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LCQ13: Making public reports of investigations conducted by Research Grants Council
     Following is a question by the Hon Ip Kin-yuen and a written reply by the Secretary for Education, Mr Eddie Ng Hak-kim, in the Legislative Council today (March 22):

     The Research Grants Council (RGC) under the University Grants Committee is charged with the functions, among others, of distributing grants to tertiary institutions to provide funds for academics to conduct academic researches. The Disciplinary Committee of the RGC conducted earlier on an investigation into an allegation that a chair professor of the Department of Chemistry of the University of Hong Kong had misconducted herself in a research project. The investigation was concluded in December last year. However, the RGC refused to disclose the investigation outcomes. Separately, RGC indicated in its reply to the Public Accounts Committee of this Council that alleged misconduct cases involving the RGC grants received by the RGC were handled on a confidential basis, and the relevant investigation reports would not be made public. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) whether it knows the number of complaints received in the past five years about suspected misconduct in research projects and the number of such complaints into which investigation was conducted, by the Disciplinary Committee of the RGC; among the cases investigated, the number of those which were found substantiated, as well as the nature of such cases and the penalties imposed on the persons who had misconducted themselves;
(2) whether it knows the specific justifications of the RGC for not making public the reports or outcomes of such investigations; and
(3) given that the distribution of grants by the RGC involves the issue of whether public funds are properly used, and that such investigations involve procedural justice and attract wide public concern, whether the authorities will request the RGC to make public the relevant investigation reports and outcomes, so as to allay public concern and manifest its accountability to the public?
     The Research Grants Council (RGC) is an independent non-statutory body which operates under the aegis of the University Grants Committee (UGC). It is responsible for funding academic research projects, and for advising the Government, through the UGC, on the needs of Hong Kong's higher education institutions in academic research.

     The RGC attaches great importance to research integrity. Researchers are expected to observe the highest standard of integrity in the conduct of their research projects. Any research improprieties found in the RGC-funded projects will be dealt with fairly and seriously by the RGC.

     The Disciplinary Committee (DC) was formed under the RGC in December 2013 and later re-established as three DCs, namely the DC (Investigation), the DC (Penalty) and the DC (Appeal). The DC (Investigation) oversees the conduct of investigations of cases arising from allegations; the DC (Penalty) determines the level of penalty for substantiated cases; and the DC (Appeal) handles appeal cases if they arise. All the alleged misconduct cases involving the RGC-funded projects received by the RGC will be referred to the DCs for investigation. Since December 2013, the DCs have considered a total of 49 alleged misconduct cases. As at March 1, 2017, the DCs completed investigation of all 49 alleged misconduct cases, and among them 25 cases were found substantiated and penalties were imposed as appropriate. The nature of these 25 cases and the penalties imposed are provided at Annex.
     To ensure that all the investigation is carried out impartially and fairly, the DC (Investigation) appoints an independent Investigation Working Group (IWG) for each alleged misconduct case. Each IWG normally comprises three members sitting on the RGC or panels/committees set up under the RGC who are experts in the subject area and familiar with the RGC assessment procedures, and have no conflict of interest with the researcher(s) under investigation. The IWG will impartially examine the written representations of the respondent and related parties, the research proposals and the institutional investigation report (if available), which usually includes expert evidence, interview records and other relevant documents. The IWG will carefully consider the evidence before coming to a view. After considering the findings and views of the IWG, the DC (Investigation) will make its recommendations to the RGC for decision.

     Cases found substantiated by the RGC will be forwarded to the DC (Penalty) for consideration on the level of penalty. The DC (Penalty) will take into consideration a number of factors pertinent to the case, including the nature and gravity of the impropriety, level of penalty of precedent cases and any other mitigating factors, etc. and make a recommendation to the RGC on the penalty level.

     Each DC comprises five members, of which three do not sit on the RGC or any of its panels/committees, and two are either non-local or lay members of the RGC. At present, all DC members are overseas academics to ensure impartiality. According to the RGC guidelines, if any RGC/DC member has perceived conflict of interests with the researchers being investigated, the RGC/DC member concerned should be excused from the relevant meeting and should not participate in the discussion. The rigorous investigation procedures have ensured the fairness and impartiality of each investigation, as well as the proper use of the public funds involved.

     In line with the practice of the UGC-funded universities in handling research misconduct cases, all alleged misconduct cases are handled by the RGC on a confidential basis and the investigation reports are not published. That said, the RGC agrees that there is a need to enhance public accountability and transparency of the RGC's handling of such cases. In January 2017, the Secretariat uploaded the related guidelines and procedures on the RGC's website. Looking ahead, the RGC will be consulted at its meeting in June 2017 on how to further enhance public accountability and transparency, with reference to the practices of international research funding bodies. For example, the RGC will consider publishing statistics on the RGC's handling of alleged misconduct cases; and publishing summaries of the RGC's decisions on all substantiated misconduct cases (with the names of individuals involved redacted if necessary).

     Furthermore, the on-going Review of the RGC will holistically examine the existing procedures for handling alleged misconduct cases. In particular, the Review will consider how to enhance public accountability and transparency, having regard to prevailing practice in the higher education sector.
Ends/Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Issued at HKT 15:55
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