More than 200 applications have poured in from scholars and think tanks for a special government research grant to examine Hong Kong's ongoing civil unrest.
About a third have proposed studying the underlying causes of the anti-government protests and the participation of youth in policymaking, the Post has learned.
Approved projects will receive grants of up to HK$500,000 through the public policy research funding scheme managed by the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office (Pico), a strategic research unit that reports directly to city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
Pico unveiled the special round of public policy funding last November, inviting researchers from universities, think tanks and non-governmental organisations to submit proposals for in-depth research to help identify the underlying causes and solutions for Hong Kong's deep-seated problems.
It hoped the studies would provide "useful data and input" for an independent review committee proposed by Lam to break the political impasse.
Anti-government protests triggered by the now-withdrawn extradition bill last June are in their eighth month, and have morphed into a wider movement demanding greater democracy and police accountability.
Lam has rejected protesters' calls for an independent inquiry to look into allegations of police brutality, and instead floated the idea of a review committee to look at the reasons for the crisis.
The special research grant attracted an overwhelming response by the deadline for applications in December.
An academic source, who is on the panel vetting the applications, said: "About a third are on the underlying causes of the protests and the participation of youth in policymaking."
Pico suggested 12 research topics, including the underlying causes of the unrest, the public's attitude to violence and the calls of "perishing together" with the authorities, the city's governance and constitutional development, public participation in policymaking process, orientation of youth and school education, impact of social media, public mental health, and communication and conflict among family and friends.
The source said the panel could make its choices by February or March. It is not known how many grants will be given, but successful applicants will be expected to complete their projects within six months.
Pico declined to disclose the number of applications.
Political scientists on the selection panel cautioned that the research scheme could not be expected to deliver any quick fixes to the city's problems.
"It is only meant to facilitate discussion, but may not provide solutions," said Cheung Kwok-wah, from Open University.
To find solutions, he said, both sides across the political divide had to be willing to engage in dialogue.
"We are in a situation where even when some want to have dialogue, there's no collective will in society to proceed with the dialogue," Cheung said.
City University's Ray Yep Kin-man said even if the research helped to identify the causes of Hongkongers' grievances, it could not resolve the city's political problem.
"The studies have to be completed by September, but can we sit on the crisis till September? If we need to wait so many months, we will pay a higher price," he said.
Professor of politics Linda Li Che-lan, also from City University, said while research could provide evidence to improve ongoing and future policymaking, the government should not delay finding a solution to the political crisis.
She noted that despite criticism, the government had insisted on setting up an independent review committee rather than a commission of inquiry.
"The government should not wait, it should launch the review sooner rather than later," she said.
"But the government cannot shy away from the issue of police operations, or it will not be able to appease the public. It will also be unfair to the police, who are only executing the government's policy."
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