UN calls for a regional 'patent culture'
Researchers in the Middle East spend too much time searching for project funding and their work is rarely patented or developed commercially, according to a report published by the UN's education arm.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), in its 2010 Science Report, also noted the small number of scientific publications, co-publications and articles coming from Arab countries.
In 2008, only 71 of the 158,000 US patents granted worldwide were to people in Arab countries, according to the US Patents and Trademark Office. Nine were granted to UAE residents listed as the first-named inventor.
"In the majority of Arab states, intellectual property regimes are very weak, providing little protection for the output of scientists," the Unesco report said.
"A patent culture being almost non-existent, researchers often come up against a blank wall when attempting to commercialise or otherwise develop their research output."
Few of the region's researchers were internationally recognised, the report said. There is only one among the world's top 100 highly cited scientists - a biologist in Algeria.
The report called the region's research policies and strategies "too ambitious or ambiguous". With the bulk of research done in universities, scientists are required to take on heavy teaching loads and are forced to actively pursue funding for their projects, it said.
"Universities should be producers of research, not investors. The lack of a science culture in turn leads to a lack of appreciation for science."
Meanwhile, there is little capacity in the Middle East to mentor or absorb new graduates, and thousands of scientists and engineers leave the region to work in other parts of the world.
Rory Hume, the provost of United Arab Emirates University, said that while the university did not have trouble retaining graduates, a lack of government funding had held back the country's research capability. UAE University was listed in the report as the main source of the country's research.
"There is certainly a need for a higher level of investment, and through competitive grant processes for research we could quickly assist in changes such as helping the country to become less dependent on hydrocarbons," Dr Hume said.
The report called for better links between universities and industry rather than research for academic purposes alone, and pointed out that countries need to choose carefully between focusing on basic sciences and investing in demand-driven research.
Individual countries should co-ordinate their research and synchronise their strengths to optimise funding, the report said.
While the UAE and several other countries have research strength in clinical medicine, countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria are strong in chemistry, while Syria leans to animal science and Qatar has research expertise in engineering.
"If meaningful regional collaboration is to develop beyond individual scientists working together on small research projects and publishing joint research work, some uniformity needs to be established among the institutions responsible for science in the Arab region," the report said.
Gautam Sen, the vice provost of research at the American University of Sharjah, agreed.
"Collaboration between scientists with overlapping interests and different strengths and backgrounds could help create a knowledge-based environment that the West has honed so well for so long," he said.
While this collaboration would be worthwhile in terms of funding, "at the moment, we don't have the level of agreement between governments to take a more co-ordinated approach to research and development," Dr Hume said.