A DRIVING FORCE

Oman 2020 | EDUCATION | FOCUS

Oman is boosting its R&D landscape through abundant government support systems to encourage more Omanis to innovate.

For Oman's investments into economic diversification to pay off, Oman must invest in its R&D capabilities. While other GCC countries like Saudi Arabia have experienced growth in gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD), Oman's has remained frustratingly the same, with the country only spending only 0.22% of its GDP on R&D according to UNESCO 2018 reports. Part of the problem lies in the high GDP numbers many oil-rich companies have; thus, matching the funds can be quite high cost, especially if R&D infrastructure is not in place. But other issues are more pervasive in nature and must be led by government-efforts. With its current vision, the country plans to change its current R&D trajectory toward a more knowledge-based economy for its residents.

The Research Council (TRC) leads the country's R&D efforts. It has identified R&D challenges facing Oman include complex administrative processes, little funding, poor quality research, and lack of relevance of R&D to socio-economic needs. To fight this, TRC developed National Research Plan in 2010 made of three stages: first, improve status of research and boost productivity; second, build national research capacity in priority areas (determined by the existing amount of qualified personnel) and establish needed infrastructure; and third, strengthen the country's niche areas.
From this earlier plan, it was evident that Oman's was previously focused on driving R&D by concentrating on the country's niche sectors that were already established on the ground. This reliance on previously gained advantages does not necessarily lead to innovation and entrepreneurship, the real organic drivers of R&D. According to Hayat Sindi, co-founder of Diagnostics for All, in UNESCO's 2014 science report, for R&D to flourish, the Middle East must overcome barriers to entrepreneurships that include lack of formal business skills among those doing the research (i.e. scientists and engineers) and the lack of potential investors willing to provide venture capital for such endeavors. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, investors in the region do not focus on science-based ventures. But investments might change if scientific discoveries matched up better with needs of country's economy.
As such, TRC launched its National Innovation Strategy with four pillars: human capital resources, intellectual property and technology transfer, economy diversification, and institutional communication. The idea behind the strategy is to better match R&D output with necessary innovation needed for the market. As part of its greater focus on fostering innovation, TRC has several competitive funds in place dedicated to industrial innovations, academic innovation, or community innovations. Along with mentoring, TRC now offers a more concrete space under the name of the Innovation Hub for Omanis to transform their ideas into products, services, and technologies, and even SMEs. In addition to special innovation funding, Oman must also look into its universities to deepen its R&D infrastructure.
According to UNESCO 2018 numbers, Oman's headcount of researchers per million inhabitants climbed from 600 to over 800 from 2017 to 2018. While this climb is certainly to be applauded, it must also be followed by research output, whether through publications or patents. According to UNESCO's 2014 Science Report, it is rare for the research activity of teaching staff in government and private universities in Arab countries to exceed 5-10% of their time, as opposed to the 35-50% spent in European and American universities. To foster professors' research, TRC also has a scheme in place rewarding researchers through an open research grant scheme tied to their research output. The idea behind the incentive is not only to increase the number of active researchers, but to encourage them to act as mentors for post-graduates, publish articles in internationally renowned publications, and apply for patents.
In essence, through government support, Oman can strengthen its R&D muscles. As innovation and entrepreneurship are much harder to find in abundance au natural, it will depend on the government to put infrastructures in place that can serve as a support for up and coming innovators. Furthermore, greater emphasis on increasing research activity in universities can also serve as a catalyst for future R&D output. It is with this in mind that the government is stepping up the country's research capabilities.