x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Universities reveal funds strategy for research

College heads spell out why the UAE does not spend enough on study and development.

Aaron Schmidt, 29, a researcher, works on energy material characterisation in the lens lab at the Masdar Institute.
Aaron Schmidt, 29, a researcher, works on energy material characterisation in the lens lab at the Masdar Institute.

ABU DHABI // University chiefs have set out their first joint plan to obtain more funding for research.

The first white paper was yesterday released by the University Leadership Council, comprising the heads of the Masdar Institute, UAE University (UAEU), the American University of Sharjah, Khalifa University and Zayed University.

The paper will be presented to government and industry leaders to press a case that the UAE spends too little on research and development.

Only 0.4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product goes on research, compared with more than 3 per cent in Finland.

The council was formed in January to raise awareness of the need for this investment, and of the human capital at the nation's fingertips.

Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, the head of the Masdar Institute, said the group had been received well so far.

"Its success has been shown by the willingness of government and industry," Dr Moavenzadeh said. "Many local and international organisations and government agencies have been very receptive.

"At Masdar we've started four projects with Emal [Emirates Aluminium], a project on biofuel with Boeing and Etihad, and three or four projects with Siemens on smartgrids and smart buildings."

Titled Establishing a Research and Development Culture to Create a Knowledge Economy, it states that: "Government is the most important force in the creation of the research culture. Government sets the framework for how academia and industry engage in research.

"It guides the overall direction through priorities that it defines. It ensures alignment with those priorities through its control of incentives and funding.

"Furthermore, government has regulatory power to streamline and facilitate the market penetration of the results of research."

Dr Moavenzadeh said: "Now there is an awareness on the part of industry and government that they do need to do some level of research and development sponsorship to develop the manpower they need."

Prof Rory Hume, the provost of UAEU, said the council could count an increase in funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF), the Government's funding body for research, as an early success.

Since the start of the year, the NRF has been more actively funding projects at private and federal universities.

Although the individual grants are mostly small, about Dh200,000, they show the body's increased commitment to investing, said Prof Hume.

Prof Tod Laursen, head of the private Khalifa University in the capital, said the white paper acknowledged the UAE's rapid progress in recent years. It now had more than 100 universities and colleges.

Prof Laursen said young institutions such as his, which opened in 2008, needed to entrench their commitment to research early on, as it was hard to change later.

"We must have this vibrant culture in the early stages and it must be clearly articulated," he said.

Research and development funding is vital to the private Masdar Institute, said Dr Moavenzadeh.

"At MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], 75 to 80 per cent of its US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) comes from this," he said. "At Masdar, we have managed to raise 25 per cent of our funds for our research. Government plays a very small role in this but it is not one single source. Industry plays a much stronger role. We only have the NRF support so far."

By contrast, only 1 per cent of the American University of Sharjah's revenue comes from research grants.

"You don't want to grow too quickly," said its chancellor, Dr Peter Heath, "but the universities here could absorb three to four times the funding they're receiving now."

The paper lays out the importance of industry: "Academia cannot rely on internal or government funding alone for its research, nor can academia working alone ensure the relevance to market of its new ideas."

Dr Heath hopes better communication can open up sources of funding.

"We have to be pro-active," he said. "It's a process of communication and building awareness and expectation."

mswan@thenational.ae