The most important research question is: where is the funding?
The recent announcement by the Emirates Foundation that it will fund 55 local research projects should be applauded. But in reality, overall funding for endemic research projects is still very limited in light of the economic prosperity in the UAE.
Part of the conundrum is the emphasis on research that focuses on local problems, which on the one hand makes it more relevant to the region. At the same time, there is a concern among UAE scholars who are trying to raise the profile of local institutions in international research fields. Some researchers argue that papers dealing with local issues are rarely published in top-tier international journals.
This is a major cause for concern. Research based on the local context is, wrongly, considered less valuable. Within the international academic community, there is a hegemony of accepted thinking generally based on research carried out in developed economies but not tested in other contexts.
In my own field of psychology of language, for example, there are accepted "truths" about how people search words and strings of letters. These stable search patterns are based on research conducted with the standard test fodder of western psychological studies - English-speaking university students - but they don't hold true for other people. When the majority of academic articles come from the US and other G8 countries, these misrepresentations are reinforced and perpetuated.
Just as local research is challenged on the international arena, we should ask the question: is western research always transferable to the Gulf? In the fields of social science, this is particularly relevant.
A major underlying explanation for the dominance of western research is economics. Wealthy societies are more able to invest in intellectual pursuits and research. There are plenty of lessons from history that support this. One argument is that Arab scholars lost their position as leaders in science and the pursuit of knowledge because of shifting wealth patterns. As European nations profited from the spoils of "voyages of discovery", in particular the conquest of South America that poured gold into the coffers of Spain, the influx of capital was used to fund the arts and scientific inquiry.
In the present day, differences in wealth and developed infrastructure can explain why some countries in Africa and Asia are not in the same league in terms of research. However, this is less true for Arab, particularly Gulf, countries.
The UAE should be in an enviable position to fund ground-breaking research that is relevant to the region. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Generally, the research output of Gulf countries is no better than other Arab countries lacking oil wealth.
What is the explanation? It seems to lie with the will to back research projects. In the area of education, there has been a dearth of proper funding. The talent is there, but robust research projects have difficulty finding funding. During my five years as the dean of education at the British University in Dubai, students in the master's programmes demonstrated a depth of talent to carry out high-level research, earning consistent praise from their examiners.
These research projects dealt with important local issues, which often challenged conventional ideas, but they were necessarily small in scale and limited in scope. Their potential could not be realised without expanding the projects, and that needed funding that was not forthcoming.
During those five years, the only organisation that provided research funding was the Emirates Foundation, and often grants were relatively small (typically about Dh25,000) by international standards. Neither private universities nor government departments extended broad research funding. While government ministries host research departments, typically these are confined to basic data collection, instead of the systemic research projects that could inform, for example, basic education policy.
The establishment of the National Research Foundation two years ago, with its promise of reasonable funding for individuals and research centres, was welcomed by the whole academic community. However, despite the rigorous evaluation of the projects submitted, the foundation is still waiting for budgetary approval. Projects like the centre for the study of bilingualism at Zayed University have since been abandoned.
There is a valid point that strained economic times limit what can be afforded. However, the track record when times were good was equally disappointing.
At heart, it is the culture of research that needs to be cultivated in Arab countries before funding will be forthcoming. This applies not only to encouraging individual research projects, but to the entire institutional framework that supports a research environment.
If local research does not immediately gain international recognition, this should not be a problem. Local forums and journals should be established to publish and learn from the findings. Proper funding, local peer review councils and the value of research to this society and the region - these should be the measures of the UAE's research environment. The time is past when we can rely on external benchmarks to tell us about ourselves.
Mick Randall is an educational consultant and former dean of education at the British University in Dubai
Published: December 29, 2010 04:00 AM