Supporting research excellence

The production of excellent research, be it curiosity-driven or applied, has increasingly become the dominant preoccupation of universities the world over. Given the stiff competition that pervades the sector, research pursuits have become the cornerstone of universities’ academic activities.

Apart from placing universities higher up in regional and global rankings, research excellence allows them to remain relevant in research and development (R&D) and to offer technical solutions to corporate bodies and nurture start-up enterprises.

Given the enormity of the task for many of the world’s universities of re-orienting their staff and students towards research, it is important for institutions to set up capacity-building initiatives that facilitate the realisation of this goal. In this regard, there is an interplay between balancing universities’ primary missions of educating students with the demands and rigours of research competitiveness.

We need to realise that governments have always placed a premium on universities for finding solutions to the seemingly insuperable environmental, social, health and economic problems that have bedevilled their societies. We need to note that by being committed to research, universities create new possibilities, while in teaching, universities shape new people.

Modern developmental challenges require powerful research tools, skills and orientation to ensure the production of excellent research. For instance, research funders in the United Kingdom have instituted the Research Excellence Framework with the aim of ensuring research coming out of its universities is excellent and useful.

Research initiatives

In the same vein, the deanship of scientific research of King Saud University, or KSU, in Saudi Arabia has initiated an array of programmes and initiatives that aim to galvanise university researchers to produce excellent research output, which could transform the university into a producer of cutting-edge research and innovation.

Some of the programmes being undertaken by the university to strengthen research excellence include:
  • King Saud University Award for Scientific Excellence
    This is an annual event begun in 2013 to promote high standards in scientific research. The prize paves the way for the creation of a distinguished and innovative scientific research environment. Given the importance of research in a modern university setting, the initiation of this prize by the university aims to reward excellence.

    Furthermore, the event serves as a key component of the KSU2030 Strategic Plan, an integrated set of actions designed to turn Saudi Arabia into a knowledge-based society. Its buzzwords include 'quality and excellence' and 'creativity and innovation'.

    The prize has seven categories: (i) the lifetime Scientific Achievement Prize, (ii) the Research Quality Prize, (iii) the Research Productivity Prize, (iv) the Inventions, Innovations and Technology Licensing Prize, (v) the Societal Partnership Research Prize, (vi) the Best Authored Book Prize, and (vii) the Student Research Excellence Prize.

  • International Highly-cited Research Groups Programme
    The programme was set up in 2014 to support faculty, researchers and students in the university to join internationally-renowned and established research groups in world-class universities.

    The research output from the groups is distinguished and is normally published in elite scientific journals. By fraternising with other formidable research cohorts outside the country, the programme aims to attain the best research outcomes.

  • Researchers’ Support and Services Unit
    To entrench research rigour and infuse ethical values among budding and experienced researchers of the university, the Researchers’ Support and Services Unit was launched in 2014. It aims to give researchers the technical support they need to pursue research projects from their conception to publication in highly regarded peer-reviewed journals.

    Prospective researchers with viable research ideas fill in one of the unit’s online forms about the research they intend to undertake. The research viability committee of the unit assesses the proposal and reports back within a week.

    If the outcome of the assessment is favourable, the unit gets involved and mobilises its staff to ramp up technical support in terms of statistical analysis of data, proofreading and providing illuminating charts to strengthen the paper. The unit equally gets involved in advising prospective researchers on which journal to approach, although this depends on the calibre of the article.

    In accordance with the university’s desire to inculcate a spirit of research excellence among its students, the unit caters for both undergraduate and graduate students. Students are normally assigned to work with senior academic mentors in the field relevant to the research topic. The supervisor periodically reports back to the unit on the progress of the student. If a paper finally gets published, both supervisor and student get a financial award.

    Essentially, the unit is a supportive structure that assist researchers at the university and beyond to carry out research that will measure up to international standards.
All these initiatives are now well integrated into the university. The programmes seem to be on the right track going by the reports of the periodic review being carried out by regulatory bodies. Besides, both internal and external stakeholders have had the opportunity to make critical observations of how the initiatives are proceeding.

Apart from these earlier initiatives, other additional programmes currently being implemented include a special programme to stimulate researchers to publish their findings in Nature and Science journals; and a National Research Priority Programme that aims to harness and direct research towards urgent national needs. Indeed, having discerned the potential of such programmes, the private sector, for instance SABIC, a petrochemical behemoth in the region, has stepped in to support them.

Growing challenges such as globalisation, the depletion of natural resources, youth unemployment and an ageing population demand that universities reposition themselves by instituting research-strengthening structures aimed at producing excellent and useful research. With adroit planning and robust management, Saudi universities may be well-placed to support the quest for national transformation.

Dr Adamu A Ahmed is coordinator of the Research Chairs Program at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.