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Essential Nutrition for Knowledge Economies: Research

LONDON—The cliché about Arab education is that it’s based on lectures, with little classroom participation.

So when I go to an Arab education conference, I expect passive people listening to long speeches, with little debate.

I’m happy to say that this expectation has, for the most part, been proved wrong.

Lately, it was proved wrong at the Gulf Education Conference, held in London on March 31 and April 1.  At the meeting, there were challenges from the floor, critical comments, tough questions and—big shock—criticism of government policies.

One of the stronger themes at the conference was research—more specifically, the lack of it.

Sultan Abu-Orabi, president of the Association of  Arab Universities and an organic chemist by training, put a new perspective on the much-discussed problem with some numbers.  The Arab region he said, has 500 scientific researchers for every million people, while the Western average is about 6,000 researchers per million.

The patents in the region are .07 percent of the world’s patents awarded, said Franco Vigliotti, dean of EPFL Middle East, in the United Arab Emirates, part of Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, in Switzerland.

Research isn’t just “nice to have,” he said. It nurtures multinational companies, creates startup ventures, and grows employment.  One of the best ways to grow research inside a country, he said, is counter intuitive: Open your borders up to foreigners. In Switzerland, he said, 80 percent of the Ph.D. students come from outside the country but 70 percent stay inside the country to build its research capacity.

Gulf countries, he said, need to import large numbers of researchers if they are to fulfill their research ambitions and become knowledge economies. Qatar needs an additional 10,000 researchers, he estimates, Saudi Arabia, 115,000.

In many Gulf countries, he said, 90 percent of the foreign interests present are there for oil and gas.  If those natural resources went away, the foreign investment would leave.  Research will build diversity into Gulf economies.

To bolster research, Gulf governments need to learn that they must make long-term commitments. Throwing up new buildings or buying new equipment is not enough.  Scientists will need operational budgets. The pay-off for basic research is notoriously long term.

Vigliotti urged conference attendees to reach out to the Arab diaspora.  “Thousands of scientists would love to come back to the region,” he said. “They are hiding in labs in the U.S. and hiding in labs in Europe just waiting for a chance to come home. “

While no one at the conference opposed research, some did express the desire to tailor it to the region. “We can’t just do research for the sake of research, “ said one attendee. “We have urgent societal needs.”

Another complained that, in Egypt, Western-trained scientists come back to the country with interests irrelevant to the local context. Then they chase European research support that also pulls them away from Egyptian needs.

Setting that criticism aside, if research becomes more widespread in the region, other changes will need to take place if the research is to bloom into start-up companies. Since an estimated 70 percent of start-up companies fail, some Arab researchers will need to overcome a fear of potential public failure before they take the plunge to start a new company.  Better bankruptcy laws may be needed to protect investors, particularly Western investors, in start-up companies, so they will have confidence they will be protected if a start-up company  closes its doors.

But despite all of the tough talk at the conference, the outlook was, in general, optimistic. “We might not have a big budget for research,” said one attendee from Kuwait. “A lot of issues might not be cheerful. But we believe we will have a better future.”

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