SYRIA: University-industry alliance to be established

Syria is to establish a new fund to support priority research, a university-industry alliance and an observatory for monitoring science progress, as part of its efforts to promote the development of an innovation-based economy through higher education reform.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad issued a decree on 25 August for the creation of a scientific research and technological development fund.

The fund will finance scientific research programmes and projects carried out in universities and centres that seek technological solutions to problems, promote innovation by backing ideas that have the potential to introduce new products and technologies, and enhance cooperation with Arab and local commissions and international organisations in the field of science research and technological development.

Funding will come from the government, by deducting a percentage from the national science and technology budget as well as a percentage from the budgets of universities, by issuing 'stamps' for scientific research, and from private sector contributions and public donations.

The fund will be headed by the Minister of Higher Education.

Its activities will include identifying priority scientific areas for support, preparing strategies for marketing research results, facilitating technology transfer from universities to the industrial sector, and creating and implementing policies related to scientific investment in research aimed at boosting socio-economic development.

Also, in cooperation with the Lebanon-based United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, work is underway to establish the Syrian Science, Technology and Innovation Observatory.

The observatory will inform policy-making, strategies and resource allocation through data collection, analysis, and reporting and disseminating information on the development of national science and technology capacities and converting them into socio-economic output.

Wasim Maziak, a science and technology higher education expert and Director of the Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies, welcomed the new initiatives, which he sees as significant acknowledgements of the role of science and technology in development.

However, Mazik also foresees obstacles to these initiatives.

First, the bureaucratic structure of higher education institutions could slow progress and make the new system cumbersome for potential researchers. Second, the scarcity of world-class research and scientific expertise in Syria could undermine strategies to support, conduct and evaluate research.

Third, lack of integration of Syria's scientific institutions with the international scientific community is depriving them of infrastructure needed to support research - for instance institutions lack ethics committees for research, clear mechanisms for administering internal and external research funds, and world standard patenting capacity.

Further, high quality research is not a pre-requisite for faculty career advancement in higher education institutions in Syria, so incentives for conducting research and changing the system of evaluating faculty performance for promotion are needed.

Finally, there are weak linkages between industries and academic institutions in terms of providing a market and support for research and innovation, and adoption of quality products resulting from research.

"This is a top-to-bottom approach that may provide the funds for research, but is short on providing the infrastructure, expertise and guidelines that can help plan, evaluate, and support research and implement research findings," Maziak concluded.

As the co-author , with Laurence Esterle of France, of the ESCWA commissioned report on the establishment of the Syrian Science, Technology and Innovation report, I am glad to read about the tangible steps the Syrian authorities have taken. With Lebanon and Jordan the ESCWA member countris are now initiating such activitis which will be complementary to the efforts of ESCWA in establishing a regional network of such observatories.

Dr. H. Kouyoumjian