You don't need an advanced university degree, nor a Dh80,000 microscope, to perceive the value of research. The science and technology that have transformed human existence in the last 200 years flow from the world's laboratories.
But the research cornucopia has also produced a paradoxical difficulty: as scientists learn more about physics, chemistry, materials and so on, they specialise increasingly. As the saying goes, within each discipline individual researchers now know more and more about less and less. And so research grows more costly.
Around the world, corporations invest billions in research and development, particularly in specialised fields such as pharmaceuticals. But universities remain the principal centres of "pure" or basic research.
Administrators and governments constantly recalibrate the balance between the two main roles of universities: teaching the young and providing a workbench for experiments. Many schools combine the two roles, and professors almost everywhere are encouraged to pursue their own original projects. But certain research universities focus on ground-breaking experiments and advanced degrees, while teaching universities concentrate on preparing high-school graduates for white-collar work through bachelors' degrees or the equivalent.
There is, naturally, competition for resources. In the UAE, as The National reports today, many in the university community are bemoaning a shortage of money for research. Indeed, this country spends just one tenth of 1 per cent of its gross domestic product on research; the US spends 25 times as much, proportionally, and Japan over 30 times as much.
It is time to do more. The UAE's 41st National Day is a fine opportunity to consider the challenges of the next 41 years, and beyond. As the global "knowledge economy" accelerates, research intensity will increasingly be seen as a key indicator of national success and potential.
Building a world-class research culture would help in diversifying the economy, and would provide role models for ambitious young people. As Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the President, said in his national address yesterday, the development of human capital remains a fundamental priority for the country as a whole.
As in any other field, careful planning is needed to make every dirham count. And then day-to-day operation of our universities will have to change to put a premium on research. For example, if some professors have their teaching loads reduced to allow for more lab time, how can that process be managed best and most fairly?
Building a world-class academic research culture is a high-priority challenge, but one with few risks and immense potential rewards.