The UAE’s academic research output has increased 16-fold over the past two decades but still has room for expansion, a new study has found.
Researchers said the growth of existing universities in the country combined with the opening of new institutions had helped drive the increase.
The report’s authors suggested that while they had expected to see a rise in the amount of research undertaken, they had not anticipated the extent of the spike.
But they noted that even though output was up, the range of studies remained heavily skewed in favour of engineering, energy and environmental sciences.
“In retrospect, I wouldn’t have expected [a] 16-fold [increase],” said Prof Alawi Alsheikh-Ali, provost of the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences and one of the paper’s authors.
“But the most interesting finding in the growth chart is if you look at the actual growth, the slope becomes steeper over the past five years or so.
“There’s been growth over the past 20 years. That growth has been accelerating in the last five to 10 years.”
The new research, detailed in the scientific journal Heliyon, looked at how many papers were published between 1998 and 2017 by UAE institutions.
Using Scopus, described as the world’s largest database of peer-reviewed literature, academics found that in 1998 there were 380 publications released.
By comparison, however, there were 6,159 research papers published in 2017, 16 times more than in 1998. Scopus covers 40,000 English-language journals.
Prof Alsheikh-Ali said a likely explanation was not just that there were now more universities in the UAE, but that they were more research-intensive.
“There’s been more emphasis on benchmarking the performance of these higher education institutions using international rankings,” he said.
In The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain was the top-ranked UAE institution, earning a spot between the 301st and 350th university worldwide.
Meanwhile, Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi was ranked second among Emirates universities, coming 351st to 400th worldwide.
Another global ranking, the QS World University Rankings, named six top universities in the Emirates.
UAE University, the American University of Sharjah, Khalifa University, the American University in Dubai, Sharjah University and Zayed University were all among the top 750 in the world. Research output is a key factor in determining such rankings.
Prof Alsheikh-Ali’s research found that in 1998 more than half of published UAE research covered medicine and life sciences, while in 2017 the biggest category was engineering, energy and environmental sciences, which accounted for about 30 percent of papers.
Fields such as the humanities and social sciences were much less well represented, however, although the paper did not include figures for how much research they account for.
When adjusted for the country’s population growth, the UAE’s research output jumped six-fold, rather than 16-fold, between 1998 and 2017, the study said.
When adjusted for gross domestic product (GDP), it increased three-fold.
In 2017, there were around 655 publications from the Emirates per million inhabitants, approximately the same as the average for Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and two to three times the average for League of Arab States nations.
The researchers also compared research output in the UAE to that in several individual countries.
When adjusted for population, the UAE’s output was about the same as Saudi Arabia’s, four-fold lower than Ireland’s and six-fold lower than Singapore’s. Adjusted for GDP, the UAE’s research output was lower than all three nations.
“Adjustment for GDP gives you a sense that there’s potential for future growth if we continue to put more investment in research and development in the UAE,” said Prof Alsheikh-Ali.
“Ireland and Singapore have been investing in research and development for much longer than the UAE with universities that have been around for much longer than the UAE [universities].”
Increased spending on research and development in the Emirates would likely have knock-on effects for GDP growth, he added.
The authors also highlighted actions that the UAE has taken to promote research, including appointing, in late 2017, a Minister of State for Advanced Sciences, who chairs the Council of Scientists.