A new analysis has retrospectively examined close to 40,000 academic papers published in English worldwide by United Arab Emirates researchers between 1998 and 2017 to chart the rapid rise of research produced in that country over the past two decades. The quality of research has risen too, according to some metrics, but at a considerably slower rate.
“The U.A.E. as a whole, but especially Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are determined to move from a net consumer of technologies to a creator or innovator of technology,” says Senthil Nathan, a former deputy vice chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi and the managing director of Edu Alliance, a higher education consultancy firm based in the United Arab Emirates. “The desire to move away from a hydrocarbon economy to a knowledge economy is also a motivation behind this growth.”
Outperforming Its Neighbors
The United Arab Emirates is not alone in wanting to diversify its economy through research. Other Arab League countries, particularly those in the Gulf, have a similar goal. (See a related article, “The Difficulties of Spinning Research Ideas Into Gold.”)
But according to the recent analysis, published in the journal Heliyon, the Emirates are slightly ahead of the pack with an average year-on-year growth of 15 percent. Gulf Cooperation Council countries, meanwhile, saw their research output grow by 12 percent each year and Arab League countries as a whole averaged an annual growth rate of 11 percent.
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The research output was measured by the total number of papers published in peer-reviewed journals across all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences.
The United Arab Emirates have done a few things particularly well, which could help to explain their lead, says Nathan.
“The obvious one is money,” he says. “Funding has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. It’s tough to get data on that, but they’re spending the money.”
“Funding has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. It’s tough to get data on that, but they’re spending the money.”– Senthil Nathan
Managing director of the higher-education consultancy Edu Alliance
Critically, the funds aren’t just being spent on flashy labs and new campus buildings, but on providing bonuses for productive researchers. For example, professors at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah who publish in respected journals will see a bump in their pay.
“We, along with other institutions, provide direct monetary incentives. Faculty who publish in indexed journals receive additional compensation,” says Stephen Wilhite, the university’s provost. Publications in indexed journals are used by companies that generate global rankings of universities.
Other universities in the country have done the same, says Nathan. “The ranking pressure is really making universities here put their own money into research.”
Rankings algorithms do place a premium on research. According to the Times Higher Education 2020 rankings, released in September, United Arab Emirates University is the top institution in the country, having recently unseated Khalifa University from that position, and now in a band of 301 to 350 among global institutions. UAE University is now followed by Khalifa University, the University of Sharjah, and the American University of Sharjah.
Money Isn’t Everything
The connection between funding and performance is an easy one to make, but it isn’t necessarily the be-all-and-end-all. You can’t just throw money at a problem and hope that alone will solve it, explains Wilhite.
“Of course, money is important, but that could almost go without saying,” he says.
“A great part of the increase of published research papers is attributable to the increased competition amongst universities in the U.A.E.,” he adds. “In order to be competitive, you have to focus on the rankings, and a very large factor in where a university is ranked is its research.”
This desire for universities to move up the rankings has meant university leaders such as Wilhite can’t just rely on teaching or the quantity of research produced as a means of measuring performance. “Research productivity became part of the strategic planning at my university, but I would say we’re trying to focus on both quantity and quality because it’s not just research output that’s important for rankings. It’s also about citations of those papers and the impact factor of the journal where they end up being published.”
“In order to be competitive, you have to focus on the rankings, and a very large factor in where a university is ranked is its research.”Stephen Wilhite
Provost at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah
The data suggests other universities in the country may need to pay attention to that as well.
While there has been a significant rise in the number of papers produced by academics at Emirati institutions, the number of papers published in high-impact journals has only increased by an annual rate of 2.6 percent, according to the paper published in Heliyon. In other words, a lot of the observed rise in research is rarely cited by other researchers or is published in more obscure journals that fewer academics read.
In pursing a knowledge-based economy, government decisions at both the federal and emirate levels have been strategic by choosing to focus on a few specific areas of research, says Nathan. This has helped to increase the amount of research overall because the more researchers there are in a given field, the more opportunities there are for collaboration.
“The U.A.E. is a small country and it’s had to catch up on the research front,” says Nathan. “But when it comes to a new and emerging area of research like artificial intelligence, then they don’t have to catch up so much because everyone is starting from a more equal place. So, it became a national strategy to push ahead with AI and robotics.”
The data backs Nathan up. Growth in research was observed across all fields, but not equally. Medical and life sciences research grew at a rate of 10 percent per year, but computer science research expanded by 26 percent a year.
Easing Residency for Researchers
Recent reforms to the immigration system have also been welcomed as a means to encourage academics to stay in the country and pursue their long-term research goals, says Nathan. Last year, the government announced what it calls a “golden residency” visa, for scientists and specialists in art and culture. The new visa lasts ten years with what is expected to be a straightforward renewal process, effectively amounting to permanent residency.
“Last year alone they gave the visa to at least 2,000 people,” says Nathan. “That’s significant because a researcher needs the security of knowing they can be in one place for a good length of time to really achieve and do impressive research.”
This, says Nathan, is an example of a practical policy that could be replicated by other countries in the Arab world seeking to retain foreign talent for more than a few years.