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11 July 2011

Speech at Business & Professionals Federation Dinner
President's Speech
 

Sir David, Dr David Wong, ladies and gentlemen:

I have been advised that, anytime you receive an invitation from Sir David, you don't say no. A Sir David invitation is a great honor, especially when it is an invitation to speak before a highly regarded group of business leaders and professionals.

I see this Federation as our university's natural constituency, as many of our students graduate into membership with your organization. We therefore share a common interest in a common future. I am delighted by this opportunity to join your discussion on a subject of vital importance to Hong Kong's future prosperity.

Sir David has kindly invited me to speak on the study and research in science and technology in Hong Kong. He has also asked me to say something about the role of HKUST in this area.

I am glad to see that in leadership circles, prominent people now share the belief that S & T is important to Hong Kong's future. This widening circle includes the Financial Secretary John Tsang who recently blogged that our city lags behind others in the funding support for S & T and that HK's innovation and technology need to go to a higher level. It also includes two leading politicians, Mrs Regina Ip and Dr Samson Tam, both of whom are vocal advocates for S & T. Specifically, both have advocated that the HK government should create a high level Bureau in S&T.

I see in the audience the Science Park Chairman Nicholas Brooke, and its CEO Anthony Tan. I would like to take the opportunity and mention that Nick and Tony are leading a recently formed small task force to capitalize on the combination of competitive advantages of HK & SZ and to form an alliance to attract multinational companies, who are used to thinking automatically of Beijing and Shanghai as research centers for China, to set up R&D and manufacturing in the "Kong-Shen" region. HKUST is part of this task force and we are eager to play a role in this initiative. It is worth noting that, in a SCMP article last week, Samson Tam also advocates this approach.

The "Kong-Shen" region does have many competitive advantages: top research universities, many large S&T enterprises such as Huawei, Tencent, BGI, abundance of talents in R&D and entrepreneurs, large potential market, international legal system and IP protection, world class infrastructures and financial systems, and access to huge resources in R&D in S&T. Neither HK nor SZ alone can claim to have ALL of the above attributes and taking advantage of the combination would be consistent with the true spirit of One Country Two Systems.

There has never been a better time for HK to leverage on the Mainland's resolve to invest in S&T R&D as a national strategy.

In fact, in the recently released 12th 5-Year Plan, there is a special chapter dedicated to Hong Kong, in which the Central Government expresses support in nurturing the 6 new industries in which Hong Kong enjoys clear advantages, as well as supporting the deepening of economic cooperation between Hong Kong and the Mainland. HK should welcome it as a historic opportunity for our city. Perhaps it will finally spur our government into action in the interest of S & T.

But there are many challenges that HK faces in attempting to step up our efforts in including S&T in our economic future. The first challenge is public opinion and perception. It is unfortunate but nevertheless the reality that it is not just our government, but few local people see science and technology as being relevant to their lives or to Hong Kong's economy. Few S & T jobs were available to the technically qualified. S & T openings might be plentiful on the mainland, but local young people were unwilling to move there. In fact, for years, there was a joke going around the city. The joke is best told in Cantonese, but I will do my best to translate it into sensible English. Here it comes: "hi-tech hi yeh, low-tech, low yeh". Loosely translated, it means: "With hi-tech you get burned, with low-tech you get rich." In my opinion, this mentality has to change. Why shouldn't we at least try to invent the next iPad instead of fanatically queuing up to buy it?

The second challenge is that HK's public funding for S&T R&D is abysmally low. The Hong Kong government may have doubled its funding budget for scientific research over the last 10 years, but it still represents only .79% of our GDP, as compared to 1.6% on the Mainland, and even higher still in the US, Japan, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan. Much of economic growth and human progress, as you are no doubt aware, are attributable to breakthroughs in science and technology. Hong Kong seriously lags behind our regional competitors in its funding support and strategic development. It was left mostly to the market, and has been languishing there for years. But as I have said elsewhere, investing in science and technology is not cheap, but not investing in it is even more expensive.

A third challenge is that, as you all know, Hong Kong's economy is not S & T-based. Consequently, we are kept in a vicious cycle of our most talented students not wanting to invest in careers in S&T, our private business sector unwilling to invest their money in S&T, preferring quicker and more lucrative returns in other economic sectors, and our government not feeling the need to develop a long term strategy in S&T. Many consider our economic model too one-dimensional and fragile. And we are right to feel nervous about the probability of the property bubble. This is a city that thrives on the short-term and hot money, while investing in science and technology is a long-term undertaking whose payoff may not be visible or realizable within a single economic cycle. But there are a number of successful models around the world, of small and compact but diversified economies with government-led initiatives in science and technology, notable among them Switzerland, Israel, Singapore and Korea. It obviously can be done and has been done so it is up to us to develop our own strategy.

But it is never too late to play catch-up and there are many possibilities to be explored. From my own observation recently, there have been some encouraging developments along this direction. I have already mentioned John Tsang's blog, the suggestions by Regina Ip and Samson Tam, and the "packaged promotion" of HK-PRD to attract MNC R&Ds. Another possibility, as some have suggested, is to make use of the border land between HK and SZ as a S&T R&D special zone, using HK's legal systems, with no-visa entry for both HK and SZ citizens. HKUST would certainly be interested to participate in such a framework. Just last Friday, I attended a Forum titled "Creating Synergy in Innovation and Technology (HK/SZ Cooperation)", attended by government officials as well as S&T leaders from both cities. Let's hope that these ideas will go beyond talk and lead to actions.

Now, what about HKUST? What are we doing in this whole scheme of things? As you probably know, HKUST was created 20 years ago specifically to fill in the void in science and technology in Hong Kong in both education and research, and to turn it into a vehicle that helps drive our economic development. Thanks to the pioneering vision of our founders and subsequent hard work of our staff and students, we believe we have not let HK down. We have achieved a global academic standing that HK should be proud of. We have been recently ranked as Asia's #1 university and our EMBA program has been ranked world #1 for the last 3 years. It is widely recognized by our local peer institutions that the founding of HKUST has raised the research level of ALL of us.

For us as a university of science and technology then, our first hurdle is in educating and changing the popular attitude. We choose to do so through solid results in research. There is a saying that "Action is eloquence". Over the past 20 years, HKUST has been speaking eloquently through its actions, raising the level of the research culture in Hong Kong and the public awareness of its importance. You see articles on S&T in HKEJ and SCMP written by our faculty. Our star faculty members give public lectures and forums on timely topics. In recent years, we have become an inspiration, if not a model, for other universities of science and technology in this region, including the new South University of Science and Technology of China, and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. What's more, our Neuroscience Center has been designated a State Key Lab by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Our scientists have been invited to take part in major projects on the Mainland, including the mammoth "The Diversion of Southern Water for Northward Use". We have been part of the Asian success in changing the once unidirectional flow of students going for further studies. This flow used to be almost exclusively in one direction: from East to West. This is now more of a two-way traffic.

But we are not satisfied with that. We are trying to do something rather unique in local higher education. We are actively promoting the entrepreneurial and innovation spirit among our students and staff. HK has a long and proud entrepreneurial tradition and there many young people, perhaps even a few older ones, some sitting in this audience, with ideas, know-how, passion and drive to start their own business, including in S&T. Great societies are built upon encouraging and nurturing this spirit in its people. At HKUST, we do this through competitions and seminars given by industry leaders and entrepreneurs with a proven track record in the marketplace. We also do it by promoting the concept of "learning by doing", whether it is through "service learning", our so-called Redbird Program or internship training, or our famous Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Redbird members take part in action-learning activities for personal growth through contributions to HKUST and the community. The famous UROP program is to develop undergraduate research culture, giving students a chance to do hands-on research with faculty members. This program is successful beyond imagination, with over 30 of our undergrads this year being offered full PhD scholarships by leading universities such as Stanford and MIT.

We also seek to integrate scientific knowledge with business know-how, combining two of our core strengths. We know now that the most innovative breakthroughs in education and research often result from the cross-fertilization of knowledge from different disciplines.

Where there are no suitable job openings, our graduates have created their own businesses. I cite two examples. Our very first PhD graduate Dr Jack Lau launched an electronics company which 2 months ago was listed on the Main Board in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Our UG alumnus Francis Kwok 10 years ago founded RADICA, which was the first HK company to go into the China to promote the e-mail marketing business. It now has offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Singapore and Melbourne. Their HQ is in the HK Science Park.

To return to our earlier joke about hi-tech and low-tech, if the Hong Kong government continues with its relative lack of strategic vision or initiatives, if it continues to underfund research, and if it adheres to its traditional faith in "the wisdom of the market", then we are in danger of being reduced to a minor, marginal player, dangerously dependent on finance and property. It's not just a matter of funding. It is also a matter of leadership. A government with a long-term strategic vision would create an environment where graduates steeped in S & T training can expect decent job prospects and private business can have the confidence to make its own long term investments. There is no guaranteed magical formula of success but the general direction is clear and not trying would be squandering our future.

In this S & T race, the role of professional bodies such as yours cannot be underestimated. You are highly educated, sophisticated, successful and influential people whose voice the government cannot ignore. We are partners in progress in pushing our city to lead from the front, and not be left behind in the region's and our country's strategic development in science and technology. Perhaps you are more persuasive as lobbyists for science and technology than we have been. If we fail to pressure the government into a change of heart and a belief in science and technology as part of economic diversity, then the joke will truly be on us and on our city. Thank you.

 

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