Scientists in Hong Kong are bracing themselves for a wave of salary cuts as the government reduces university funding next year by nearly 10% from last year's figure.

Staff salaries are expected to be hit hardest. Research funding, which is overseen by the Research Grants Council, has so far been spared cuts. But researchers worry that low salaries will drive some people away, leaving fewer to teach and giving the remaining staff less time for research.

On 26 November, the University Grants Committee issued a statement outlining the 9.7% reduction for 2004–05. The cuts, which total about HK$1.1 billion (US$140 million), are part of a strategy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to reduce expenditure to soothe the region's troubled economy, which was battered by the SARS epidemic.

University funding in Hong Kong is usually decided for three years at a time — the last budget covered 2001–04. But the government decided to set the upcoming budget for only a single year, following a review of the higher-education sector that recommended that the region's eight universities diversify into their areas of strength.

“We decided to give the University Grants Committee a year to prepare new funding models and to give the universities time to focus on differentiating their roles,” says Arthur Li, Hong Kong's secretary for education and manpower. In the meantime, the government is encouraging universities to make up some of the shortfall through fundraising, with a HK$1-billion scheme to match funds obtained from other sources.

The government will not comment on whether there will be additional cuts in the next three-year budget, but many researchers are concerned about the future. “A lot of young people don't know if their contracts will be renewed or what their career future will be in Hong Kong,” says Kathy Cheah, who heads the University of Hong Kong's biochemistry department.

But not everyone is being driven away by the budget problems. Lap-Chee Tsui took up the position of vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong last year after serving as chief geneticist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. “The main reason I came back was to contribute to the education sector. I didn't expect the budget situation to be as it is but I'm happy to be part of solving the problem,” he says.

“Even though it is a difficult economic time, I hope that the government won't be so short-sighted as to cut our roots so we can't grow in the future,” adds Tsui.