Quick fix for numerous scientific research challenges?

Morocco suffers from low funding for research, limited scientific productivity, low innovation capacity, a limited scientific workforce, a high dropout rate and a lack of evaluation systems as well as bureaucracy and a lack of leadership.

These scientific challenges emerged in a 15 April 2022 report titled Scientific and technological research in Morocco: Evaluative analysis, published by the National Evaluation Authority (NEA) of Morocco’s Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research.

The report provides an analysis of the research system and its scientific output to promote its role as a vehicle for sustainable development.

Does the private sector contribute enough?

The report indicates that Morocco devotes only 0.75% of its gross domestic product to scientific research, despite the recommendation of the sector’s strategy for reform for 2015-30 to increase spending to 1% in the short term to reach 1.5% in 2025 and 2% in 2030.

This is “very timid funding for the production of quality work capable of bringing added value to society”, the report reads. The state remains the main provider of financial resources for research, to the detriment of business, since research and development resources devoted by the private sector represent only 30.2% of the total resources at national level.

The NEA report indicates that universities have the potential to mobilise their own financial resources, provided that their financial constraints are addressed.

The NEA report also indicates that scientific productivity, as manifested through publications, remains limited and asymmetrical and calls for offensive strategies to improve their level and quality.

This is further demonstrated in the country’s low innovative capacity with less than 10 original patents per one million inhabitants. In 2018, 2,323 patents were filed by foreigners as opposed to only 186 deposits by Moroccans.

Human resources to be increased by 2030

Even though scientific research is of significant importance, especially in societal development, the human capital devoted to it remains limited at around 1,508 per million inhabitants of Morocco, according to the NEA report. The country also lacks engineers, post-docs and technicians, administrative and financial personnel, among others.

Even though many higher education institutions and universities in public-private partnerships actively conduct scientific research, public universities provide the most human resources. According to the report, 77% of the scientific workforce resides in this sector.

The report notes that the strategic vision of the 2015-30 reform advocated for the recruitment of 15,000 teacher-researchers by 2030, with the aim of strengthening research structures.

To encourage university graduates to opt for a doctorate, Morocco grants excellence scholarships of MAD3,000 (almost US$300) for research.

“It’s a little over a third of the salary in the civil service for a masters (or engineering) graduate, and barely the equivalent of one-and-a-half times the minimum wage in Morocco for a talented doctoral student after five years of higher education,” the NEA report said.

The ratio of the number of doctoral theses defended to the number of doctoral students is quite low. The report shows that, in 2017, the percentage stood at 5.7. The dropout rate among doctoral students was 32.7% from 2004 to 2013.

Moroccan women represented well in some sectors

The NEA report showed that, in 2017, women’s participation in scientific production in Morocco reached about 24%. Women represented 26% of teacher-researchers and 37% of doctorate holders. Although there are still more men than women with doctoral degrees (65%), women have higher representation in the sectors of commerce and management (69%) and dentistry (64%).

The low participation of women in scientific research reflects one of the numerous structural issues in Moroccan higher education, according to the NEA report.

The NEA report points out that most laboratories do not always have a research project or programme that mobilises their researchers. In addition, there is little expertise in the areas of team management and scientific coordination.

Academics welcome the wake-up calls

The report highlights the need to draw up a roadmap to glimpse the strategic prospects for the development of national scientific research and planning for its promotion, at least by 2030.

This strategy should not only list the major research themes, but also propose the mechanisms and instruments capable of boosting the production of research and knowledge and mobilising researchers along with increasing and rationalising funding.

The academic community welcomed the alarming findings of the NEA report, calling for specific measures to promote scientific research at Morocco’s universities and its associated research centres.

Dr Abdellah Benahnia, a part-time international researcher and professor at the Superior Institutions of Science and Technology, an associate college of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Casablanca, told University World News that “It is necessary not to see the issue of scientific research in Morocco as an isolated problem, but rather a deeply rooted and interlinked problem that needs to be immediately tackled through a holistic reform of universities and its associated research centres, including its governing laws and procedures.”

Benahnia said that, if the universities do not take scientific research issues as one of their main concerns, and if the researchers and the authors are not adequately rewarded and compensated, the flow and pace of research will remain slow.

“The era of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that scientific research is, indeed, vital to the economy and the well-being of people and society in general,” he said.

Culture of research takes time

Dr Abdennasser Naji, a former adviser to the minister of higher education and president of Amaquen Institute, an education think tank, told University World News that several other challenges are facing scientific research development in Morocco.

“These include the lack of coordination among the strategic institutions supervising the research, the absence of a legal framework for the field of research as the law regulating higher education is devoid of any section for scientific research, and the absence of private higher education in the field of scientific research, although it has enormous potential,” Naji said.

“To develop scientific research and innovation, a mechanism should be established to support the transition from scientific research to the valuation of its results, and to provide institutional support for Moroccan scientific journals to enter the Web of Science and Scopus, along with fighting predators in publishing.”

Naji said the creation of a national resource agency managing the National Fund for Scientific Research along with linking the researcher’s promotion to his indexed scientific production is advisable.

Elizabeth Buckner, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said researchers face many issues, including lack of time, resources, and strict bureaucratic structures that do not really incentivise research.

But there are no quick fixes – building a culture of research takes time and investment in universities and scholars.