Encouragement of university research is essential for the nation's future, writes Mariam Al Hallami.
A knowledge economy begins with funding for research
The transformation from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based one is not only an important priority for UAE policymakers, it should be a priority for every individual in society.
The FNC began calling for more emphasis on research at UAE universities after its education committee found that in 2010 only 0.2 per cent of GDP was earmarked for research.
A knowledge-based economy is focused on the production and management of ideas, technology, data and information. It is much different to the current oil-based economy. The transformation from one to the other will include investment in building human capacity first before increasing budgets – and research is an important part of this.
“No research, no knowledge-based economy”, was the accurate assessment of Dr Mona Al Bahar, an FNC member from Dubai and the chairwoman of the education committee.
Building a knowledge-based economy is at the forefront and centre of Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030. And only with research can we successfully build an economic climate that is independent and sustainable.
If only 0.2 per cent of the GDP is being spent on research, this is clearly less than is needed to fulfil the ambition. And, even if funds are increased, a local knowledge-based economy is impossible if the knowledge production is imported or generated without the involvement of Emiratis.
My interest in research began during the third year of my BSc in Business Sciences (finance) degree at Zayed University, when I began to realise the obstacles innovators could face. During the summer of that year, I was able to learn basic research skills and was later able to publish a chapter in an international publication. The chapter, entitled From idea to innovation: a case study of R&D process in the UAE, allowed me to fully understand the obstacles that research faces locally.
The role that university professors play in building capacity is tremendous. However, it is important to keep in mind the cultural and social barriers that may exist between teachers and students. Some professors enjoy the involvement of students in their research projects, others choose to remain in their comfort zones and work independently.
According to Unesco, the Middle East and North Africa region accounts for only 0.7 per cent of world expenditure on research and development. Europe and America lead with 62 per cent, followed by Asia with 32 per cent.
While putting more money into research is necessary, it is even more important to put the money into creating and training more local researchers. A strong emphasis must be put on preparing a high calibre of researchers and on creating funding mechanisms that ensure the funds bring the outcomes we hope for.
Should we increase the funding for research? Definitely. Will more funding result in more research? Not necessarily. It is important to understand the process of research, what it takes to generate it, who is involved and how is it managed.
The higher education system in the UAE is fairly young. Much of the research that happens globally is based in postgraduate institutes with research-based degrees. Masdar Institute is the first and only postgraduate research-based institute in the UAE, but it only covers a few fields. This puts great pressure on other universities to advance their research programmes.
Before starting my degree abroad, I spent a year doing my master’s in educational leadership at Zayed University. I wanted to experience a research-intense degree but realised we were far behind, and that research literacy among masters students was very basic. I decided to transfer to the Institute of Education in the UK to challenge myself as a researcher with the aim of one day playing a role in improving research well-being in the UAE.
The fact that research has made its way to the FNC’s policy agenda gives hope to every Emirati inventor, innovator, thinker and researcher. We do have what it takes as a country. All we need is a clear strategy that involves increasing funds and developing a local framework for research to align our long-term goal with current strategies and decisions.
Mariam Al Hallami is an Emirati writer who has a master’s degree in education leadership and policy