Home > UGC Publications > Press Releases > 2004 > The Funding Results of the Third Round of Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme (26.1.2004)

The Funding Results of the Third Round of Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme

The University Grants Committee (UGC) announced today (26 January 2004) the funding results of the third round of its Areas of Excellence (AoE) scheme.

On the advice of its Areas of Excellence Sub-Committee (AoESC), the UGC decided to fund the following two proposals for a total amount of $95 million over a period of five years:

Area of Excellence (participating institution[1]) Earmarked Funds
Developmental Genomics & Skeletal Research ( HKU / HKUST / PolyU ) $50 M
Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology ( CityU / HKU / HKUST / CUHK / HKBU / PolyU ) $45 M
Total $95 M

The abstracts of the two proposals are attached at Annex.

Announcing the results, Dr Alice Lam, Chairman of UGC, said, "The centrepiece of the AoE scheme is 'excellence' by international standards and 'excellence' has to be achieved through deep and sustainable collaboration across different institutions and disciplines. Through the scheme, the UGC wants to provide a platform to encourage institutions to pull together and build up 'Areas of Excellence' which can help Hong Kong to advance in the relevant fields."

"I am particularly glad to see that the two projects selected for funding in the current round involve extensive collaboration across many institutions. Indeed, many of the other proposals which we cannot fund are also based on strong and existing collaborative works. This is a very encouraging phenomenon and, in the face of budget stringency, the UGC sees it imperative further to develop and bolster collaboration across the whole sector in the interests of creating critical mass to achieve international excellence."

Sharing the same sentiment, Professor Sir Colin Lucas, Chairman of the AoESC added, "The AoE Scheme is a very competitive and highly selective funding exercise and the Sub-Committee has applied very stringent standards in the evaluation of proposals. The review panels had a very difficult task to conclude their assessment since there were more extremely high quality proposals than there was funding available. The two selected have clearly demonstrated a strong prospect for attaining international excellence and are areas which the UGC believes will help Hong Kong advance and compete internationally in the relevant fields."

In total, the UGC received a total of 41 initial proposals from the eight UGC-funded institutions in the third round, and they covered a wide spectrum of research subjects in biology & medicine, physical sciences, engineering, humanities, social sciences and business studies. Evaluation was undertaken by review panels composed of predominantly overseas experts from the relevant fields.

The progress of all AoE funded projects is subject to rigorous monitoring and release of funding is dependent on achievement of deliverables at different stages. In addition to scrutiny of progress reports, the UGC also conducts on-site review visits to the projects as part of its monitoring and assessment effort.


On the advice of the UGC, the Government agreed in 1997 to support UGC-funded institutions to build upon their existing strengths with a view to developing them into "Areas of Excellence". The aim is to assist in maintaining and enhancing Hong Kong's pivotal position in the overall development of China and the Pacific Rim.

The AoE scheme was launched by the UGC in 1998. In the first and second rounds, the UGC funded six projects with a total of $226 million for a period of five years. The six projects are:

  1. Information Technology ( HKUST / CUHK / HKU )

  2. Institute of Economics and Business Strategy ( HKU )

  3. Plant and Fungal Biotechnology ( CUHK / HKU / HKUST / HKBU )

  4. Molecular Neuroscience: Basic Research and Drug Discovery ( HKUST / CUHK / HKBU / HKU )

  5. Chinese Medicine: Research and Further Development ( CUHK / CityU / PolyU / HKUST )

  6. Institute of Molecular Technology for Drug Discovery and Synthesis ( HKU / PolyU / CUHK / HKUST / CityU / HKBU )

The above six projects are at different stages of development and some of them will enter their final stages in the coming one year.

UGC Secretariat
26 January 2004

Note to editors: For enquiries on this press release, please contact Mr P H Li, Assistant Secretary General (Research) of the UGC Secretariat at 2844 9916.

Annex - 1

    Developmental Genomics and Skeletal Research

    Universities in Hong Kong are leading a major collaborative research programme to discover and understand the genetic bases of one of the world's most serious health problems which cause long-term pain and physical disability for hundreds of millions of people: degenerative disorders of the joints or back.

    Scientists and clinicians from HKU, HKUST, and PolyU plan to use genomic technologies to identify the genes, proteins and regulatory networks that are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the skeleton, which, when malfunctioning, result in increased risk of degeneration of the discs in the spine, osteoarthritis and other skeletal disorders.

    As people live longer, they are more prone to suffer from skeletal disorders in their old age. Low back pain affects 60-80% of the ageing population worldwide and is the leading reason why people seek medical treatment. Degenerative low back disorders which can cause back pain are the third most common reason for surgical procedures and the second leading cause of sick leave. In Hong Kong in 2000 over 300,000 workdays were lost through these disorders and $200 million paid in workers compensation.

    The genetic causes of these disorders are complex, and are not yet fully understood. It is still not clear how normal growth of cartilage and bone is regulated, how unfolded proteins within cells affect skeletal growth and maintenance and contribute to disorders, and what genetic factors favour degenerative skeletal disorders.

    The research team will address these key issues. The team will exploit genetic information and cutting-edge technologies spawned by the genome projects and transgenic mouse technology to identify the genes responsible for skeletal abnormalities, particularly those that favour degenerative intervertebral disc disease (DDD), so that this kind of disorder can be more effectively diagnosed and treated. Ultimately, it hopes to develop methods for reconstituting skeletal tissue damaged by disorders such as osteoarthritis.

    The project is supported by collaborations and advice from international leaders in the field and state-of-art facilities for genomic technologies in the recently established Genome Research Centre in the University of Hong Kong. Success of this programme will contribute to placing Hong Kong at the forefront of genomics research worldwide.

Annex - 2

    Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology

    Human populations in the world's coastal zones have doubled in the last 20 years. At present, most mega-cities (which in total constitute some 70% of world's population) are located within 60 km of the coast. It is anticipated that future human population growth will occur principally in the coastal zone, and nowhere is this of greater concern than Asia. Furthermore, it has been estimated that while continental shelves represent only 10% of the earth's ocean surface area, more than 80% of deposition of organic matter, containing as much as 90% of the hydrophobic organic contaminants, occurs in this area. This results in contaminated water and sediments that can have adverse effects on ecosystem productivity and result in human exposure to contaminants through the marine food chain. Such problems are particularly serious in Hong Kong and the Pearl Delta, since this region has experienced one of the fastest economic and population growth rates the world has ever seen. According to UNDP, one-third of the gross domestic product of most coastal countries/regions, including Hong Kong, is produced through the utilization of coastal resources, especially fisheries, aquaculture, recreation, tourism, transportation and industrial development. The need to protect and manage marine environments, so that they can be continuously utilized and enjoyed in a sustainable manner, is imminent.

    The project "Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology" focuses on the development of innovative technologies for early detection, assessment, prediction and control of impacts arising from anthropogenic activities in the marine environment. Led by a cross-institutional multidisciplinary team of outstanding researchers and world-class scientists in marine environmental research, the proposed initiative will not only be unique globally and at the forefront of research, but also foster economic development along with enhanced environmental protection. Through this project, the team aims to develop a range of innovative technologies and marketable products for assessing the status of the marine environment and environmental risk; the provision of an early warning system, as well as cost-effective pollution control and bioremediation technologies suitable for practical use. The high quality outputs from this project will establish Hong Kong as a leading centre in marine environmental research, and enable Hong Kong to capitalize on the rapidly growing commercial opportunities presented by the enormous world environmental market. Through teaching and industrial attachment schemes, as well as the provision of local and regional training, this project will also produce competent environmental professionals in the forefront of technology to meet future demands.

[1] The underlined institutions are the co-ordinating institutions for the purpose of grant administration.