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Oman 2020 | EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

The Research Council's 2020-2040 strategy focuses on conducting valuable and impactful research and establishing links between academia and industry.

Saif Abdullah Al Haddabi
BIOGRAPHY

Saif Abdullah Al Hiddabi was appointed Assistant Secretary General for Strategic Planning and Business Development at the Research Council in 2020 after being assistant secretary general for research and scientific programs for 11 years. He holds national and international experience in research and technology development, as well as executive and board-level experience in innovation management, academic planning and applied research with industry. In his 18 years at Sultan Qaboos University, he was assistant dean of engineering for research and postgradute studies and associate professor of mechanical engineering. He holds a PhD and a master's in aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineering from the University of Michigan. He holds a second master's in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Michigan and a master's in strategic studies for National Security and Defense from Sultan Qaboos University. He holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Sultan Qaboos University.

What is your strategy for 2020 and the medium term?
We are currently working on the National Research Strategy 2020-2040, which builds on the National Research Strategy 2008-2020. It is fully aligned with Oman's Vision 2040. The current strategy focuses on conducting valuable and impactful research and establishing links with industry, especially in the downstream segment of the technology readiness level (TRL). At the same time, we continue to fund ongoing programs, with 266 projects funded annually through the Block Funding Program for researchers. Oman's ninth five-year plan focuses on manufacturing, fisheries, logistics, tourism, and mining; therefore, researchers tend to link their proposals to these focus areas in order to maximize the relevance component, while maintaining the required scientific excellence in their proposals. Furthermore, researchers can also submit proposals in other fields that will contribute to the advancement of knowledge locally and internationally.

How do you strike a balance between fundamental research and applying and solving issues?
The Block Funding program is geared more toward fundamental research as per its requirement for investigator-driven ideas; however, we have another program called the Strategic Directive Program, which is mainly for applied research. Around the world, 20% of the research and the associate funding is fundamental in nature, and 80% is applied. The two are, however, interlinked and drive each other, in collaboration with the relevant stakeholders.

What is the key to attracting more Omanis into the field of research?
With less than 300 researchers per million inhabitants, Oman is lacking capacity. We are trying to build that capacity by mandating research and academic institutions that gain funding from our programs to involve and train Omanis. We want researchers to collaborate and build national research capacity. As part of our active research programs, we have funded more than 97 PhD scholarships and 170 master's degree scholarships over the past nine years and trained hundreds of bachelor students to be research assistants. Additionally, we have a program titled the Faculty Mentored Undergraduate Research Award Program (FURAP) for undergraduate students to submit their competitive research proposals where they can receive up to OMR1,000 in research funding. We fund more than 200 FURAP projects every year.

Can you tell us more about your program for undergraduate students?
We have a program to build final-year projects into businesses. If we select 1% of these undergraduate projects carefully and guide them through an incubation process, we believe they will be able to establish successful companies. Currently, we have nine such companies in the pipeline, and some of them already have contracts with public- and private-sector players in the ICT industry. We are inserting another stream in logistics and will soon expand to fisheries, mining, and other important sectors. We also have the national research award program to recognize researchers who publish their research work in top-notch scientific journals. We also select young active researchers to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Award meetings.

What are the prospects for regional integration with other academic organizations?
We have the Masader program, a virtual library with cutting-edge publications. We hope to combine Masader with the Oman Research and Education Network (OMREN), a connectivity platform operating between the private sector and the Research Council. The collaboration in the Gulf is happening between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman, which is great as there are several supercomputers in in the region which our researchers can utilize.

What are your three main priorities for 2020?
The current priority is to make sure that the National Research Strategy 2020-2040 is fully aligned with Oman's Vision 2040. Another priority is capturing the value from previous and ongoing research. The third main priority for 2020 is to strengthen our industrial sector, which is why we created the Ejad platform to establish links between academia and industry.