Opinion and Editorial

Cracking the research ecosystem code

Dr Najwa Aaraj
Filed on September 5, 2021

Abu Dhabi has several components in place as it positions itself to become a preferred global research hub.

With technology having proven its worth during the most turbulent period in living memory recently, and as it continues to disrupt our world today through post-pandemic recovery, there is little doubt that tech leadership will define our capabilities and resilience to overcome challenges and become future ready.

Anticipating this trend, Technology Innovation Institute was established in 2020 as the pandemic continued to rage — to underscore the tech-preparedness imperative in the nation’s journey of the next 50 years.

Realising that the only way to diversify away from its dependency on oil and shape a knowledge economy in the country was through participating in the actual creation of that knowledge, the UAE leadership has made concerted efforts to convene the world’s most brilliant scientific minds and innovators in Abu Dhabi to engage in collaborative research in seven deep tech domains to pioneer breakthrough solutions.

Abu Dhabi has several components in place as it positions itself to become a preferred global research hub. Abu Dhabi Global Market is home to Hub71, a tech ecosystem that has attracted some 102 start-ups, many in the realm of fintech, health tech, and AI. They have raised a total of more than $50 million since Hub71 launched in March 2019, thanks to the leadership budgeting approximately $1.2 billion for R & D spend as part of the Ghadan 21 programme, as well as the eight VC funds at the start-up cluster.

The UAE ranked 24th globally in terms of R&D spending, with expenditure standing at 1.3 per cent of its total economy in 2018, according to the World Bank. These numbers have surely grown and are poised to surge even further in the near term. Similarly, the country ranks first regionally and fourth globally in the Global Entrepreneurship Index 2020.

So, why does the UAE need a global research ecosystem? One of the biggest hurdles to scientific growth in the past has been the fragmented efforts of individual scientists — this dilutes research funding as teams are forced to compete against one another and serious geopolitical odds. When we consider what it is we are trying to achieve here, it becomes clear that we need to create an enabling environment for research that melds all the key ingredients — scientists, technologists, academia, government, public and private sector, infrastructure, and funding unhampered by bureaucracy, to see important scientific contributions emerge. Government and industry as well as academia are key drivers of this fertile knowledge ecosystem.

Research ecosystems help define meaningful roadmaps for fundamental and applied research that translate into innovation and technology for higher societal impact. Through transformative research outcomes that may be developed into proof of concepts to generate national intellectual property, research ecosystems can attract unprecedented commercial opportunities and bring in stakeholders that matter to facilitate more quantifiable outcomes. A solid research ecosystem could also enable us to implement a revamped educational curriculum and build new skills to grow scientific expertise in areas that truly matter.

As Abu Dhabi continues to shape its thriving research ecosystem, R & D activities and spending on these efforts are already surging. The positive fallout from this new awareness of the importance of research is promising scientific results and the scaling up of innovation. However, research for the sake of research can be dangerous. Likewise, poor reporting of scientific results or research hype that can lead to rushing scientific outcomes is also a trap to avoid. Perhaps, most importantly, we need to focus on stepping up our scientific communication. Only through conveying our efforts to the wider world and watching the research translate into tangible solutions to enhance lives, can we researchers congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

So, what should some of the building blocks of effective research ecosystems be? In addition to the traditional triad of people, process and technology, the scientific community today believes that culture, structure, and strategy can serve as game changers and ensure outsize impact.

Research ecosystems must align with defined applied research priorities, and ensure the presence of a talent pool to help execute these priorities across specialised fields including quantum and post quantum technologies, AI, cryptography, among others. Highly efficient research ecosystems will drive easy and affordable access to best-in-class higher education.

Any research dream is linked to unfettered funding, as well as minimal red tape and time-consuming administrative challenges. Tolerance, inclusivity, and diversity should be more than mere watchwords, because to truly enable transformative outcomes, the ecosystem must be able to assimilate different opinions and perceptions. Collaboration drives research excellence, and the ecosystem must empower inter- and intra-ecosystem synergies.

One thing we need to remain mindful about in shaping a research ecosystem is that innovation is the engine that keeps things moving. Among the challenges that an ecosystem like Silicon Valley faces today is that it has grown almost as big as a country and through the pandemic period, entrepreneurs have begun to realise that they can work from virtually anywhere and do not necessarily need to base themselves at the expensive Valley or indeed in San Francisco. The allure of an ecosystem lies in the networking and the intimacy of relationships among like-minded peers with shared research interests.

We are increasingly witnessing that legacy research hubs of the past are no longer necessarily the preferred R & D ecosystems today. In recent years, Barcelona in Spain, Belfast in Northern Ireland, Tallin in Estonia, and Abu Dhabi in the UAE are gaining credibility as innovation hotspots. Given this scenario, several countries in the world are now in with a real chance to reverse the brain drain and invest in their young people through prioritising research and advanced technology.

Dr Najwa Aaraj is chief researcher – Cryptography Research Centre, Technology Innovation Institute

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