As it invests in human capital, Abu Dhabi is focused on building up the local capacity for scientific research and innovation in key growth sectors. Research and development (R&D) facilities remain in their infancy in Abu Dhabi, but through substantial funding and industry partnerships, the government has demonstrated its commitment to planting the seeds for future innovation.
The State Of R&D
In a 2012 report, the UAE’s Centre for Higher Education Data and Statistics (CHEDS) attempted to measure the R&D output at higher education institutions in the UAE. CHEDS admits the results are somewhat limited given that many institutions failed to report data on the subject. Of the 102 universities reporting, most had no budget available for research and only 13 reported research budgets of more than Dh200,000 ($54,440).
To assess productivity, CHEDS measured the number of publications, books or patents per year per PhD faculty member. Abu Dhabi institutions scored 0.62 publications per year per professor, the same as institutions from the Northern Emirates and lower than the 0.72 of Dubai’s schools.
In collecting the data, CHEDS learned that most institutions do not have a system to track or validate their faculty’s publications and therefore calculated two scores. The first score is the above, which treats the submitting schools as a sample and averages scores only among those institutions. To derive the second score, CHEDS equates non-submission with “no research” and then averages the data across all UAE institutions. On this measure Abu Dhabi institutions scored 0.36 publications per year per professor, compared with 0.49 and 0.52, respectively, for the Northern Emirates and Dubai.
According to the director of the Commission for Academic Accreditation (CAA), Badr Aboul-Ela, the quantity and quality of research varies across institutions as much as across emirates. Within Abu Dhabi, some institutions, namely Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and the Khalifa University for Science, Technology and Research (KU), prioritise research and innovation.
Applicable research is core to KU’s mission, and the university has produced more than 50% of all patents registered within the emirate. Established in 2007, KU’s strategic research priorities align with the government’s economic ones: information and communications technology (ICT), energy and environment, aerospace, security, transport and logistics, and health care. Many of the research centres within KU are funded and managed in coordination with industry partners. In this respect, the school develops arrangements whereby intellectual property rights are shared among the academic and commercial partners.
One of KU’s most prolific patent generators is the Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat) British Telecom (BT) Innovation Centre, a partnership between BT, Etisalat and the university, which aims to foster innovation for the next generation of networks and ICT systems.
In addition, Mubadala Development Company, an Abu Dhabi government-owned investment firm, formed the Aerospace Research and Innovation Centre in conjunction with the university to support technological innovation in the field.
The effort is set to assist Mubadala’s stated goal of establishing Abu Dhabi as a global aerospace hub, and the firm has already secured partnerships with international companies and has established an industrial base in Al Ain (see Security, Aerospace & Defence chapter). In addition, in partnership with Mubadala’s Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), the owner of semiconductor giant GLOBALFOUNDRIES, KU has established a semiconductor research and development centre.
Most recently, KU launched a nuclear engineering research group in partnership with the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation and the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation. The programme specifically focuses on nuclear materials, reactor design and analysis, nuclear instrumentation and control, and nuclear environmental and waste management.
Set up in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Masdar Institute aims to foster research on advanced energy and sustainable technology. Masdar Institute focuses on applicable innovation, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, science and technology.
So far, Masdar Institute has one issued patent and has more than 20 pending patent applications. Research typically focuses on water, environment and health, future energy systems, and microsystems and advanced materials.
Powered by renewable energy, and designed with sustainable materials, Masdar Institute’s campus is itself a demonstration of innovation in sustainability. The campus, part of Masdar City, consumes 75% less energy for cooling and 70% less potable water than similarly designed buildings. Power is generated by a 10-MW solar plant and rooftop photovoltaic cells. Designed to promote walking, the campus requires fossil fuel vehicles be left at the gates.
Students and faculty travel around the campus using electric-powered personal rapid transit vehicles – individual pods that navigate the campus at speeds of up to 40 km per hour using a combination of magnetic and wireless technology. “Every aspect of the vehicles will be studied by Masdar Institute and others to determine the feasibility of large-scale deployment of a low-carbon transport system,” according to Masdar. Many other research projects are under way on subjects ranging from smart grids to aviation biofuels.
Masdar Institute first opened its doors in 2009 to 89 students from 79 countries. However, by September 2013, enrolment had risen to 417, of which 162 were UAE nationals. Masdar Institute aims to reach total enrolment of 600 to 800 students by 2018.
In May 2013, Masdar Institute, KU, ATIC and the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) launched the ATIC-SRC Centre of Excellence for Energy Efficient Electronic Systems.
Masdar Institute and KU will jointly oversee the research centre and provide a combined Dh17.5m ($4.76m), to be matched by ATIC for an overall budget of Dh35m ($9.52m). The centre was established with guidance from industry firms such as GLOBALFOUNDRIES, AMD, Applied Materials and Intel. Semiconductor experts will oversee 15 researchers, and research applications could include smartphones and medical devices, the stakeholders said. “This centre is a significant milestone for Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and the region,” Sami Issa, executive director leading the technology ecosystem unit at ATIC, said in the press release announcing the project.
As part of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, a partnership with Boeing, Etihad and Honeywell UOP, Masdar Institute is conducting research into aviation biofuels. Due to the cost and shortage of fresh water in the UAE, Masdar Institute is experimenting with halophytes – plants that survive salty conditions. In October 2013, The National reported that Masdar Institute had launched a Dh64.2m ($17.5m) project to grow halophytes on 200 ha of coastland and convert them into biofuel.
Research at both KU and Masdar Institute benefits from government funding, in addition to industry partnerships. To allow faculty time to research and publish, KU limits teaching to only two courses per semester, as opposed to other institutions, which require three to four courses, while all students and faculty at Masdar Institute devote at least 50% of their time to research.
The federal government’s National Research Foundation currently awards research grants to faculty and to young Emiratis every two years. Indeed, in the most recent awards in 2011, KU, UAE University and Zayed University had the largest shares of winners.
Government funding for regional research projects is expected to rise over time in line with the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030. Further, education and research organisations may consider consolidating programmes to benefit from scale. For example, the multiple institutions funding aerospace research, ultimately, may need to merge their programmes. “Enhanced cooperation between universities through established partnerships can maximise research outputs. Improved coordination can also prevent overlaps in financing and reduce resource imbalances,” Tod A Laursen, president of KU, told OBG.
In the span of a few decades, Abu Dhabi has built up its higher education system and in less than a decade, it has established key institutions to house the R&D base needed to drive innovation. The level of investment from both the government and local industries indicates the kind of long-term commitment required for R&D to bear fruit. Given all of this, the sector looks poised for continued growth, with output of patents and publications set to increase.