Sharjah recently commenced construction of a science park that is to bring together investors, companies and scientists, as part of the emirate’s drive to become a knowledge economy.
Its proximity to Sharjah’s University City, which includes 17 educational institutions and 35,000 students, underlines the pivotal role that the management envisages for university-led research.
However, if you take the time to browse the websites of university professors, rather than seeing the exciting, commercially-relevant technologies that are the heart of a knowledge economy, such as nano-robots or advanced artificial intelligence, you are more likely to see mundane investigations into the chemical properties of an obscure metal. These abstract studies that have little or no commercial application are collectively known as basic science, and they form the bulk of what university scientists produce.
Should this be a concern for Sharjah’s government? By seeking to grant university scholars an essential role in the science park’s mission, are authorities risking the creation of a research white elephant full of eclectic scholars studying useless phenomena?
The answer is “no”, for several reasons.
The simplest one is that in certain domains, applied research flows out of basic research; think of all the useful applied physics, such as nuclear energy, that is derived from abstract pure mathematics. In this sense, the basic research can be considered a critical link in the production chain for commercial R&D.
However, this reasoning is a bit of a red herring, because in practice, the basic research that Sharjah’s scientists will produce will be a minuscule contribution to global basic research, which is mostly freely available (once the academic journal subscription fees have been paid). More importantly, Sharjah’s applied research will use very little of its basic research as an input, depending almost completely on the basic research produced by the thousands of other research institutions operating around the world. Why not just focus on applied research in Sharjah and piggyback on the basic research of Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, etc?
This is where the other reasons come in to play.
First, the main reason university scientists pursue basic research is that it is more enjoyable and earns them more respect in the profession because they are actually allowed to publish and share it, unlike applied R&D, which is kept secret to maintain its commercial value. That’s why scientists – especially the best ones – prefer inventing calculus to inventing a tablet PC, even if the resulting financial windfall is modest.
However, elite scholars are willing to tolerate commercial R&D if you allow them to do basic science on the side, so that they can still be celebrities in their academic specialisation. Therefore, if Sharjah wants to attract top scientists and task them with producing high-quality R&D, it has correctly surmised the need to allow them to undertake “useless” basic research.
Second, producing commercial R&D requires getting up to speed on the cutting-edge research in a very narrow field. However, reading academic journals and reverse-engineering new technologies requires significant background knowledge in basic science – if you try reading a copy of the scientific journal Nature, you will find that most articles are incomprehensible. The only way to acquire the necessary background, and to be invited to the conferences where these technologies are shared and discussed, is to produce valuable research yourself. Thus, conducting and publishing basic research is a membership fee that scientists pay to access the existing body of knowledge, and their PhD is their initiation, reinforcing Sharjah’s emphasis on placing its universities at the center of its R&D efforts.
You cannot build effective commercial R&D in isolation – it has to be integrated with a basic science infrastructure. Sharjah is on the right path.
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