Research Interrupted in Hong Kong Amid Protests
Research Interrupted in Hong Kong Amid Protests

Research Interrupted in Hong Kong Amid Protests

While short-term disruptions are manageable, scientists say, they are still concerned the unrest—and possible political ramifications—will affect the country’s research programs long-term.

Nov 22, 2019
Abby Olena

ABOVE: The crowd at a rally against the proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019
© ISTOCK.COM, LEWISTSEPUILUNG

This time of year, Daniel Chu, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, and his colleagues would typically be visiting local live poultry markets weekly and collecting fecal samples from domestic and wild birds to monitor the spread of influenza virus. But now, with some of those markets in areas that have been rocked by clashes between pro-democracy protestors and police—conflict that’s ramped up over the last two weeks—the researchers have suspended most of their surveillance for the time being.

In addition to not having the samples they need, most of Chu’s colleagues can’t get to work, as protestors have disrupted the country’s transportation system by erecting roadblocks and destroying some of the elevators and tracks that serve the Mass Transit Railway. According to The Guardianpolice have also blocked roads and used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to contain protestors, most recently at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) where tensions peaked this week.

“The situation in Hong Kong is very worrying,” Chu tells The Scientist. “We hope that [it] can be stabilized soon,” he adds, acknowledging that his building, which is distant from the main campus of HKU, has been mostly out of the fray.

Science reported Tuesday (November 19) that the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have also avoided damage to lab buildings and loss of experimental animals. Despite this good news, researchers in Hong Kong say they are worried the conflict will nevertheless leave a lasting detrimental effect on science in the region.

The impact on long-term research may be in the recruitment of both students and faculty members who may view negatively the stability and safety of Hong Kong.

—Anonymous biologist, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

“In the short term, we have to move things around to compensate for delays, [but] lots of timelines are recoverable or under control,” a staff scientist at one of Hong Kong’s universities tells The Scientist. They asked for anonymity based on hesitation about how their supervisor would respond to their comments. “In the long term, there is so much uncertainty looming. There is no way of telling if this situation will resolve soon, or whether large-scale disruptions will continue. I worry about how it will impact the morale of students.” 

Jonathan Cybulski, a graduate student in coral biology at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), says that students—particularly undergraduates—are seeing the effects of instability on their work and education. Most of the effects he’s felt to his projects are minor and logistical: it might take a little bit longer to get to a field site or there has been a greater need to plan ahead to rent a boat. And though protestors occupied HKU last week, he says that it was possible for researchers to still work safely if they could get to campus, and that most of the protestors had moved on to PolyU by the weekend.

But the undergraduate researchers have been hit especially hard, he says. Most universities have cancelled classes for the rest of the semester, and the transit issues mean they’re unable to make it in to work on their final year projects, which are similar to an undergraduate thesis. “We had two [undergraduates] in particular who had just started experiments when all this happened and then they were unable to get to campus. Those projects have either completely stalled, or we’re trying to keep them alive” until they can return.

Now, Cybulski has questions about “the longevity of the country as a whole, but also the country’s reputation as a great research area,” he says, adding that it might be more difficult to draw people in to do research alongside continued instability, which could mean a loss of the ability to investigate the types of questions that Hong Kong’s biodiversity makes possible.

“The impact on long-term research may be in the recruitment of both students and faculty members who may view negatively the stability and safety of Hong Kong,” agrees a biologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who asked to remain anonymous in an email to The Scientist. “Hong Kong science will only thrive if it remains internationally connected,” they add.

Those international connections are also of concern to a researcher at HKU, who chose to remain anonymous out of concern for how his comments would be publically perceived. “We don’t know how the flow of information and the flow of technology between us and the rest of the world will be affected” if the Chinese government exerts stronger control over Hong Kong in the future, he says. “For doing research, it’s crucial for us to have free flow of information.”

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997 when Britain handed over the small country’s sovereignty to China. Since then, Hong Kong citizens have lived under what’s known as the Basic Law, which grants the rights of freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, among others, and establishes a legal system independent from that of mainland China.

According to the BBC, members of Hong Kong’s government introduced a bill in April that would have allowed for the extradition of accused lawbreakers to mainland China, an action that kicked off the current protests. In September, the bill was withdrawn, but pro-democracy voices say that other freedoms are in danger. 

A postdoc at a university in Hong Kong, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that speaking out would influence their research collaborations and funding, tells The Scientist that the long-term ramifications of the protests and resulting policy changes could be both positive and negative. China has recently made policy steps toward research integration of Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area, which includes mainland cities such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou. These connections could allow for greater sample and data sharing, which could benefit research projects, they say. On the other hand, the government withdrew funding earmarked for PolyU after the violence peaked there this week, raising concerns that it could further limit funding to individuals and institutions should unrest continue.

“Most of us aren’t worried about our science,” a biologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which saw violent interactions between protestors and police last week, writes in an email to The Scientist. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, they preferred to remain unnamed. “We are worried about the safety of our students and colleagues, and this worry is universal regardless of our political beliefs,” they add. “Scientific thought is a higher order process and thus it is not surprising that during a time of unrest it may go to the wayside. It just ceases to be the main priority.”

Abby Olena is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. Find her on Twitter @abbyolena.