x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Scientific research brings big benefits

Increasing the amount of money the country spends on research and development would bring benefits across a range of fields

In its next set of sessions, the Federal National Council will debate why scientific research is being held back in this country. This is a vital topic for the future of the nation. If handled wisely, it could bring vast benefits in a range of fields.

To see how, consider the level of spending a country makes on research and development. This can be hard to measure accurately, partly because some of the spending will be in non-technical areas (university research on history and literature, for example), and partly because there will be a military component to R&D, which often isn’t reflected in the public data.

But R&D spending, normally expressed as a percentage of GDP, provides useful comparisons: some countries, like the United States and Japan, spend a lot (2.67 per cent and 3.45 per cent, respectively), others, like Jordan (0.34 per cent), comparatively little. But there is a correlation between R&D spending and economic development. Rich countries spend more.

When the business school Insead tried to quantify the UAE’s R&D spending last year, they came up with two figures, between 0.72 per cent and 2.45 per cent. If our spending were ever to touch, for example, 5 per cent of GDP, it would make the UAE the world’s leading proportional spender on R&D.

That, if it became a goal and a policy, would be immensely beneficial to the UAE’s future, especially if that R&D were focused on sectors where the UAE has or could have a comparative advantage.

In aerospace, Mubadala and Boeing have a major contract at a factory in Al Ain to build sections of airliners; Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City has emerged as a hub for innovation. And of course there is the energy sector, which, with oil and the potential for solar, could become a significant source of innovation, as well as a place for employees to gain extensive experience. In the UK, this phenomenon is known as the “Aberdeen effect”, referring to the increase in employment, investment and technical skills that came to the Scottish coastal city after the discovery of North Sea oil.

Something similar could easily occur in the UAE. But it will require a concerted push from government and industry. In tandem with events such as the Abu Dhabi Science Festival, that demystify science, a new generation can be fostered – one interested in science and with the educational and employment opportunities to pursue that interest.