x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

New direction for National Research Foundation

Appointment of former cultural attache at Washington embassy heralds a new focus.

DUBAI // The National Research Foundation, the federal funding body for research in the UAE, has named its new director.

Dr Hussam Al Ulama will step into the role on Sunday, after Dr Kenneth Wilson announced his departure yesterday to take the helm of Zayed University's Dubai campus. Mr Wilson will remain as an adviser to the foundation, set up in 2008.

Dr Al Ulama, who was a cultural attache at the UAE Embassy in Washington, helping UAE students studying in the US, admits he will have his work cut out in following a man he says has made huge progress at the foundation.

"It's a challenge for me but I will do my best to fulfil the needs of this position," he said. "It's very important that an Emirati does this role."

He now hopes to build greater links with other institutions, from universities to the government and private sector companies. "It needs a lot of communication," he said. "I think it helps to be Emirati."

He said the UAE needed to increase its research spending, which is less than 0.1 per cent of its gross domestic product.

"The time has come to put more emphasis on research," he said. "The percentage of GDP spent on research is still too low.

"Researchers need a good budget and support to carry out research which is needed to give indicators to the decision makers, who can't get the vision of the country without this research."

The foundation has embarked on an investigation into young Emiratis' aspirations, their experience in the justice system, unemployment among the young and the competitiveness of the economy.

The foundation is to award grants worth Dh400,000 to various projects.

Researchers at the American University of Sharjah, UAE University, the Higher Colleges of Technology and Zayed University, will lead the effort, which will result in a policy to be published in January.

"This is a national project, not just Dubai and Abu Dhabi," said Dr Wilson. It's estimated that unemployment is about 15 per cent but in some areas it is much higher. This research will look at the Emiratis who are falling through the cracks."

Maha Kortoom, a researcher at the foundation, said Dr Wilson had done a great deal for research and development in the country, not least in raising awareness of the importance of funding research and building partnerships with universities.

"He's very established and it's a big role for Dr Al Ulama to fill," she said.

"But from day one, I've said it's very important for us to have Emirati leadership as well."

Ingrid Liekens, the executive assistant at the foundation, said: "The simple fact that he will be meeting people who speak the same language and have the same cultural understanding will help a lot."

New research will focus on areas that until now have not been considered a priority. "It will lead to policies and legislation which will help resolve social problems," said Ms Kortoom .

The Government has increasingly turned to the foundation, with the Ministry of Finance announcing this month that it would fund research into marriage, divorce and the family, economic diversification and competitiveness and sustainability.

And this new focus has also been welcomed by researchers outside the foundation.

Dr Natasha Ridge, the head of research at Al Qassimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, said: "It's of vital importance to the country's development and to effective and sustainable policy making to understand its people and their needs and what motivates them in terms of issues like education and the economy."

mswan@thenational.ae