THE LONG VIEW: Use science to reinvent destiny

This journey began in 2014 when the UAE government set up the National Science, Technology and Innovation Committee and announced its interplanetary aspirations.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Sat 20 Feb 2021, 9:10 PM

The Hope probe’s entry into the Martian orbit marked a historic time stamp not just for the UAE but also for the Arab region, indeed for all of humanity. We will have new knowledge about weather cycles and climate change on Mars.

This journey began in 2014 when the UAE government set up the National Science, Technology and Innovation Committee and announced its interplanetary aspirations. A country’s science, tech and innovation (STIP) policy is fundamentally aimed at human emancipation by pushing the proverbial frontiers of knowledge. That is precisely what the UAE government has achieved through its 24 focus areas that range from nanosatellites to bioinformatics. There is a strong correlation between research and development (R&D), jobs creation and wealth generation. STIP underpins a knowledge society, a key motivation for UAE’s policymaking for a circular economy.

Governments through centuries have used science to reinvent their country’s destiny. Early on, the influence of scientific thinkers like Francis Bacon and William Harvey on the British monarchy led to the establishment of the Royal Society. Royal support for research and publication of scientific papers helped spawn Britain’s scientific temper and spirit of inquiry. This in turn paved the way for the industrial revolution, thus sealing Britain’s dominance of international trade in the 18th and 19th century. Similarly, countries like the US, China and Russia have been fashioning their STIP to strengthen their competitive play in global affairs.

After the second world war, countries ravaged by war or colonial rule realised the value of science as a driving force for the economy and national security. In the 1980s, governments used such policies to build national innovation systems for increasing international competitiveness. STIP was still tied to planned economies in many countries. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a noticeable shift in policymaking in general.

Governments especially in the West chose the neoliberal approach of laissez faire. They tried to get out of the way of private enterprise to foster innovation, which led to the Silicon Valley model. The underlying belief was that free markets are efficient, while government is red tape. Thus policymaking, regulation and funding took a backseat. This eventually resulted in the concentration of knowledge in a handful of platform providers, much to the detriment of pervasive innovation.

On the other hand, East Asian countries as well as some European countries such as Austria and Sweden chose a more top-down planned approach. They came from the structuralist school of policymaking that powered the industrialisation of the East. Strong public policy intervention in line with evolutionary economics has had a stabilising effect in times of economic crisis. It has allowed governments to channel funding, to correct regional or sectoral imbalances and reduce market failures such as climate change or financial engineering.

India’s STIP helped the country achieve self-reliance in space and atomic technologies through an impressive institutional infrastructure. Its recent policies focused on developing innovation clusters has served well. But beyond this, India has been somewhat weak in turning talent into a knowledge economy. This is largely because of inadequate institutional support for R&D in relevant technologies and knowledge diffusion. The draft 5th STIP 2020 initiative that has been released for public consultation, intends to bridge this gap by driving patent applications, paper publications and journals availability. Indian policies are aimed at moving the country away from the endemic ‘jugaad’ or innovation based on limited resources, and instead focus on hi-tech. For this, university research will need complete rewiring.

In the 1962 paper called The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory, Michael Polanyi had argued that science should function like free markets, with research funds flowing to the very best scholars and ideas, as determined by scientific consensus. That is how Western universities got large endowments for conducting research that was less proprietary and reasonably independent. This continues to help the industry at large through published research papers. Yet academia’s open science approach has struggled as Big Tech has boosted its AI research by appropriating the talent of entire US university departments. In developing countries, universities are not well endowed, and therefore their research capacities lag behind R&D departments of large conglomerates such as the Korean Chaebols.

China adopted the triple helix model of innovation a long time ago, thus creating a close exchange between government, university and industry. Chinese universities have their own startups. In 2001, China had more than 5,000 University Run Enterprises.

Intellectuals have objected to this cozy relationship between universities and the industry, citing academia’s traditional role of furthering open science as opposed to proprietary technology. Yet connecting universities with the industry has been a pragmatic way to ensure academia ‘keeps up with the time’. Students learn emerging subjects and academia gets closely involved in national wealth creation.

China created laws to boost patents and commercialization of science and technology. It has successfully used its science and technology parks to encourage local and foreign funding, in addition to a flow of knowledge between them. In 2019, according to Statista as many as 1.95 million scientific papers were published in China. Likewise, South Korea fostered interactions between private entities and government sponsored research organizations, but these weren’t as strong as those in China. The South Korean government created policies for incentivizing specific industries and developing talent.

China’s growing global ambitions has shaped its Digital Silk Road cooperation that offers government support to companies like Huawei, ZTE and thousands of other Chinese companies. These companies are disseminating Chinese digital infrastructure in member countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe and dozens of other countries, thus expanding China’s digital footprint. This is not the first time that a country has modernised another country’s infrastructure to exercise geopolitical influence, which countries with a colonial history as well aware of.

EU on the other hand is reorienting its STIP to align with United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Government in smaller countries such as the UAE are in a far better position to build a technology innovation framework that addresses imbalances at a micro level, to truly realise a circular economy. The UAE’s STIP is forging pragmatic linkages between research and market entities to rapidly market breakthrough technologies. Above all, the UAE’s bold and ambitious STIP set the nation on its maiden voyage to Mars, firing the imagination of generations to come.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT Technologies

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