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Monday, May 28, 2018, 10:35
Transforming HK into a global innovation hub
By Henry Chan
Monday, May 28, 2018, 10:35 By Henry Chan

Henry Chan says the city must not only attract researchers from overseas but, more importantly, create a climate where skills can flourish unhindered 

In response to a letter 24 Hong Kong-based academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering wrote in July last year, President Xi Jinping ordered “timely actions to be taken” to address concerns the group raised.

In the letter, the academics expressed their desire to contribute to the development of the motherland and participate in the scientific and technological research of the country.

In response to the presidential directive, the Ministry of Science and Technology and Ministry of Finance last week released guidelines for Hong Kong academics to access central government research funds. Such access was previously limited to scholars based on the mainland. Some 16 Partner State Key Laboratories and six branches of the Chinese National Engineering Research Center in Hong Kong received the first funding to the tune of 22 million yuan (US$3.44 million).

Universities in Hong Kong have a strong international reputation and are among the top-tier research universities in Asia. Many Hong Kong research departments have attracted a significant number of Chinese mainland researchers. Hong Kong-based institutions enjoyed more research funding in the past but the situation has reversed in recent years. 

The central government has given the mainland researchers increasing flexibility in their scientific work in the drive for scientific breakthroughs and greater innovation. There is no reason to doubt the funding rules for Hong Kong will be any different

Chen Honglin of the State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases revealed that on the mainland a national key lab such as his could receive central government funding of 8 million to 10 million yuan a year from the Ministry of Science and Technology. 

In contrast, his laboratory in Hong Kong had received just HK$5 million a year from Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Commission since 2012. Considering the financial disparity between researchers in the mainland and Hong Kong, the city is at a disadvantage regarding research funding and the associated research capability.

Mainland research institutions and universities spent 355 billion yuan on research and development last year based on government data; corresponding government spending in Hong Kong was less than HK$10 billion. Opening central government funding to Hong Kong researchers will significantly boost R&D opportunities for Hong Kong academics. The move will enhance Hong Kong’s aspirations to become an international technology and innovation hub.

However, the city’s quest in this direction will likely face some obstacles. The recent trade spat between the United States and China has highlighted rivalries between the two biggest economies on technology. There are two key constraints on technological cooperation between China and the West. The first is the Wassenaar Agreement covering export of both military and dual-use technology to China, and the second is the restriction on essential equipment or technology sales to China by the US. The US Commerce Department is the chief enforcer of American restrictions.

The State Key Laboratories based in Hong Kong are not known for involvement in military research, and its traditional strength, biological research,has no military applications. However, the increasingly fuzzy distinction between civilian and military technologies, due to their possible crossover applications, might affect some technological exchanges between Hong Kong laboratories and their Western counterparts.

Civilian-military technological collaboration has led to some of the most significant technological innovations of the modern world, including the internet, GPS and autonomous vehicles. The unintended positive spinoffs marked some milestone scientific breakthroughs achieved in the early days of the US’ space program. There is no reason why this trend would not continue.

However, in recent decades, both China and the US have come to realize civilian research and development have in general outstripped their military counterparts. Today’s technology flow is multi-directional not only between military and civilian researchers but often with disciplines formerly outside their sphere of interest. The advent of artificial intelligence will further blur the distinction between civilian and military research and technological development. It will indeed pose a challenge to government departments tasked with enforcing restrictions on the export of dual-application technologies. In fact, classifying them would be a challenge by itself.

 How the West looks at the central government’s stepped-up funding of Hong Kong research institutions and universities will probably depend on funding rules and implementation guidelines. The central government has given the mainland researchers increasing flexibility in their scientific work in the drive for scientific breakthroughs and greater innovation. There is no reason to doubt the funding rules for Hong Kong will be any different. 

Transparency on funding rules and research assessment will also dispel concerns of some sceptics that patriotism will be an integral part of work being assessed, and worries they may carry covert military applications.

Hong Kong must show it can draw researchers from all over the world regardless of their ethnicity and political beliefs. Equally important, it must create a climate where their talents will be allowed to develop unhindered by political or environmental constraints. Only then can Hong Kong’s desire to become an international innovation and technology hub be realized.

The author is an adjunct research fellow at the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore.

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