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Forum on "The $18 Billion Research Endowment Fund - A New Era for Research in Hong Kong"

Organised by the Society for Hong Kong Scholars
17 May 2008 (Saturday)

Speech by The Hon. Mrs. Laura M. Cha, SBS, JP
Chairman, University Grants Committee

Prof Wong, Prof Vrijmoed, Members of the Society of Hong Kong Scholars, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to be invited by the Society of Hong Kong Scholars to this forum and share with you my views on the development of research in Hong Kong.

This is an exciting year to be in the UGC sector. It is good news to all of us that the Government has stepped up to the plate by increasing its support to research. The Financial Secretary announced in his Budget Speech this year that the Government will create an additional 800 research postgraduate places and set up an $18 billion Research Endowment Fund to support research at the UGC-funded institutions. The amount of money is unprecedented and it marks the beginning of a new era for research in Hong Kong. Aside from the Government, I would also give my heartfelt thanks to you - to our academics. Without your research achievements and your persistent pleas for more research support, the Government would not be so determined to invest in research. I have no doubt that our researchers will continue to do and speak whatever is good for Hong Kong.

Research Endowment Fund

I understand that some academics have expressed concerns over the operation of the $18 billion Research Endowment Fund. And apparently, some people misunderstand the purpose. Perhaps it will be useful for me to explain and elaborate the proposal here.

The $18 billion endowment is primarily for the purpose of generating recurrent grants to the UGC for providing research funding to the Research Grants Council (RGC). This means that starting from about 2009/10, the RGC grants to be given to our researchers will be derived from this endowment. It will replace the existing recurrent grants for research from the Government for the UGC/RGC. An added bonus - or wrinkle depending on your stand point - is that an element of the endowment will be earmarked to fund appropriate research projects on specific themes as identified by the Government : for so-called 'theme-based' research. The Government is still deliberating on the best way to take forward this idea.

This type of looking at research themes that fit the needs of economies is not unusual around the world. In taking it forward, I am sure that the Government is determined to preserve institutional autonomy and academic freedom and the UGC will help to safeguard any possible intrusion. The UGC will be kept in the loop and we will work closely with the Government and the institutions. While the Government has not yet come up with a plan, your opinions at today's forum may help to shape the things to come. I have volunteered Michael Stone to come to this Forum - and I see him there - and he will be interested to hear your views and participate.

Regarding the bulk of the $18 billion for replacement of the existing funding to the RGC, the amount of annual funding generated from the endowment is likely to be higher than the existing $600 million. Dare I hope to say : significantly higher. The actual amount will depend on the investment return, but the UGC will discuss with the Government on how to ensure adequate research funding in a bad year of investment performance so that our institutions will not suffer. On the whole, this new funding arrangement will provide steady and enhanced financial support for research in our institutions, regardless of the fiscal situation of the Government in the future.

With the $18 billion, our position will be better than before, but still has a long way to catch up with other places. Neither the UGC nor the RGC will compromise quality for quantity. More funding does not mean that we will lower our standard for funding research projects. The UGC and its RGC will continue with its rigorous peer-review process and allocate research funding on a competitive basis. We will not discriminate against any disciplines. With the extra money, the possibility of quality proposals getting better or even full funding in the future will be greater. Good researchers will get more support, and we will also be able to provide more help to nurture our junior researchers. In the long run, the achievements of our researchers will be a very persuasive evidence to convince the Government to give more resources to our sector.

Provision of 800 additional research postgraduate places

Nurturing young research talents is fundamental to strengthening our research capacity. I am glad that the Government will also give us 800 more research postgraduate (RPg) places in addition to the $18 billion. Currently, the UGC provides 4,765 publicly-funded RPg places annually to nurture future researchers. With the creation of 800 additional places, our higher education institutions will be able admit more outstanding local and overseas students to build up a critical mass of research excellence. This will surely help Hong Kong's competitiveness and our continual prosperity as a knowledge-based economy.

The UGC plans to allocate the new RPg places by linking them to the research performance of the institutions. The UGC intends give part of the 800 places to institutions in conjunction with the RGC-funded projects, and the others based on research funding results.

It is worth noting that the timing for the above fresh impetus is especially good as our institutions start to recruit some 1,000 more academics to prepare for the "3+3+4" academic reform. Institutions should be able to offer better research packages for key new staff. Provision of such new resources at this juncture is also highly desirable to gear up the reform in higher education sector.

Demonstrating Results

Now, let me bring up a topic which is crucial to the continual success of research. Research in Hong Kong has made great strides - let me acknowledge, welcome and praise that. But we lack critical mass. We lack substantive impact. Clocking up citations seems overly important. We lack private sector funding and support. We lack major "success stories" - as the public or government would see it. Competition is great - it fosters innovation and "hunger" to succeed. But the competition in research is not from within Hong Kong - it is from outside. I urge this society and our academics to find ways to work together to achieve real critical mass and impact.

The Government is spending billions on research, and the public will demand to see results. It is therefore in our long term interest to show our research achievements to the community. This will help our institutions to gain public support for more resources. The Government will find it easier to provide more research funding if the community is behind it. Why should Government have to support research when the community is demanding better welfare, better medical services or more roads or bridges? Showing our results to the public should also arouse interests from the private sector. The private sector needs to see results before it is willing to make investments or donations.

Indeed, the commitment of our Government is not so small when compared with many places. Private investment in research is really what Hong Kong is lacking. The research community will need more work on this aspect and this will be an interesting topic for this Society and the Government to think about.

I am fully confident that our institutions are capable of conducting high quality research which will contribute to the economic and social development of Hong Kong in the long term. The UGC, and the RGC under its aegis, will continue to work with our institutions and the Government as partner to ensure this happens.

As Chairman, UGC, I have much benefited from the wisdom of my colleagues in the Committee as well as those in the UGC-funded institutions on many important issues concerning the development of higher education in Hong Kong. I am glad to see some familiar faces and also others who I have not yet met attending the forum today to share their views. I am sure that the discussion will be an enlightening one, and will stimulate further discussion within and outside Hong Kong's research community.

Thank you.