The Region's Big Research Opportunity



Dr Anas Bataw
-Encouraging academic and corporate research can lead to innovations that boost the UAE economy, says Heriot-Watt University Dubai's Anas Bataw

Research and innovation have always been acknowledged as critical to fuelling long-term sustainable economic growth. 

In a study that sought to empirically estimate the impact of research and development (R&D) on economic growth in Singapore, the Cobb-Douglas-based analysis found that R&D investments had a significant impact on the nation's total productivity performance over the past 20 years. 

A recent study by Begum Erdil Sahin adds to the already wide breadth of economic literature affirming that investing in R&D increases economic growth. From a sample of 15 countries, including the US, she estimates that a 1 per cent increase in R&D spending could grow the economy by 0.61 per cent. 

This means that as countries invest more in R&D, their economy will grow faster.

A study by Strategy& Middle East shows that GCC countries can achieve an economic growth rate of 2.2 per cent by increasing their R&D spending by just 1 per cent.

At the same time, in general, R&D spending in GCC states is lower than the global averages.

UAE research landscape

R&D spending in the UAE amounts to 0.9 per cent of GDP. In recognition of this, and the enormous benefits that research can bring, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum launched the UAE National Innovation Strategy in October 2014 with the aim of making the UAE one of the most innovative nations in the world. 

Covering seven industries (renewable energy, transport, education, health, technology, water and space), the strategy seeks to develop an environment that promotes innovation by developing the right regulatory framework. This includes providing comprehensive enabling services, enhancing the technology infrastructure and ensuring the availability of investments and incentives. 

Despite the acknowledgment of the benefits that research can bring, there are several challenges in the region. 

The first is that the research base from which innovation and commercialisation can grow is weak. 

Next is the lack of research funding streams for non-UAE universities. There is also an absence of university forums to encourage participation in collaborative projects.

The Centre for World University Rankings, which uses criteria including research output and the number of research papers published in leading journals, states that UAE universities need to improve the quality of their research in order to move up global higher education rankings.

There is also a lack of clarity regarding available projects and selection criteria, as well as a general lack of industry interest, as several corporates execute their R&D abroad. And finally, too few partnerships with international researchers and inadequate intellectual property regulations make research a challenge in the region.

Shift in mindset

Yet there are encouraging initiatives across the UAE. In recent years, we have seen a shift in mindset, as well as the blooming of opportunities in this region. An example is Heriot-Watt University Dubai establishing a global Smart Construction hub for innovation, industry-led research and solutions development with industry and government partnerships. 

Similarly, at an industry level, Expo 2020 has launched the “Expo Live” programme to celebrate and promote creative solutions that improve lives.

At government level, the UAE's investment in innovation and research is increasing year on year – for example, the Abu Dhabi government has created an AED4bn ($1.09bn) fund to boost R&D in the UAE as part of its measures to increase GDP.

Most economists agree innovation can lead to higher productivity, more goods and services, and economic growth. How then, can we make this happen?

Historically, innovation and R&D have thrived when business, academia and the government collaborate to turn new ideas into profitable enterprises.  The best example is Silicon Valley, where federal government funding for universities in the 1990s helped to create an ecosystem that gave the world Google, Facebook and many other tech companies. 

In other words, real impact can be derived collectively rather than individually.

Funding should also be made available to attract international companies with R&D projects to be hosted within universities locally.

There should be a published calendar for open calls for research funding as well as programmes designed specifically to support emerging researchers, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) Innovation Fund and Saudi Aramco's Waed Ventures Fund. Both invested $2.6m in Sadeem, a wireless environmental sensing systems spinout company from Kaust and the world's first multi-patented sensor solution for flood, traffic, weather and air quality monitoring. 

And finally, innovation incubators and accelerators established throughout the UAE, such as the Dubai Future Accelerators programme, attract and support entrepreneurs and startup companies from all corners of the world and link them to local sponsors, purely with the objective of developing innovative technologies.