Investors wary of university research

Social and economic investment is the key to developing a skilled workforce, but studies show the private sector needs some cajoling.

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AL AIN // Persuading sceptical investors to fund university research is the biggest stumbling block to the emirate's drive to develop a knowledge-based economy, academics have warned. Trying to convince businesses and politicians to invest in social and economic research remains a struggle, and without financing the way ahead will not be easy, said Dr Abdullah al Khanbashi, the vice chancellor of UAE University.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said on Tuesday that the scientific research budget for government universities was "weak". He went on to announce ambitious plans to raise the international rankings of UAE universities. The budget for scientific research at UAE University and Zayed University is Dh40 million, Sheikh Nahyan revealed. This compares to US$680 million (Dh2.49bn) at Harvard University.

UAE University in Al Ain, which is ranked among the top 400 universities in the world, is working towards becoming the country's first research-based institution. Sheikh Nahyan said the ministry wanted to see the university break into the top 100. Raising financing for research is hampering this effort, said Dr al Khanbashi. "Research doesn't mean the same to someone in the UAE or the region as it does in the West," he said.

"People in this region don't yet understand what a research university is, and its impact on society. To them, research is being in a lab mixing things together, but what it is, is research being linked to the economy, the social issues of a country." At a time when federal university budgets are being tightened, and based on the number of students enrolled, UAEU's funding does not yet cover research, an issue that is up for discussion in the next budget cycle. "If politicians and businessmen believe in research, the money will come," said Dr al Khanbashi.

Earlier this month, the Abu Dhabi Education Council announced it would pump Dh4.9bn per year into research and development across the Emirates by 2018. The grants will be distributed using a competitive tender process. Anna Vignoles, from the Institute of Education in London, said advances in technology mean an increasing demand for skilled workers, so it made sense for countries to invest in education, training and post-graduate education,

"There is also evidence that the social return of research and development is high, suggesting state investment is beneficial," she said. "More crucially, the social benefit exceeds the benefit to private firms." If left alone, firms tend to underinvest in research, necessitating action by governments, said Ms Vignoles. In the US, the government invests 2.5 per cent of its gross domestic product into research. In the UK, 1.8 per cent of GDP is spent on research and development, one-third of that funded by government.

Although there are no specific figures for the UAE, in the Arab world research investment by governments has been pegged at just 0.3 per cent, she said. The first of UAEU's research institutions, the Global Health Institute, will launch over the next year. Others in the pipeline include one devoted to social policy research. In February the university's provost, Prof Rory Hume, announced that over time it might cut up to 200 university jobs to boost research funding. This could equate to seven per cent of its total 1,073 staff.