City University of Hong KongSupporting global innovation through curiosity

Supporting global innovation through curiosity

The Hong Kong Institute for Advanced Study (HKIAS) at City University of Hong Kong promotes unfettered research based on free and deep thinking for the betterment of humanity

Amid a tumultuous global landscape of widening inequality, economic crisis and a global pandemic, there has arguably never been a more important moment for scientific knowledge to be supported. Universities are at the forefront of this challenge, with the need to attract and retain the best global talent for research a growing priority.

While applied research has brought valuable solutions across a variety of disciplines in recent months – for instance, the work into developing vaccines for Covid-19 – it is free-thinking, curiosity-driven research that will ultimately strengthen societies over the coming years.

In November 2015, City University of Hong Kong (CityU HK) established the Hong Kong Institute for Advanced Study (HKIAS) with the aim of gathering some of the best minds in science to pursue curiosity-driven research. The overarching aim of the institute was to provide a new space for researchers to explore scientific ideas freely and without constraint. “It was hoped that an institute could be established where the goals were to seek truth, advance knowledge and enhance humanity,” says Way Kuo, CityU HK president.

Over the past few years, the university has invited numerous world-leading scholars to join HKIAS as senior fellows, visiting fellows, visiting young fellows and postdoctorates, bringing experts together through team projects, conferences and workshops, as well as lectures and individual collaborations.

HKIAS was modelled on Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) – a research centre known for its mathematical, social and natural science discoveries. Princeton’s IAS alumni famously include 33 Nobel laureates among many other award-winning scientists, including Albert Einstein – a level of prestige that HKIAS aspires to replicate. “HKIAS hopes to follow the spirit of Princeton’s institute by linking worldwide leading minds with local researchers,” Kuo explains. “Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our senior fellows and local researchers would chat, argue and share ideas over coffee. In the HKIAS meeting room, the surrounding whiteboard walls are typically covered with equations, tables and drawings.”

“Even during the social unrest [in Hong Kong] in 2019, our meeting room was frequently packed with scholars for discussions either in person or with remote Zoom parties overseas,” he adds. This social conflict, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, brought unexpected challenges. For one thing, the serendipitous nature of on-site meetings and conversations sparking ideas was extinguished. Visits from overseas fellows and scholars to Hong Kong have remained infrequent as the region slowly reopens to international travel.

Despite the restrictions, more than 80 per cent of senior fellows and International Advisory Committee members were able to join the HKIAS’ annual meeting online in November 2020, where they shared experiences and strategies to counter the viral threat. More recently, hybrid models for meetings and conferences have been adopted to allow both in-person and online participation. Positive developments have come from new digital ways of working, too, Kuo adds. “The overall attendance, on-site and online combined, is in fact higher than our regular on-site attendance, which is well beyond our expectations.”

Current projects under way at HKIAS include both basic and applied research across mathematics, physics, chemistry, material sciences and life sciences. These subjects overlap with data science, IT and research into new energy materials and advanced pharmaceuticals. It is the institute’s goal to further raise the global profile of the science community at CityU HK and other academic institutions in China. HKIAS currently has 32 active senior fellows and five emeritus fellows from the US, the UK, France, Germany, China and beyond, with more scholars under invitation. “Within HKIAS, we have also formed research clusters in material science, mathematics and life sciences,” Kuo says. “Each research cluster is led by senior fellows and comprises local chair professors, young faculty, postdocs and PhD students.”

When considering new candidates to invite, HKIAS leaders consider an individual’s global reputation as well as their research achievements and “dynamism”. “These leading scholars will most likely form collaborations with our current senior fellows and CityU HK, which is a crucial factor,” Kuo says. “Our current HKIAS senior fellows are very driven and passionate. Selection is competitive, and it is not easy to win approval from the selection committee. Our standards are high.”

The presence of HKIAS senior fellows on campus benefits CityU HK in several ways, Kuo says, for example, by bringing research expertise that is not always covered under the existing syllabus. “Our senior fellows can provide us with the opportunity to pursue curiosity-driven research and to present the results of their studies to a diverse audience of students, postdocs and researchers…This means that current ideas in advanced research get talked about on-campus and CityU HK faculty and students have the opportunity to meet with top scholars in a particular field of study.”

In addition, HKIAS invites influential visiting fellows, young fellows and HKIAS distinguished postdocs to stay on at the university for six to 24 months to conduct advanced research under the supervision of HKIAS senior fellows and chair professors. HKIAS’ success can be seen in the increase in its activities, Kuo says. Since its beginnings in 2015, the institute has held about 100 lectures and more than 30 international conferences, forums and workshops, including a workshop on quantum science for Nobel Week in 2017.

Looking ahead, Kuo expects environmental research to become focal to the institute, particularly as concerns over energy and climate change dominate global news headlines. Issues such as energy generation and storage will become “increasingly important”, he notes, as will human health. “Energy research cannot be limited to particular engineering subjects; it needs to spread widely and deeply into physics, chemistry, materials science and many other related sciences…Overall, we believe advanced study in fundamental basic science will benefit the environment and human life right now and in the coming years,” he concludes.

Find out more about the HKIAS.

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