website in July 2021. Arising from the appeal against the RGC’s decision on the penalty level of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, the RGC accepted the DC (Appeal)’s recommendation to review the penalty level of the two misconducts.

Reorganisation of the Supervisory Bodies of the Areas of Excellence Scheme, the Theme-based Research Scheme and the Collaborative Research Fund

Pursuant to the recommendation of the review of collaborative research funding schemes which was concluded in December 2020, the three RGC’s collaborative research funding schemes, namely the CRF, the TRS, and the AoE Scheme, will be put under the supervision of the new Collaborative Research Projects Steering Committee (CRPSC).

Having considered that the current composition of the Major Projects Steering Committee (MPStC) is adequate to fulfil the function of supervising the three collaborative schemes, the RGC agreed that the MPStC would be repositioned as the CRPSC without any change to its membership. While the MPStC and the CRF Committee will cease operation after the CRPSC is set up, the current arrangement of having separate assessment teams for each scheme will remain unchanged, with the CRF Committee renamed as the CRF Selection Panel and subsumed under the CRPSC, together with the TRS Selection Panel and the AoE Selection Panel.

Declaration of Time Commitments by Principal Investigators

Having considered the views received from the universities and the institutions during the second round of consultation and a suggestion made by Research Group (RG) of the UGC at its meeting in May 2021, the RGC endorsed the following measures for implementation starting from 2022/23:

(i) PIs / Project Coordinators (PCs) would be required to declare updated time commitment for all on-going research projects irrespective of whether the projects are funded by UGC / RGC in the application for RGC funding schemes;

(ii) Two thresholds would be set, i.e., one for individual research projects and one for collaborative projects; and

Type of research projects Proposed threshold
Individual research projects
(e.g. GRF, ECS and other individual research projects funded from sources other than UGC/RGC)
Collaborative research projects
(e.g. AoE, TRS, CRF, RIF and other collaborative research projects funded from sources other than UGC/RGC)

(iii) PIs / PCs would be required to declare in the application form the overall amount of time spent on research in percentage terms and provide justifications on taking up more research projects for consideration by the relevant RGC Committees / Panels if the number of on-going projects being held by the PIs / PCs in any capacity exceeds the thresholds.

The above measures aim to facilitate the RGC Committee / Panel Members’ understanding of the PIs’ overall time commitment in research and the existing criteria for assessing grant applications would not be changed. PIs / PCs would not be debarred from applying for more RGC grants if the number of on-going RGC projects being held by them exceeds the thresholds.

Enhanced Engagement and Communication Activities

The regular meeting between Chairman, RGC’s and the Vice-Presidents (Research) of the universities was held on 23 June 2021 to share with them the latest development of the RGC and discuss issues of concern to the local research community subsequent to the RGC meeting on 12 June 2021.

Liaison Group on Research and its Initiatives

As one of the recommendations in the Review Report of the Task Force on Review of Research Policy and Funding, the Liaison Group on Research (the Liaison Group), comprising representatives from various Government research funding agencies, was established in May 2019. Pursuant to the endorsement of the Liaison Group, the UGC Secretariat is coordinating three initiatives, namely, (i) devising a technical solution to crack down duplicate applications, (ii) setting up of an inter-agency information portal for all Government research funding schemes to facilitate easy access by the public, and (iii) harmonisation of the open access practices among the Government research funding agencies.

The technical solution to avoid duplication of funding applications, with the capabilities to conduct comparison checks both conceptually and linguistically, has been deploying on a pilot basis, starting from March 2021. Five rounds of comparison checks will be conducted throughout the pilot period up till March 2023. At each round, current applications under assessment as well as a maximum of three years of past funded applications in the designated discipline(s) from various Government research funding agencies will be uploaded onto the system for comparison checks. Suspicious cases under the RGC funding schemes as flagged up by the technical solution will then be subject to the scrutiny and judgement of academic experts in accordance with the Guidelines. For cases involving funding agencies other than the RGC, the UGC Secretariat will notify the relevant Government agencies for their handling.

A one-stop portal on the Government’s research funding support, named the Hong Kong Research Portal (the Portal) is under development, with the coverage of the general research landscape of Hong Kong, the funding schemes, some common tips for applicants, a section of career development as well as some research cases to illustrate the process and impact of research. A soft launch version (without the parts on research cases and career development) of the Portal is now under user acceptance test, and is expected to be rolled out in July 2021. The full version is expected to be launched in August 2021.

As the major funder for basic research in Hong Kong, the RGC’s open access policy will be an important reference for the other Government research funding agencies. The UGC Secretariat consulted the universities twice in May and November 2020 on a number of initiatives to support the enhancement of open access in the research sector in Hong Kong. Having incorporated the universities’ feedback, the RG endorsed at its meeting on 6 January 2021 the Open Access Plan (the Plan) for implementation from February 2021 to October 2026 by three phases. The Plan can be accessed at the RGC website (

Enhanced Research Collaboration

To further enhance collaboration between Hong Kong’s research community and their counterparts in the Mainland and other overseas institutions, the RGC had deliberated over two new initiatives, namely, the proposed expansion of the scope of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) / RGC Joint Research Scheme (JRS) and the proposed collaboration with the National Academy of Medicine of the United States (NAM) for the Healthy Longevity Global Competition.

Proposed Expansion of the Scope of NSFC / RGC JRS

The eight universities jointly submitted a proposal in early January 2021 for enhancing collaboration with the Mainland under the existing NSFC / RGC JRS. Details of the proposal included funding up to ten larger-scale research projects across multiple disciplines and institutions annually, each costing $5 million - $10 million in total and seeking a total sum of $300 million for an initial period of three years.

The UGC Secretariat considered the proposed expansion worth supporting. As regards the level of financial commitment, reference had been made to the CRF as its nature, scale and grant size were comparable to the proposed expansion. It was estimated that the total budget required for the proposed expansion would be $60 million. The grant size of a funded project under the proposed expansion would range from $4 million to $10 million.

The RGC endorsed the proposed expansion. The NSFC is being consulted on the proposed expansion and its reply is awaiting. Subject to positive response from the NSFC, the RGC would be invited to consider and approve the budget and the operational framework for the proposed expansion at its next meeting in December 2021. The proposed expansion is expected to be launched in 2022/23.

Proposed Collaboration with the NAM for the Healthy Longevity Global Competition

Invited by the NAM, the UGC and RGC have set aside a total of $5.7 million from the Central Allocation Vote and the Research Endowment Fund with a view to collaborating with the NAM in organizing the Catalyst Phase of the Competition in Hong Kong in 2022.

The NAM is a private non-profit institution in the US for independent academic and policy advice on health matters. Launched by the NAM in 2019, the Competition is a series of inducement awards and prizes to catalyse breakthrough innovations to improve people’s physical, mental, and social health and well-being as they age. It includes three phases – the Catalyst Phase (with three rounds in 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively), the Accelerator Phase, and the Grand Prize Phase. Awardees in the Catalyst Phase will be invited to present their ideas in an Innovator Summit (as part of the Competition’s Programme) and can apply for the Accelerator Phase and beyond. Two universities have already been participating in the 2021 Catalyst Phase under the collaboration of a foundation with the NAM.

The UGC and RGC considered it an opportunity to enhance our researchers’ participation and exposure in international competition and gaining experience in submitting bold and innovative research proposals. The UGC Secretariat is now liaising with the NAM in confirming the implementation details with a view to inviting our universities to participate in the 2022 Catalyst Phase. It is expected that the call for application will be issued in January 2022 with the deadline in March 2022. The results will be announced in around September / October 2022. There will be 10 Catalyst Awards, each with a grant of US$50,000 to take forward their research proposals. The awardees will also be invited to an Innovator Summit in the summer of 2023, for which the RGC is going to give out travel subsidies to the research teams. Implementation details will be announced by January 2022.