There has never been a greater quantity of scientific research being carried out around the world. The hotbeds of scientific study are no longer exclusively in Europe and North America. China and India are driving pioneering work in many technologies. Thanks to the immediacy and capacity of the Internet, researchers can be working on the same project on opposite sides of the globe from each other
The sheer pace of new developments in medicine, engineering, physics and technology is breathtaking. Joe Public sits back expectantly, waiting for the next “new thing.” But though the pace of change is exciting, scientific research is not all about dazzling success.
It is also about failure. And these failures can come at the end of long and challenging periods of research. Science is indeed 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. Millions are spent on promising projects that, in the end, fail to deliver. From a purely scientific point of view, a researcher will say that proving a negative is the next best thing to proving a positive. If something does not work and it can be understood why it does not work, then scientists can edge closer to the answer that will work.
Some answers today seem frankly unreachable. The issue of Cold Fusion, generating a nuclear reaction at room temperature, rather than with the immense heat currently required, is one such inquiry. Just as medieval alchemists sought the Philosopher’s Stone that would turn base metal into gold, so Cold Fusion currently seems unattainable. But never say never. It is the cost of complex and long-term research that means so much modern scientific investigation is done by universities, largely funded by governments. With some exceptions, business has tended to fight shy of big ticket scientific research. Pharmaceutical companies will say how they can spend billions developing a single successful drug. Hundreds, maybe thousands of different formulas may need to be tried and tested and then discarded before the right one is identified. And sometimes, in the end, there may actually turn out to be no “right one”.
Engineering research companies are more fortunate. They are often finding new applications for recently developed materials. The classic present case is graphene. Produced for the first time only 12 years ago at Manchester University in the UK, graphene is 100 times stronger than steel, is an efficient conductor of heat and electricity and is almost transparent. The race is now on to find effective commercial applications. One major corporation is looking to revolutionize the longevity of batteries by making them out of graphene. In parallel with this, work is also going on to see if this material cannot also be used to form structural parts of a vehicle or piece of equipment. Thus an automobile could literally become its own battery.
Yet even though the payback of research is obvious, most companies will feel that they cannot afford it. This is as true here in the Kingdom as anywhere else in the world. For a manufacturing company to be running its own R&D facility may seem an unnecessary extravagance.
But as Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammed Al-Saud, the president of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) made clear this week, in one way or another most Saudi companies should be thinking about funding research.
Even a business in an area as basic as supply chain management could usefully fund research into how it might do its job better, remove bottlenecks, speed up processes.
But the real wins are to be had in the appliance of science. Here Saudi business needs to get better at working with specialist researchers in the Kingdom’s world-class universities and technology colleges. And the operative word is “with.” A generous check from a leading entrepreneur is always welcome in academe. But that funding means far more if it is focused on achieving a concrete end, for both the entrepreneur and the academics. Most of our university researchers want to be challenged. Only a small minority is devoted to pure science.
It is for Saudi businesses, perhaps working with foreign corporate partners, to ask those big questions of the scientists here, who may be able to come up with profitable, even world-changing answers. The research facilities and equipment in Saudi universities are second-to-none. There are also strong and fruitful links with leading universities around the world. This all constitutes a resource that the private sector cannot afford to ignore. R&D is not something that simply happens elsewhere. It is happening here in the Kingdom as well. Saudi businesses should be going out of their way to support it.

Fri, 2015-03-06 02:45
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