Research chairs act as catalyst for development
The desire to address the socio-economic challenges of the modern age has greatly altered research and teaching in most countries. In the post-industrial era, governments are increasingly pinning their hopes on universities to chart a new phase in their economies.
There is now a desire for a clean, smart and sustainable economy, mass employment, an emphasis on well-being and prosperity brought about through cutting-edge science, technology and innovation research.
The link between applied research and economic prosperity is clear. It is achieved through the routine diffusion of technical and scientific innovations based on new knowledge emerging from basic research. We can easily quantify the outcomes of research by the number of patents, business start-ups, job generation and citations in reputable academic journals.
Many countries and regional blocks have set up research chair programmes and other ad hoc agencies that can help them reach their goal of transitioning to a new knowledge-based economy. Through research innovation, great ideas are turned into products and services that have immeasurable benefits for the public.
In 2000, Canada took the bold step of establishing its Canada Research Chairs programme with the aim of attracting and retaining researchers who are internationally recognised as leaders in their fields. The programme also seeks to prepare the country for the multi-faceted challenges of the new millennium.
At its inception, the Canadian government set up and shared 2,000 research chairs among its universities. In a similar move, South Africa established its version of a research chairs programme – the South Africa Research Chairs Initiative - in 2006 and has so far got up to 150 chairs spread among 20 South African universities.
In 2007, a public university in Saudi Arabia, King Saud University, inaugurated its research chairs programme with the aim of initiating research in critical areas of national development.
The programme currently has 112 research chairs with the research portfolio covering basic and innovation-focused research in distinct specialisms. Under the categories of science, humanities, engineering and medical sciences, the programme has become a model for other institutions in the region that seek to institute similar programmes.
With generous funding from the state and the private sector, the programme is having an impact in various fields of research and innovation. Annually, hundreds of research findings are published in journals allied to the Institute for Scientific Information, or ISI.
Patents for potentially useful devices are registered with both local and international regulators. For instance, in Arabian culture, honey is widely used and many people have made their living from honey collection.
Given the concomitant hazards and loss involved, the bee research chair has promoted innovation in this sector and secured a European patent for a trap for the collection of bee venom. The trap is able to overcome the problems associated with the collection of bee venom by conventional means, which causes severe disturbance in a beehive.
A manual approach exposes beekeepers to the risk of severe stinging as well as making it difficult to obtain the venom. Moreover, the collection of venom during winter presents more difficulties and the possibility of contamination of the poison in the course of collection. The new device has gained acceptability among beekeepers as it increases the efficiency of bee collection and greatly lessens the risks beekeepers face.
Another patent is a vitamin D-inducing device using ultraviolet light therapy. Studies show a lack of vitamin D affects about one billion people. This patent was registered in the US and Saudi Arabia in 2013 and, in Saudi Arabia, the device is provided to people to protect them from osteoporosis, especially the elderly.
Apart from the patents, the chairs programme has been providing postgraduate students with training and mentoring. Indeed, a research culture of compliance with bio-ethics coupled with a formidable research infrastructure has made the country a promising site of innovation and cutting-edge research.
Both Canada and South Africa seem to run the research chairs in similar ways. For instance, the governments of both countries have directly established a large number of chairs and allocated them to universities on the basis of competitive demand. Panels of reviewers usually examine the request for the allocation of a chair put forward by national universities and recommend those that meet the stipulated requirements.
On the other hand, research chairs in Saudi Arabia are set up by the government, individuals or corporate bodies at a particular university. The chairs are centrally managed by a quasi-department that serves as a regulatory body.
A second point of similarity between Canada and South Africa is the classification of chairs: In both countries, chairs are classified as tier-1 and tier-2, with tier-1 normally awarded to senior professors who are world leaders in their fields and who attract more funding and a longer period of tenure. Tier-2 is for younger, promising researchers with the potential to achieve international recognition. Research chairs in King Saud University, however, have equal status.
But how successful are the research chairs in the three countries? A 2010 audit report, commissioned to inquire into the activities of Canada’s research chairs, concluded that after 10 years in operation, the programme had been successful and was well implemented.
The programme has undoubtedly contributed to Canada becoming one of the most competitive economies in the G8 and a top destination for world-leading researchers.
A 2012 evaluation report of the South Africa Research Chairs Initiative has also judged it a success, while the King Saud University Research Chairs Program also seems to be on the right track. There appears to be considerable operational and academic freedom granted to the chairs with no apparent interference from the chairs’ sponsors.
That measure of independence, coupled with a vast array of patents, a webometric presence and strong relations with industry, has been instrumental in making the university one of the best in the Middle East – as declared separately by QS, Shanghai and Times Higher Education in their 2014 rankings.
On the whole, research chair programmes are a novelty that are fast gaining currency and, to judge by the successes recorded so far in the countries that operate the programmes, they could help developed and developing countries make their universities and economies more vibrant and competitive.
Adamu A Ahmed is a quality assurance officer in the Research Chairs Program at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.