Published online 16 January 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.37

News: Q&A

Hong Kong inaugurates Institute for Advanced Study

Nature talks to university president Paul Chu about his vision of a 'mecca for great scholars'.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) last week inaugurated a new Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), intended to be a global player in science and technology research. The site of the new institute currently boasts little more than commemorative trees, but building work is expected to begin by summer this year.

Paul ChuPaul Chu, president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.HKUST

The inauguration marks the culmination of a long effort by Paul Chu, president of the HKUST, to create a centre modelled on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Nature talked to him about his hopes for the institute, and his plans for the future.

Why are you creating the institute?

The idea started in 2005, 14 years after the official opening of the HKUST, when we developed the 'HKUST Strategic Plan 2005-2020'. It's based on four principles: to continue our search for excellence; to build on what we have accomplished over the past 15 years; to enhance our relationship with the mainland; and to further strengthen our relationships with the West. Based on these four principles, we developed the IAS, and it has received wide support from Hong Kong.

We would like to see the IAS become one of the intellectual centres in the world. Unlike the Princeton IAS, which only does fundamental and theoretical work, we would also like to do applied science and experimental work. We want to become a mecca for great scholars.

Who will work there?

Our visiting faculty includes, for example, Aaron Ciechanover, one of the 2004 Nobel laureates in chemistry; Shuji Nakamura, the inventor of the blue laser; Michael Atiyah, who has run workshops on frontier mathematics here; George Papanicolaou and Roland Glowinski, both renowned mathematicians; Robert Austin who is looking into microfluidics; Patrick Lee, one of the winners of the 2005 Dirac prize in physics, who is working with our theory groups; Yuen-ron Shen from University of California at Berkeley, who is working with our Physics Department to develop some opto-electronic devices; and Paul Schimmel from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who came here to set up a joint lab with our faculty members and also brought in the venture capital to set up companies.

When we reach our full steady state, we will have about 10 permanent members and 20 visiting members; about 40 associate members who will come from our local sister institutions and from the region; and 60 postdoctoral fellows, all young rising stars. We would like to generate the same impact as the Princeton IAS, training young people who will later become leaders of their own fields all over the world.

What support has the Hong Kong government provided?

treesThe inauguration of the Institute for Advanced Study in Hong Kong was held on 5 January 2009.HKUST

It is helping to fund the construction costs. Building the IAS will cost close to HK$280 million (US$33.5 million). The government has committed close to HK$190 million, and we had to raise an additional HK$90 million. Right now, we have essentially got the money in hand.

The government also gave us seed money for the first 3 years. In our steady state, 45% of our operation budget will come from the university, government and industry. The rest will come from an endowment, which we hope will reach about HK$1.2 billion.

What is the relationship between research in Hong Kong and mainland China?

Hong Kong is a window of contact with the outside world. Even though China is opening up, if we look at the information flow and the freedom of flow, I think no other city can compete with Hong Kong, and I think China recognizes this.

When the IAS was being developed and its concept conceived, I had contacted the top leadership in China and they were all very excited about the possibilities. Last July, I met Wan Gang, China's Minister of Science and Technology — he would really like to see Hong Kong develop into a global high-tech centre. The IAS will help not only Hong Kong, but also China.

You finish your term as president in September. What's next for you?

I am going back to the United States. Even though I have been here close to 8 years now, I still run my research group there. I am going to tackle three new initiatives. The first initiative is to form an international consortium in the search for superconductivity at room temperature. Second, I will be in charge of a small endowment fund, purely for material physics, and try to define the future development of materials in the world.

The third initiative is my personal pet project. Over the past 22 years, we have spent a lot of effort studying high-temperature superconductivity, and we would like to enhance its impact on our daily lives. So I came up with the idea of using high-temperature superconductivity technologies to build low-cost MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] machines. Right now it costs US$1.5 million and up, and is beyond the reach of those in developing countries. If we can build a MRI machine within US$300,000, we will have a system that can serve more people. 

Felix Cheung is editor of Nature China .

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