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Monday, May 21, 2018, 10:59
Xi puts money where his mouth is on HK science
By Naubahar Sharif
Monday, May 21, 2018, 10:59 By Naubahar Sharif

Naubahar Sharif notes city’s history of innovative, collaborative research and welcomes efforts to supply national-level funding

Last week we heard exciting news from the central government, which announced the prospect of greater collaboration between Hong Kong and Chinese mainland scientists to promote innovation and technology here.

President Xi Jinping plans to offer Hong Kong scientists greater access to State funding, letting researchers in the city apply for national-level funds that were previously available only to mainland researchers. 

This marks a break from the past when Hong Kong scientists could secure State funding only through partnerships with mainland researchers while the money had to be spent on the mainland.

Xi’s directive mentions scientists who “love the country and Hong Kong”, but this move represents a marked shift in the mainland’s position vis-a-vis Hong Kong’s innovation and technology researchers.

The initiative comes as Hong Kong itself renews efforts to enhance its innovation and technology profile; the initiative can only help the city realize its goal of becoming an innovation hub.

As a traditional gateway, now sometimes referred to as a “super-connector”, Hong Kong has been playing a vital role in fostering, or positively exploiting, international collaboration efforts with the mainland and elsewhere

That said, what does increased collaboration with the mainland entail? A related, more insightful, question is: What history, if any, does Hong Kong have in internationally oriented collaboration with the mainland or other countries? Answering this question can shed light on the new directive’s potential for enlivening Hong Kong’s innovation and technology scene.

To illustrate Hong Kong’s collaboration history, I offer two outstanding examples.

First, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, the horrendous social impact that SARS had on Hong Kong did have a silver lining.

Scientists from multiple countries and regions, including the mainland, put aside their academic rivalries and collaborated by sharing what they knew to better understand the disease. Hong Kong scientists were instrumental in identifying the causative agent — an entirely new coronavirus — and devising the first diagnostic tests, but significant international collaboration facilitated their efforts. 

For example, top international scientific journals expedited the publication process to ensure new knowledge about the disease was immediately available to all. Clinicians the world over, but especially in Hong Kong and the mainland, spent long hours in teleconferences, sharing knowledge about symptoms and treatments, unraveling the mysteries of the new disease.

These efforts culminated in 2005 in the establishment of a national laboratory at the University of Hong Kong to conduct cutting-edge research on emerging infectious diseases. Since then the national lab scientists have conducted research to develop flu vaccines and cures for other viruses, while seeking other sources of funding that could drive innovation into the future.

My second example involves the use of Hong Kong-made technological hardware by an international agency. As early as the mid-1990s, Hong Kong Polytechnic University engineers were involved in creating a rock-sampling tool — specialized forceps — for use by astronauts in space. In 1995, the forceps were ordered by the Russian Space Agency to let astronauts carry out precision soldering at the now-defunct Mir Space Station.

This project continued with the PolyU-led team further improving the rock-sampling tool and eventually developing a multi-functional sampling tool that can grind, drill, core, and grip rock samples. The key advantages of this tool were its lighter weight (only 370 grams) and energy efficiency (consuming as little as two watts) compared with other similar instruments. The European Space Agency spacecraft Beagle 2 carried the rock-sampling tool on a Mars-bound launch in June 2003.

PolyU’s sampling tool played a vital role on that mission in seeking to unlock the mystery of exobiology on Mars. It was the first ever tool created to drill into the Martian surface to retrieve rock samples.

These two examples illustrate the fruits of international collaboration as well as collaboration that leads to internationally recognized — and applied — products from Hong Kong. There are numerous other such examples (some from even further back in time), and the takeaway lesson is that tighter integration with the mainland on the innovation and technology front bodes well for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has a noteworthy history in this respect: As a traditional gateway, now sometimes referred to as a “super-connector”, Hong Kong has been playing a vital role in fostering, or positively exploiting, international collaboration efforts with the mainland and elsewhere.

This newfound willingness on the part of the mainland to support Hong Kong’s scientists and researchers is significant insofar as it offers them greater access to State funding. The move promises to further enhance the singular internationally oriented role that Hong Kong has hitherto fulfilled, simultaneously enabling Hong Kong to redouble its efforts to become a global leader in innovation and technology.

The author is an associate professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has previously consulted for the Innovation and Technology Commission.

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