x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

University calls for Dubai research institute

A Scottish university will seek Government and industry funds to establish a research institute in Dubai.

ABU DHABI // A Scottish university will seek Government and industry funds to establish a research institute in Dubai that could specialise in areas such as energy, infrastructure, transport, the environment and climate change. Heriot-Watt University has proposed creating the institute at its campus in Dubai International Academic City which, like most universities in the country, now focuses on teaching rather than research.

The proposed institute would match the UAE's "international connectivity" with the "building of local capability", said Prof Brian Smart, the Dubai campus's executive dean. "To make something like this happen would require injections of capital from industry or government or both. We would need both. Teaching is just about sustainable with fees, but research needs to be supported. You gain value with research because of the technology that goes back into the economy. In most developed countries, the government recognises this and puts a substantial amount into supporting research."

Middle Eastern countries lag behind more developed nations in spending on research and development. According to the Unesco Science Report 2005, the Arab states in the Middle East generate 1.2 per cent of the world's gross domestic product, but account for just 0.1 per cent of the world's spending on research and development. Officials have shown a desire to change that. In March, the Government launched the National Authority for Scientific Research with an annual budget of Dh100 million (US$27m).

Prof Smart, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said it would be relatively easy to "switch on" research if money were available, since the campus had experts from Heriot-Watt's home campus in Edinburgh. The proposed research centre would be called Dubai International Research Institute and the university plans to make a formal proposal to the Dubai authorities next year. "It's a concept. It's an outline proposal. We're developing it. We're testing the water with it. We need to optimise it so it fits the opportunities here," Prof Smart said.

"We see a substantial capability being developed here and one supported by an international network of experts coming here for project supervision and master classes." Prof Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice chancellor of Heriot-Watt, said the UAE had "a real opportunity" to establish itself as a research centre. "Because of its openness, it has industry already with which we can exchange knowledge. Using us as a way of building up research capability would be a really quick win," he said.

Before creating the institute, Heriot-Watt is looking to take on doctoral students who would carry out research. Up to now, foreign universities in the UAE have not offered such programmes, although several aim to do so. "We will look over the next year of at least having part-time PhDs. It would be a first. We'll focus on topics that involve desk-bound research like construction management and the built environment," Prof Muscatelli said.

The university would try to find industrial partners and build up "clusters" of expertise in areas such as energy, infrastructure, transport, the environment and climate change. Dr Warren Fox, chairman of the University Quality Assurance International Board, which licenses branch campuses in Dubai's free zones, said he "absolutely" wanted to see universities here focus on research. "Dubai needs this in areas you'd expect, such as health, energy, logistics and international management," he said. "We need research in a variety of other areas and we don't have high levels of research in institutions in the UAE.

"There are pockets, but by and large we haven't developed the capacity the UAE needs to be highly respected in higher education." The current focus, Dr Fox said, was to educate more people to degree level. dbardsley@thenational.ae