Time for government to set up Science and Development Office

April 21, 2021 13:02
Photo: Bloomberg

Even though the city has prioritised economic development for decades, the changing needs as a result of the pandemic mean Hong Kong should strengthen its policy on science by establishing a high-level Science and Development Office

The persistence of the Covid-19 global crisis has highlighted the importance of scientific research. Healthcare, vaccination, testing and protective equipment are all about science, while there is increasing reliance on communication technology as a result of social distancing. The recently inaugurated American President Joe Biden made fighting the disease the top priority. Demonstrating the importance of science to the new administration, Biden nominated the renowned geneticist Eric Lander to be the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, as well as Science Advisor to the President, a position which has been elevated to Cabinet level.

Lander has long been a heavyweight in the international scientific community. He was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2013. The award, dubbed the Oscar of the scientific community, is funded by leading internet entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Lander was also the founding Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a leading biomedical and genomic research centre. As a cross-institution and cross-discipline organisation, the Broad Institute created a new model for a research institution, breaking down cultural and institutional barriers. Under Lander’s leadership, top scientists team up to conduct cutting edge research to solve complicated life sciences and medical challenges, such as the human genome project, which aims to determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome.

Biden also stated science will be a top priority. Under the daunting Covid-19 pandemic, mankind is facing unprecedented scientific challenges. In order to take significant strides in science, policy support is necessary to compliment advancements in technology and academic knowledge. Governments should set out policies, build strong teams, and establish blueprints for long term developments. In the United States, the Office of Science and Technology Policy was established in 1976, with its Director also acting as the President’s Science Advisor, giving expert analysis and judgments to the government on major policies on science at the most senior level.

Even smaller nations, especially those with an open economy, established high level policy offices on the development of science. Singapore set up the National Research Foundation within the Prime Minister’s Office in 2006, providing the nation’s direction for research and innovation by developing policies and plans, with a strategy for the city state every five years. Its Scientific Advisory Board includes top international experts from many disciplines, including Sir Richard Friend, Cavendish Professor of Physics at University of Cambridge who chairs the Board, and Professor Zhang Tong, Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The Board helps to identify important areas of research, while reviewing and advising on the proposals and plans prepared by the Foundation.

In Hong Kong, the government has two Committees related to science and innovation. The Steering Committee on Innovation Technology, chaired by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is responsible for examining and strengthening Hong Kong’s measures for innovation and technology development. The Committee on Innovation, Technology and Re-industrialisation, chaired by Financial Secretary Paul Chan, collects views on innovation technology and re-industrialisation from industry stakeholders. Secretary for Innovation and Technology Alfred Sit is a member of both Committees, while the Innovation and Technology Bureau provides support. However, even with advice from top experts, the Committees are only able to provide suggestions to the government within a limited number of issues. Crucially, these committees cannot set out the overall strategy for the development of science and technology for the city.

With examples from the United States and Singapore serving as useful reference, and the threat of the pandemic highlighting the urgent importance of science, it is time for the Hong Kong government to establish a high-level Science and Development Office. Headed by a Chief Science and Development Officer who possesses global vision, professional knowledge and industry experience, and staffed by professionals in various scientific disciplines, this new Office can provide the Chief Executive and senior officials with long-term and forward looking opinions on the development of science and technology. The Office could also provide directions and overall strategies for research and development funding, which would be an improvement on the piecemeal treatment now. The new Office can also cooperate and coordinate with the two aforementioned Committees. For instance, as the Committee on Innovation, Technology and Re-industrialisation is more familiar with the local situation, so it should help to set out Hong Kong’s planning and blueprint for science and technology. Then the Chief Science and Development Officer should give the planning and blueprint his or her professional opinion. Making structural improvement is essential for the long-term development and management of scientific research in Hong Kong. If we can also consolidate our talents and resources more effectively, the future for our city in science and technology will be much improved.

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Kenny Shui is an Assistant Research Director, and Caroline Ngan is an Assistant Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation.