Investment in science would offer Kingdom great rewards

Investment in science would offer Kingdom great rewards
The percentage of GDP allocated to scientific research reaches 2.9 percent in Germany, 3.4 percent in Japan, and 4 percent in South Korea. (AFP)

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is setting about developing, modernizing, rejuvenating and diversifying its economy as part of its Vision 2030, which has a vast range of aims, objectives and initiatives. The program to develop the nation’s industry and logistical services indicates the necessity for investment in research and innovation. Some of the Vision 2030 objectives focus on improving life quality, developing education and lowering unemployment levels, as well as boosting the capabilities of the Kingdom’s citizens in all aspects of life through investing in them.

One of the main tools in implementing this ambitious vision is to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s scientific research capabilities to ensure that they are on a par with international standards, as research plays a central role in the progress of nations. 

Arab countries in general have neglected this vital area, with funds allocated to scientific research woefully low when compared to advanced countries, whose individual financial contributions in this area are, in some cases, equal to that of all Arab nations combined. The funds allocated by the US, China, Japan, Malaysia and the EU are estimated to total $417 billion, making up about three-quarters of the total scientific research appropriations worldwide. The US alone spends about $168 billion annually on scientific research, accounting for about 32 percent of the total global spending in this field. In comparison, the Arab nations’ combined spending accounts for barely 1 percent of the world’s total. 

The percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated to scientific research reaches 2.9 percent in Germany, 3.4 percent in Japan, and 4 percent in South Korea. In the Arab countries, the figure is so low as a percentage of GDP as to be negligible. 

In Saudi Arabia, some studies suggest that the funds allocated to scientific research do not exceed 0.5 percent of GDP. There is no doubt that the large budgets allocated to public and university education are not included in this percentage, since I am speaking here solely about scientific research, not other aspects of education.

This percentage is exceptionally modest given Saudi Arabia’s status as a G-20 member state. Since the launch of Vision 2030, however, numerous forums have been organized to discuss how best to improve the current situation, with a focus on the need to prioritize innovation and cutting-edge scientific thinking. This brings me to the key role of scientific research. 

While Saudi universities already have many scientific research and study centers, their output is often poor and their activities are usually confined to campuses. In most cases, they do not display any remarkable performance even at a local level, let alone at regional and international levels. In my view, these centers need a comprehensive overhaul. What, then, can be done to improve their performance? It is my belief that we must establish a committee tasked with assessing the existing centers in order to offer greater support to those showing good results, along with plans and strategies for them to expand their horizons so that, in the future, they can promote their own research and compete with regional and international centers. 

The focus should be on taking advantage of the expertise of highly qualified academics and students, as well as paying far greater attention to the research being carried out in areas that will contribute to empowering and advancing the country and implementing Vision 2030. By contrast, centers performing poorly should be granted a three-year grace period to enable them to reverse their negative trajectory and to develop their performance and capabilities. If, at the end of this period, they fail to show a turnaround, the funds allocated to them should be transferred to other useful projects. 

Arab countries in general have neglected this vital area, with funds allocated to scientific research woefully low.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

This is only one step, however, and will be insufficient by itself to contribute to promoting scientific research in Saudi Arabia. To augment it, I further propose establishing a ministry or an independent supreme authority for scientific research, which would be tasked with outlining plans and strategies connected to upgrading and developing research programs that should be tailored to the country’s needs. Such an authority should aim to attract distinguished scientists and researchers from all over the world, offering incentives to those prominent in technological innovation and to researchers who publish their work in prominent scientific journals worldwide. 

This authority should also be tasked with reviewing previous research projects and studies, especially those conducted as part of a master’s or Ph.D. program, as they may contain ideas or findings of utmost importance. These ideas and findings may be used to enhance and promote the Kingdom’s innovative capabilities, ultimately advancing the nation as well as saving time, money and effort. 

Regarding proposals to fund this authority, there is no doubt that the prime responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the state. However, the private sector should also be encouraged to contribute. While the state can offer incentives to the private sector to contribute to supporting and financing scientific research, it should also consider allocating part of the revenues collected from Zakat and income tax to scientific research. 

More generally, the awareness of wider society needs to be raised about the vital importance of scientific research to encourage people to allocate part of their donations and grants to supporting scientific research in the country; as well as a need to urge citizens not to restrict themselves solely to giving money for building mosques or supporting charitable causes. They need to recognize that the ways in which they can do good are many, and that supporting progress in science and knowledge may be just as beneficial as those aforementioned causes. 

In the end, when analyzing the experiences of countries that have managed to steadily improve their performance in innovation, industrialization and economic diversification, as well as raising their living standards, one will find that progress in education and scientific research was critical to such improvements. Saudi Arabia has all the talent and capabilities required to achieve and even surpass advanced countries, particularly since the Kingdom’s political will and comprehensive strategic vision are already in place and the future looks promising. 

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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