Buy your talent: China’s subsidies for R&D staff compete with HK

Dr Winnie Tang, Harbour Times columnist.
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Smart woman with ideas for a smart city!

Dr. Winnie Tang

Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong

In the newly released Budget, Financial Secretary Paul Chan committed over HK$45 billion to drive the development of innovation and technology (I&T) infrastructure and talent retention in Hong Kong. This includes funds for increasing the monthly allowance for researchers (from $16,000 to $18,000 per month for researchers with a Bachelor’s degree). But can these measures effectively retain and attract talent in the global – or even the regional – marketplace for talent?

Frankly speaking, more funding would be welcome by everyone. But when you compare the offer with those on offerin Guangzhou (GZ) or Shenzhen (SZ), major cities in the Greater Bay Area, Hong Kong is lagging far behind in terms of the scale of funding allocation and allowances for supporting individual talent.

Bye bye boss

Two professors from the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University shared their personal experience of losing their postdoctoral researchers to overseas or mainland institutes. Their offers abroad were much more attractive. One of them was offered sponsorship of RMB 500,000 a year (almost HKD $50,000/month) after being accepted by a Shenzhen government listed biotech company.

Apart from innovative technology, the finance sector is another focus now. Guangzhou launched a new policy last October to provide a one-time subsidisy RMB100,000 for each senior manager with an outstanding performance in the finance industry. For talent relocating to Guangzhou, they can receive RMB1 million each of government funding as a relocation fee.

Shenzhen, on the other hand, introduced a series of measures in January this year. It includes RMB100,000 allowance a year for each selected participant for training and visits to world financial centres, including New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore. What’s more, RMB1 million each will be awarded to financial organizations and tertiary institutes that offer first-rate training programs.

Locally, although the Hong Kong government has already committed over $100 billion in IT so far and committed 1.5%of GDP to supporting research and development (R&D) spending (up from 0.73%), this is still far below Shenzhen’s expenditure of 4% annually. Guangzhou has invested only 2.4% of GDP in R&D spending in 2017, but is aiming to raise that to 3% in the near future.

Some strengths in academia

Having said that, Hong Kong’s higher education is well known for its quality. Achievements in top scientific research areas, such as artificial intelligence, have been recognized. The H-index (publication influence and impact) of AI theses from Hong Kong universities ranked No.10 in the world. At a recent conference of the world recognized Association for the Advancement of Artificial intelligence (AAAI), the acceptance rate of theses from Hong Kong was 20.4%, among the top five in the world.

To retain and attract more talent to Hong Kong, the government has to do more than just offer financial incentives. We need policies and the right environment to encourage researchers and students to commercialize their ideas which can really help jumpstart development of innovation and technology in Hong Kong.

As Shenzhen and cities in GBA have a plentiful supply of software programmers and IT talent, can we leverage on their technology development and industrial capabilities while Hong Kong remains as the driver? In this case, researchers can improve their products and enjoy the economic benefits after commercialization. As a result, we can become the magnet to talent.

Therefore, whether or not Hong Kong can transform to be a talent hub very much depends on the successful development of an ecosystem in the GBA.

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