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

The University Grants Committee (UGC) announced today (September 18) the funding results of the fifth round of its Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme.

On the advice of its Areas of Excellence Group (AoEG), the UGC decided to fund the following five proposals with a total of $378 million (including 15% on-costs) over a period of eight years.

Project Title
(Participating Institution1)
Funding Source 1st Phase
2nd Phase
Institute of Network Coding
(CUHK3 , CityU4 , HKU5 , HKUST6 )
UGC Grant: 53.36 26.91 80.27
Other Sources :7 0 23.4 23.4
Project Total:
The Historical Anthropology of Chinese Society
UGC Grant: 14.87 8.58 23.45
Other Sources :7 0.15 7.46 7.61
Project Total:
Center for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Research
UGC Grant: 51.75 40.25 92
Other Sources :7 10 35 45
Project Total:
Institute of Molecular Functional Materials
UGC Grant: 46 46 92
Other Sources :7 18.5 40 58.5
Project Total:
Theory, Modeling, and Simulation of Emerging Electronics
UGC Grant: 44.94 45.06 90
Other Sources :7 21.6 39.18 60.78
Project Total:
Grand Total:
UGC Grant: 210.92 166.8 377.72
Other Sources :7 50.25 145.04 195.29
Overall Project Total:
1 The underlined institutions are the co-ordinating institutions for the purpose of grant administration.
2 The 1st phase funding is for the first 4-year period and the 2nd phase funding is for the second 4-year period.
3 The Chinese University of Hong Kong
4 City University of Hong Kong
5 The University of Hong Kong
6 The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
7 The minimum amount of matching fund to be provided by institutions.
8 Hong Kong Baptist University

The UGC also approved the allocation of about 60 Research Postgraduate (RPg) places to the five proposals and a renewed sustained funding project "Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology".

The abstracts of the five proposals are attached at Annexes A to E

Announcing the results, The Hon. Cha, May Lung Laura, Chairman of UGC, said, "The AoE Scheme is instrumental in building a research base of international excellence in Hong Kong. The Scheme facilitates the formation of quality research consortia to explore important questions across a broad range of disciplines. It buttresses inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary collaborative links. The longer term funding together with the allocation of RPg places enable high calibre research teams to pursue high impact and forward looking projects.

"This year, we have five successful proposals covering a wide academic spectrum of research and I am very pleased with the outcome. I am impressed by the exemplary dedication and devotion the institutions and research teams have displayed. The quality of the proposals and the firm commitment of matching funds from institutions manifest their enthusiasm for attaining excellence," the Hon. Mrs Cha added.

Commenting on the quality of the proposals in the fifth round, Professor Willard Fee, Convenor of the AoEG said, "Selection was challenging, as we had to choose the best among so many high quality proposals. The Scheme is highly competitive and members made robust and painstaking evaluations, with reference to very rigorous evaluation standards.

"It is wonderful to see five proposals measured up to the challenge. This round of AoE has seen the highest number of proposals being selected since the inception of the scheme in 1998. Yet, the five selected proposals that thrived in this highly competitive scheme are truly outstanding and their research teams are on par with leaders in the international research community in their respective fields. We believe that the knowledge generated by the projects will contribute to the social, economic and academic development of Hong Kong."

The UGC received a total of 28 initial proposals from six UGC-funded institutions in the fifth round AoE. Evaluation was undertaken by a review panel composed of international experts from the related fields.

The scope of the five funded proposals encompasses biology & medicine, engineering, physical sciences and humanities. The outcome clearly demonstrates that the UGC is committed to supporting and rewarding excellence in research of all disciplines, irrespective of fields and subjects. The UGC will continue to promote and invest in excellence through funding research schemes like the AoE.

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.

The background information of the AoE Scheme is set out in Annex F.

Ends/Friday, September 18, 2009

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

Annex A

Institute of Network Coding

The paradigm for data transport through a computer network has long been store-and-forward. This is analogous to the routing of mail or commodities. An intermediate node in routing does not alter the data being forwarded. For this reason, broadband infrastructure is often referred to as the information superhighway.

The fundamental concept of Network Coding was introduced in the late 1990s, largely due to the work of this team. Network Coding has brought about a paradigm shift in data transport by allowing for the combination and processing of data along the way. In layman's terms, the analogy is that vehicles on the information superhighway can be combined into new ones at a junction before continuing their journeys. In a nutshell, Network Coding makes network communications (e.g., the Internet) more efficient, more reliable, more robust, and more secure.

Network Coding is considered one of the most significant breakthroughs in Information Science. The main objective of this Area of Excellence is to make Hong Kong a major centre of Network Coding by building a world-leading Institute of Network Coding. This institute will conduct forefront research on the theory of Network Coding and its various applications in the Internet, wireless communications, information security, data storage, and bioinformatics. Top quality postgraduate students will also be trained.

This Area of Excellence, a continuation of a Hong Kong's story of success, is expected to help Hong Kong to elevate her research and higher education as a whole to the world level, and to fuel her economy by creating completely new technologies related to Network Coding.

Annex B

The Historical Anthropology of Chinese Society

A quiet revolution has overtaken the study of Chinese society in the last thirty years, in the wake of a breakthrough made by anthropologists Maurice Freedman and G. William Skinner in the 1960s.* Freedman redefined the south China lineage as a territorial community justified by claims to common descent. Skinner re-discovered the wide application of marketing networks in the structuring of social relations. Those combined insights have spurred three decades of research into a structure of Chinese society which can take account of regional variations within an apparently unified culture. Nevertheless, China historians have not yet been able to account for local variations even as they recognise their existence within the rubric of that unified Chinese culture.

Freedman and Skinner's approach to Chinese History has demonstrated the value of combining field and documentary research. This project follows that approach but attempts another explanation for variations in Chinese local society. Focusing on the past millennium of Chinese history, it recognises that while the Chinese state had grown both in geographic extent and influence, many social and cultural changes had evolved locally and independently. Yet, different parts of China had been incorporated into the state at different times, and consequently, had come under the unifying influence of the state under different administrative arrangements. Local society, therefore, varies from one part of China to another, but many of its similarities may be related to the history of its incorporation into the Chinese state and the administrative arrangement by which it was incorporated.

Drawing on historical documents and field research, this project will study 15 geographic areas in China to recover the history of both how local society acquired and identified with its own characteristics, and incorporated into, and accepted, the broad expanse of a unified culture. For its method, it will document objectively observable indications of local ritual traditions (referred to in this project as "significant ritual markers") and reconstruct the history of the local institutions in which they were employed. These indications include architectural features and literate traditions closely related to local religion or ancestral sacrifice, the hagiography of local deities, and village ceremonies performed by villagers themselves or by Buddhist and Daoist specialists. By comparing the time frame of separate local histories, this project will construct a history of China from the bottom up. It will demonstrate the very significance of historical anthropology as an approach to understanding China's history.

* Maurice Freedman, Lineage Organization in Southeastern China, London: Athlone, 1958; Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung, London: Athlone, 1966; G.William Skinner, "Marketing and social structure in rural China," Journal of Asian Studies 24, 1-3: 2-43, 195-228, 363-99, 1964-65; ed. The City in Late Imperial China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977.

Annex C

Center for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma Research

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is a cancer of particular relevance to Hong Kong because of its high incidence among Southern Chinese and its rarity elsewhere in the world. With high prevalence and peak occurrence among "young" cancer patients in the prime of life, the economic and societal impact of NPC in Hong Kong is substantial. At present, the tumor is usually diagnosed only at a late stage; thus, its treatment can be devastating and patients, who are cured of the cancer, may then suffer long-term side effects, adding to the human toll from this deadly disease. Therefore, we seek to better understand the molecular and genetic mechanisms of this cancer to enable early diagnosis and new improved treatment options; we aim to study its epidemiology in order to identify preventable risk factors and to provide public education forums on NPC prevention and detection.

Creating a Center for NPC Research (CNPCR), under the aegis of the Area of Excellence (AoE) scheme, is strategic for Hong Kong. In China, NPC is already one of four cancers under strategic national funding. Leveraging Hong Kong researchers' internationally recognized excellence in clinical and basic NPC research, we propose to establish a Hong Kong CNPCR comprising five hospitals and three universities. We will use our complementary scientific and clinical expertise to focus strategic research efforts on elucidating the molecular and genetic basis for NPC to decipher the interacting roles of cellular and viral genes in its development, to identify and validate novel biomarkers for diagnosis, to develop state-of-the-art analytical tumor imaging tools, and to develop alternative and improved treatment strategies for clinical management. We will forge new frontiers including exploring the role of cancer stem cells and tumor microenvironment in NPC, identifying new molecular signatures hallmarking high-risk individuals, and developing early tumor detection and imaging capabilities using the latest biomarkers and tools to detect cancer. NPC patients are in desperate need of improved treatment modalities. We expect to find new targets for therapeutic management of patients and new biomarkers that will aid clinicians in personalizing treatments.

Hong Kong is uniquely poised to assume a leadership role in NPC and the establishment of the CNPCR will propel Hong Kong's NPC research to the international forefront, making it a hub for international NPC research networks. We have the critical mass of scientists and clinicians, which under a Center, will enable us to synergize our strengths to translate basic science to the clinic.

Annex D

Institute of Molecular Functional Materials

The AoE aims to bring together inter-institutional efforts from the area of synthetic, polymer, material and physical chemistry, and interdisciplinary expertise through national/international collaboration in physics and device engineering towards developing an international eminent research centre in the area of molecular functional materials towards addressing energy-related issues. Strategic development of collaborative research and exchanges with some of the best international/national research groups will be made to develop novel classes of molecular materials and to realize the potential and impact of their physical and functional properties and their underlying chemistry. There are two main themes: molecular materials with (1) photofunctional properties, and (2) energy and catalysis functions. In Hong Kong, materials research individually has attained excellence. Establishment of the AoE is timely, and the multi-institutional team assembled here cannot be easily duplicated in terms of its strength, synergy, reputation and expertise. The team has 3 CAS Members, 3 TWAS Fellows, 7 Croucher Senior Research Fellows, 1 RSC Centenary Medalist, 4 State Natural Science Awards (1 First Class, 3 Second Class), 1 TWAS Prize in Chemistry, 3 NSFC Outstanding Young Investigator Awards, and 1 Fulbright Distinguished Scholar. This pool of talents, together with the strategic collaborative links and international/national networking, would form the basis for the establishment of the AoE, whereby chemists of various disciplines and device physicists/engineers would come together to work towards new materials discovery and development.

The AoE also aims to address some of the grand challenges in energy-related issues with particular emphasis on the fundamental study and understanding from the chemistry perspectives and to serve as a spawning ground for technology transfer, which would empower local/regional industries to develop high-technology, for providing training and education of young talents and nurturing outstanding young scientists to become leaders in their field. The project team aspires to make major impacts that will bring international recognition and make Hong Kong visible on the map. The proposed AoE programme features the following:

  • An interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborative programme involving participation of active, synergistic, and relatively young researchers with outstanding track records in molecular design studies to advocate world-class research in molecular functional materials.
  • The AoE would have major impact in the advancement of frontier science and the development of high-technology industry in Hong Kong and the region, particularly for developing new frontiers in supramolecular science, materials design in high-efficiency organic light-emitting devices, organic photovoltaics, organic thin film transistors, and robust photocatalysts.

  • Annex E

    Theory, Modeling, and Simulation of Emerging Electronics

    The remarkable miniaturization of semiconductor microelectronics over the past few decades has fundamentally shaped our everyday lives. If the miniaturization trend continues, devices are expected to reach their physical limit before year 2020. By that time, electronic devices will no longer work under the current designs, and may require conceptually different device structures and operation principles. In addition, new materials, such as low dimensional materials and spin materials, may be introduced. Because of the profound economic, social and scientific implications of the emerging technologies, intensive international research activities are underway to understand and determine the physical properties and performance characteristics of the emerging sub-22nm devices and integrated circuits.

    Modeling plays a critical role in this endeavor. The existing simulation software tools for previous and present generation semiconductor devices and integrated circuits are no longer applicable to the sub-22nm technology. The main difficulty lies in the limitation of continuum models used in the current simulation tools. For the sub-22nm devices, atomic features lead to large device-to-device variability. Another difficulty is that at the sub-22nm sizes the quantum effects, which are not adequately addressed in existing simulation tools, become important. Existing simulation tools cannot account for, or even be patched up to address these effects, as they are all based on continuum models. Therefore, next generation simulation methods and software are urgently needed.

    With our expertise and background in first-principles atomistic simulation methods/formulation development and continuum modeling of devices and circuits, we propose to work together and establish an Area of Excellence (AoE) in Modeling and Simulation of Emerging Electronics. Our focus will be on the modeling and simulation of sub-22nm technology. We aim to develop next generation multi-scale electronic design automation (EDA) tools that combine the atomistic simulation of individual devices, the coarse-grained modeling of integrated circuitries and simulation of electric signals propagation and interference. With these tools, we will study coherent transport through sub-22nm devices, properties of new materials and structures, lithography and new memory devices. As China is developing rapidly its electronics industry, we plan to work closely with research institutes and semiconductor companies in the region, and we expect our AoE to play an important role in this development. Through our activities and efforts, we will strive to establish Hong Kong as a world premier research centre in the modeling of emerging electronic devices and circuitries.

    Annex F

    Fifth Round of Areas of Excellence Scheme
    Background information

    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 four rounds, the UGC funded ten projects with a total of $427 million. A total of HK$101 million sustained funding was also granted to five projects from the first three rounds for a period of three years. The ten projects are:

    1. Information Technology ( HKUST / CUHK / HKU )1
    2. Hong Kong Institute of Economics and Business Strategy ( HKU )
    3. Centre for Plant and Agricultural Biotechnology (formerly known as "Plant and Fungal Biotechnology") ( CUHK / HKU / 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 )
    7. Centre for Marine Environmental Research and Innovative Technology ( CityU / HKU / HKUST / CUHK / HKBU / PolyU )
    8. Developmental Genomics & Skeletal Research ( HKU / HKUST)
    9. Centre for Research into Circulating Fetal Nucleic Acids (CUHK/HKU)
    10. Control of Pandemic and Inter-pandemic Influenza (HKU/CUHK/HKUST/HKBU)
    1 The underlined institutions are the co-ordinating institutions for the purpose of grant administration.

    Seven of the above projects have completed (with five being awarded with sustained funding) and the others are at different stages of development.