Hi, I’m GiGi, RGC specialist. Hopefully I can help clarify any concerns you may have about the RGC.
New How can the Panel Chairs ensure that the right reviewers are selected to review the research proposals? What can be done to ensure the right selection of reviewers to review the proposals?

The University Grants Committee Secretariat reviews the external reviewer (ER) database on a regular basis. Representatives of Research Offices are welcome to notify the Secretariat if updates are required.

In response to the observations made in the Research Grants Council (RGC) Review (Phase II), an external consultant was engaged in May 2020 to conduct a review on the ER database with a view to improving the procedures to add ERs to and remove poor performing ERs from the database.

New The current funding cycle for General Research Fund/Early Career Scheme (GRF/ECS) is almost a year. Can the funding/review cycle of GRF/ECS be further shortened?

As revealed from the findings of the consultancy report of RGC Review (Phase II), annual cycles of applications are largely accepted by the research community. Having considered the workload of panel members and the burden on applicants, the consultant of the RGC Phase II Review concluded that the scope for additional or more flexible cycles would be limited. For the GRF, the results are available by the end of June so applicants have adequate time to revise their proposals for submission in the subsequent round which is normally due in November. Given the large number of applications and the need to uphold the robust peer review mechanism, there is hardly any scope for further reduction of the processing time.

New Starting in the 2020/21 exercise, research applicants are required to submit “Pathways to Impact Statement”. What is the definition of “impact”?

“Impact”, as defined in the Research Assessment Exercise 2020, refers to the demonstrable contributions, beneficial effects, valuable changes or advantages that research qualitatively brings to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life whether locally, regionally or internationally; and that are beyond the academia.

New How will the RGC assess the potential research impact in research applications?

The RGC values both local and global impact as well as both short and long term impact. Whether the impact is substantial is the critical factor.

Potential research impact will be assessed in terms of their reach and significance, regardless of the geographic location in which they occurred. The criteria of ‘reach and significance’ is as follows –

  1. ‘reach’ is the extent and/or breadth of beneficiaries of the impact; and
  2. ‘significance’ is the degree to which the impact has enabled, enriched, influenced, informed or changed the products, services, performance, practices, policies or understanding of commerce, industry or other organisations, governments, communities or individuals.
New How important is the "relevance to Hong Kong" in research applications?

"Relevance to Hong Kong" is one of the examples of “research impact” to be assessed by the Panels. It includes policy or public debate being stimulated or informed by research evidence, etc.

For the criteria to be used in considering competitive bids, researchers may make reference to the GRF/ ECS/ HSSPFS General Panel Guidelines which can be downloaded from the following website: https://www.ugc.edu.hk/doc/eng/rgc/guidelines/panel/GRF_ECS_HSSPFS_GPG.pdf.

New For collaborative schemes, would the Panels favor inter-institutional collaboration over collaboration within a single institution?

There are different collaborative schemes implemented by the RGC.

The Theme-based Research Scheme (TRS) and Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme encourage both inter-institutional collaboration projects and inter-disciplinary projects within the same university with the view that complex problems and high impact projects would often require participation of talents from different organisations/disciplines .

For Collaborative Research Fund (CRF), it encourages creative and out-of-the-box cross-disciplinary projects. The project teams are expected to pursue interdisciplinary and collaborative goals which would not be possible by working on the project’s individual components in isolation of each other. The CRF Committee would assess the projects based on the academic merits of each project.

For Research Impact Fund (RIF), it encourages a greater volume of collaborative research beyond academia. The project teams are expected to conduct more impactful and translational research projects and to deliver benefit for the wider community together with the effort of the industry partners.

New For TRS and AoE Scheme, can part of the on-site review visits e.g. poster/demo session be opened to the public?

We note that some of the project teams of TRS and AoE Scheme have placed posters/demonstration in open area, such as foyers or corridors, for public viewing, and these arrangements were well received by the public. We would encourage project teams to make similar arrangements in future visits.

New For TRS, there are pre-determined themes/topics. Can the RGC also provide guidelines on preferred research areas for AoE Scheme?

The RGC does not impose any disciplinary priorities or preferences on the AoE proposals. However, proposals that fall within the scope of the topics of the TRS should be submitted under the TRS. If the applicants choose to submit such proposals to the AoE Scheme, full justifications should be provided.

New What are the differences between CRF and RIF?

Both CRF and RIF are collaborative research schemes

In brief, the CRF encourages more creative and out-of-the-box cross-disciplinary projects. It supports group research projects, and funds acquisitions of major research facilities, library collection or equipment by universities for collaborative research.

As regards the RIF, it encourages more impactful and translational research projects to deliver benefit for the wider community. It also encourages collaborative research beyond academia. However, for equipment only proposals for collaborative research, it should be submitted under the Collaborative Research Equipment Grant of the CRF.

New What measures the RGC and their Panels have put in place to avoid conflicts of interest?

All applications for research funding are treated fairly and assessed by local and non-local experts of the RGC/Committees/Panels, based on the academic quality of research proposals. A Code of Conduct has been in place to set out the standards of behaviour expected of Members of the RGC/Committees/Panels in handling RGC business. The "Guidelines on handling conflicts of interest during proposal evaluation process" issued by the RGC request them to declare conflicts of interest and restrict them from handling research proposals by applicants with affiliation.

New The current Chairman of the RGC is a full-time academic from a UGC-funded university. Is there any issue of actual/perceived conflicts of interest?

The Chairman of the RGC is appointed on his/her personal capacity and does not represent his/her own or any university/institution. The Chairman of the RGC is not involved in the assessment of individual grant applications nor in the handling of appeals for funding decision or impropriety cases.

The RGC adopts a two-tier system for declaring interest. At the first tier, Members are required to declare interest upon appointment and provide updates on an annual basis. At the second tier, it will be incumbent upon the Members to declare relevant interest on a case-by-case basis. The Chairman of the RGC is also subject to the declaration requirements. According to the Rules of Procedures, if Chairman of the RGC has an interest on a matter to be discussed, he/she will not preside or attend that part of the meeting at which the relevant item is discussed. Under the current mechanism for declaration of interest, the UGC is confident that independence and impartiality can be safeguarded.

New How will the RGC ensure a balanced representation in panel membership, e.g. across disciplines, institutions, local vs. non-local?

The RGC reviews the Subject Panel membership annually. The following broad principles are taken into consideration in making appointments to Subject Panels:

  1. to retain expertise in the Panel to cope with the increased complexity and workload of funding schemes;
  2. to strike a balance in the number of local academics and non-local academics;
  3. to strike a balance in members’ research expertise;
  4. to maintain adequate manpower to handle proposals received in the year; and
  5. to comply with the six-year rule.

It must be emphasized that appointments are made on an ad personam basis and local academic members do not represent their affiliated UGC-funded universities in any way.

The RGC’s aim is to appoint the best available persons to meet the specific needs of the committees/panels concerned. Each appointment is made on the basis of the merit of the individual concerned, taking into account the candidate’s ability, expertise, experience, integrity and commitment. The present system has been working well in recruiting a wide range of experts to the committees/panels.

New How will the RGC address the complaint that research funding is skewed towards science disciplines?

The RGC places equal emphasis on all types of academic research when such proposals are assessed. Academic merit is the overriding criterion in assessing research proposals by RGC committees/panels. All research proposals are subject to rigorous assessment by international experts and compete on equal footing.

New The RGC has introduced a one-time trial of “right of reply” procedures in the 2019/20 TRS. What is the result of the trial? Will the “right of reply” procedures be continued in the TRS and extended to other schemes?

The RGC had collected feedback on the “right of reply” arrangements implemented in the 2019/20 TRS and there were different views on the arrangements. The RGC decided to continue the trial arrangements in the 2020/21, and to extend the trial arrangements to the AoE 2020/21 exercise in order to collect more data for further consideration.

New These are comments about external reviewers’ quality. How will the RGC address the comments?

Majority of the external reviewers of RGC are experts in the relevant fields and most of them are non-local academics. To ensure the quality of review, the RGC has established a mechanism to “blacklist” a reviewer who does not provide any substantial comments and the concerned reviewer will not be invited to participate in the peer-review process for all RGC funding schemes in the future. The RGC will continue to update and improve the reviewer database. As recommended by the WGRGC(II), the RGC has also implemented trial “right of reply” procedures in the 2019/20 TRS with a view to improving transparency of the assessment. The RGC will continue the trial arrangements in the next round of TRS and extend the trial arrangements to the AoE.

New If an application fails, researchers have to wait for one full year before they can submit another application. How will the RGC address this issue?

Most RGC funding schemes operate on an annual cycle (except the AoE Scheme which is conducted every two years and the joint research scheme which issues two calls per year). The Phase II of the RGC Review observes that annual cycles of applications are largely accepted by the research community. Having considered the workload of panel members and the burden on applicants, the consultant of the Phase II RGC Review concluded that the scope for additional or more flexible cycles would be limited.

New There are complaints about the length of time taken before announcing results. Can the RGC shorten the processing time?

The Phase II of the RGC Review has examined the issue in depth and concluded that the scope for more flexible cycles is limited. For the GRF, the results are available by the end of June so applicants have adequate time to revise their proposals for submission in the subsequent round which is normally due in November. Given the large number of applications and the need to uphold the robust peer review mechanism, there is limited scope to reduce the processing time.

New How will the RGC improve the transparency of its operation?

Subsequent to the Phase I of the RGC Review in 2017, the RGC has already implemented new measures to improve transparency of its operation. These measures include the RGC Chairman’s regular meetings with Research Vice-Presidents of UGC-funded universities, annual face-to-face RGC Forum to engage academics and uploading of reflective reports prepared by committees/panels to the RGC website after each exercise. A communication and engagement policy has been developed in 2018 and an annual communication and engagement plan is implemented by the RGC.

New It is noted that the time for processing a misconduct case is very long and researchers often have to wait for one year for the decision. How will the RGC address the issue?

The RGC established its first Disciplinary Committee (DC) in December 2013. The DC was later restructured and split into three DCs, namely DC (Investigation), DC (Penalty) and DC (Appeal). The mechanism and procedures for handling alleged misconduct cases were revised correspondingly. The new procedures/arrangements introduced had, to a certain extent, lengthened the processing time. Nevertheless, the RGC and its DCs had expedited the process of disciplinary proceedings within the existing mechanism and completed investigation of a total of 54 alleged misconduct cases by June 2019.

In the light of the observations in the Phase II of the RGC Review, the RGC decided at its meeting on 15 June 2019 to combine the DC (Investigation) and the DC (Penalty) to form a new DC (Investigation) to reduce the processing time and speed up the decision making process. The new DC (Investigation) will be responsible for handling and investigating the alleged research misconduct cases, and recommending to the RGC on whether the allegations should be substantiated and the level of penalty for substantiated allegations. The RGC also reviewed the guidelines on handling research misconduct cases and uploaded the revised guidelines to the RGC’s website.

New What is the progress of the Review of the Research Portion (R-portion Review)?

In January 2019, the Working Group on the Review of R-portion (WGRP) was established to take forward the R-portion Review with assistance from an external consultant.

The first phase of the R-portion Review would consider the purposes of funding, coverage of various drivers and their weighting in the calculation methodology, the importance of promoting research excellence in Hong Kong, etc. Depending on the result of the Review, the WGRP would consider if a second phase review would be needed to address issues such as the treatment of on-costs. The first phase of the review is expected to be completed within one year, i.e. by around mid-2020.

As agreed by the WGRP, the UGC Secretariat and the Consultant held a meeting with the Heads of Universities in late June 2019 to gauge their initial views on the R-portion Review, and the universities were invited to provide formal institutional written responses and nominate researchers/finance administrators to complete an online survey prepared by the Consultant in July. Upon the completion of the online survey, the Consultant conducted a series of face-to-face focus group meetings with the respondents in late August to further consider their views. The WGRP would meet in October 2019 to consider the key observations on the responses from universities and researchers/finance administrators and the way forward for the statistical modelling and the review on international experiences in the next stage of the Review.