Reaching for the Skies: Research Management in the Middle East

16 Jan 2015

Last weekend I made a trip up the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It was hard not to be impressed, not only by the view, but also at the sheer ambition needed to conceive and execute its construction. At 828m tall, the Burj Khalifa holds virtually all the records going for tall buildings, and is nearly 300m higher than the world’s second tallest building, Toronto’s CN Tower.

I had travelled to the Middle East region to run a workshop, in partnership with Liquid Learning, for a number of university research leaders and managers who are seeking to increase their institution’s research profile. Dubai’s ambitions, and those of other countries in the region, increasingly extend beyond oil, infrastructure and tourism to embrace scientific research and the knowledge economy.

Dubai from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa (c) Rob Johnson 2015

Research and development has not been a priority in the Islamic World in recent years. A 2010 report by the Royal Society found that the 57 countries in the organisation of Islamic Conference spent just 0.38% of their GDP on research and development, less than a quarter of the global average of 1.7%. With only about 400 researchers per million people, against a global average of over 1,500, the Middle East and North Africa region accounts for 4% of global GDP, but just 2% of global expenditure of R&D.

There are also significant cultural and political barriers to increasing the level of research activity in the region’s universities.  My discussions during the course of the workshop identified a wide range of challenges, including:

  • Faculty members who often lack postgraduate qualifications and have heavy teaching loads, making it difficult for them to develop a research profile even where they wish to do so (many don’t).
  • The most talented young researchers being lured to the US or Europe.
  • Highly mobile senior researchers, often recruited from the West, who move between institutions much more frequently than in the US or Europe.  Some Middle Eastern institutions can pay well enough to attract internationally prestigious researchers from overseas, but retaining them in the region for the longer term is often another matter.
  • An education system that tends to prioritise rote learning over critical thinking.
  • A combination of public institutions which lack autonomy and are often subject to significant interference from the State, and private institutions who often lack the incentive to engage in such a costly and uncertain activity as research.
  • Low absorptive capacity within the wider economy, with very little R&D being undertaken by the private sector, with the exception of petrochemicals industry. Even in this case, large multinationals and even state-owned oil companies are far more likely to look to the West for academic collaborators than to the region’s own universities.
  • Research funding commitments by public bodies that are often reneged upon, and nearly always subject to the vagaries of annual budget rounds.

Much still needs to change, then, if the region’s ambitions for research and development are to be realised, but there are grounds for optimism. Qatar, for example, has set an ambitious target of investing 2.8% of its GDP on research and development by 2015, while developments such as KAUST in Saudi Arabia and the Masdar Initiative in Abu Dhabi have rapidly garnered international recognition. A glance at the world university rankings shows Middle Eastern institutions are still poorly represented, with only a handful of mostly Saudi institutions making it into the top 400 in the three main rankings, but they are gaining ground.   QS introduced a dedicated ranking for the Arab region for the first time in 2014, placing King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM) at the top.

The advances being made are not without controversy, and there have been a number of cases of Saudi universities appearing to use their financial clout to buy academic prestige.  This may account in part for the incredibly rapid growth in publication numbers at institutions such as King Abuldaziz University, as shown below.

Source: Scopus

Source: Scopus

Nevertheless, the desire to increase research capacity and capability in the region is genuine, and there is a growing commitment to the long-term investment and cultural change required to deliver this.  There are encouraging signs, too, in the region’s efforts to make its universities more commercial and outward-facing.  Several recent studies, compiled in the 2013 book The Real Issues of the Middle East and the Arab Spring, make for particularly interesting reading.  In the developed world, for example, the most entrepreneurial faculty tend to be older, male and with established track records – suggesting commercialisation is seen as a luxury in which academic staff are only permitted to indulge once they have ‘made it’ in their academic career. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, it is younger scientists who are most likely to set up companies, and nor is this the preserve of men, with women equally likely to be involved in entrepreneurial activity.   Overall levels of entrepreneurial activity remain low by Western standards, but is clear that the seeds of change are starting to take root.

It is easy to attribute the Middle East region’s rapid economic growth in the past decades to oil wealth and a fortuitous geographical location, halfway between Europe and Asia.   Certainly these have played their part, but scratch beneath the surface, however, and there is much more to it than that. Dubai, for example, has virtually exhausted its limited oil reserves, and now generates barely 2% of its GDP from that source, with the majority coming from tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services.  These are societies that in some respects appear to demand everything bigger, faster and now, but are also not afraid to invest for the long term.

Developing the infrastructure and institutional culture for universities to conduct truly world class research is the work of decades – if not centuries, in the case of the world’s very oldest and most prestigious universities.   Yet who would have guessed a couple of decades ago that the world’s tallest building in the early 21st century would be found not in North America, Europe or even China, but Dubai? So as the Middle East turns its attention to investing in science and research, do not be surprised to see the region’s universities play an increasingly important role in the global race for knowledge.