Building quality academic research institutions, a cornerstone of any diverse economy, takes political capital. It also takes cash, and lots of it. But as members of the Federal National Council learnt during a fact-finding mission to UAE University on Sunday, just how much cash is something of a mystery.
As The National reported yesterday, a top concern for regulators in the UAE in building quality research institutions is transparency and better budgeting. How is money being spent? Can it be spent more effectively? And how can funding build the types of research programmes that will allow Emirati students to excel in science, medicine and other research-heavy fields?
Sadly, members of FNC's education committee were not able to obtain answers to these questions. This, despite a mandate that allows them to inquire on such matters. Considering the growing importance of research in the country, FNC members wanted to know if the current budget is sufficient, or if the council should use its platform to push for an increase. The university's previous provost frequently made pleas for funds; the current head, Dr Mohamed Yousif, has not done so.
Home-grown research is becoming a strategic issue. Research centres and several academic institutes in the UAE have started to put more focus on research and invest more money to improve the quality, promoting the peer review process, for instance, and placing a premium on publishing in international journals.
And yet much work remains. In order to build a better quality of research in the country, research centres have to be ensured of a dedicated and consistent stream of funding. Public educational institutions should be able to justify how they spend their budgets - one goal of the FNC mission - but they should also be confident that fiscal authorities see their success as a priority. The long-term returns on investment in these institutions will be a higher percentage of highly-trained Emiratis working in skilled fields.
Research in most scientific disciplines is, by its nature, a long and deliberate process. Similarly, building a nation's research capacity takes planning and careful oversight. In coming weeks FNC members will visit Zayed University, Higher Colleges of Technology and other national research centres. Each should prepare now for some tough questions.