Call for cross-institutional ‘mega research institutes’

Report calls on Hong Kong to speed up funding system and increase number of junior researchers

December 15, 2019
Source: Getty

The establishment of interdisciplinary, cross-institutional “mega research institutes” could make Hong Kong into a global innovation powerhouse, according to a report. But to do that, the city must better utilise its financial and human resources.

The study, published by the Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF), draws on international examples such as the Broad Institute in the US, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and Germany’s Fraunhofer Society.

The report criticises the Hong Kong government’s research funding mechanisms for being slow, inflexible and fragmented. It recommends that the city establish a body similar to UK Research and Innovation or Singapore’s National Research Foundation.

Compared with the UK, Hong Kong has relatively fewer junior researchers and lower levels of collaboration. The ratio of research postgraduate students to professors in Hong Kong is 2.4 to 1, compared with 4.1 to 1 in the UK. Less than half of Hong Kong Research Grants Council funding went to collaborative projects, compared with 75 per cent from the UK research councils.

Andy Hor, vice-president and pro vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Hong Kong, told Times Higher Education that it was “critical” for HKU and other global universities to “find ways to deepen the innovation agenda”.

“‘Mega institutes’ could provide a comprehensive ecosystem to accommodate research talents at different levels and from different parts of the world,” Professor Hor said. “They would be sufficiently funded to be able to embark on the deep end of basic research, which may require a longer timeline to bear technological, economic or social fruits.

“It is also where ambitious basic research can be conducted, and where some disruptive technological inventions can be created.”

Professor Hor noted that the challenges were not unique to this region. “One of the bottlenecks in the economy – not just in Hong Kong or mainland China, but the world at large – is a shortage of talents in many areas. And yet, we are facing immense and complex challenges such as ageing populations, urbanisation, climate changes, food security and so forth. Leading universities, HKU being a good example, would need stronger support to achieve their missions,” he said.

Stephen Wong, head of OHKF’s Public Policy Institute, said the proposed institutes could provide greater resources and career prospects to local graduates and also serve as a magnet for international talent. “This will attract the world’s top scientists to come to Hong Kong, where they can make breakthroughs in the most cutting-edge research areas,” he said.

“Hong Kong is one of the most competitive economies in the world, but it needs to catch up in terms of its innovation capability,” said Kenny Shui, OHKF’s assistant research director.

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