The press has been interested in the issue of scientific research in Jordan the last couple of days. Yesterday, under the provocative title “Universities cost the treasury billions of dinars a year due to weakness of scientific research”, Al Arab Al Yawm tried to deal with this issue. Citing “specialized studies”, the article claims that “the national economy suffers great losses due to the decline in the quality of university graduates”. So, the author equates the treasury with the national economy, scientific research with quality of graduates, “great” losses with “billions” and his article with journalism.
What about the “specialized studies”? Who published them? What methodology was used to reach the conclusions? In short, how reliable are they? There is no credible substantiation for the incredible claims made in the beginning of the article or its title.
The article goes on to gives us a predictable litany of reasons why scientific research is weak in Jordan, citing the vice president of Jordan University, Nabil Shawaqfeh, and the head of the friends of scientific research society, Anwar Battikhi. Shawaqfeh blamed poor graduate studies theses on the lack of motivated full time students and the lack of incentives for excellent students, as well as high work loads for faculty members. Battikhi suggested that there are not enough researchers per capita in the country in comparison with more developed countries. He also blamed poor funding for research in university budgets and by the private sector. In a refreshing counter argument, the former head of JUST and current head of the National Center for Diabetes, Kamel Ajlouni, blamed faculty members themselves, claiming that despite their high degrees, they are poor researchers.
Today, Al Ghad took a different angle, by emphasizing the economic potential that is wasted due to poor linkages between research and society needs, citing economic analyst Hussam ‘Ayesh. ‘Ayesh also linked poor scientific capacities to the brain drain from the country. On the other hand, pharmaceutical industry association general director, Hanan Sboul is cited pointing out that research investment by Jordanian pharmaceutical companies have increased substantially in recent years, leading to notable increases in exports for these companies.
A while back, I wrote about the financial conditions of Jordanian Universities. I raised the issue of the "additional fees for Jordanian universities", which are collected for the universities, but are not used for the benefit they are raised for. Today, the higher education council was to divide government “support” for the universities, with a total amount of 50 million dinars for nine universities (notice the lack of mention of additional university fees tax).
This is not to say that university funding is really linked to the supposed poor research in the universities. As far as I can tell, the indicators used to measure quality of research seem to rely on the number of articles published and where they are published. This is an easy yardstick, but it is self contradictory. Why? Because “relevant” scientific research is almost by definition geared towards local issues. International journals tend not to publish research, no matter how high the quality, that is not of interest to an international audience. Often, high quality papers are rejected because they are of “local interest”. So, researchers publishing in local journals for working on “relevant” local projects are viewed poorly, while researchers who work on “irrelevant” (to local issues) projects and publish in international journals are viewed favorably.
But a bigger issue is that nobody in a position to make decisions actually reads research results anyway. This is a well known problem, and the sad fact is that getting officials interested enough in genuinely innovative research projects and results is almost impossible. Reading is a bother, and finding a fundable research line will mean that it should be funded, meaning less money for officials to travel around the world looking for experts. The issue is a red herring. Instead of bothering to actually read research papers to determine if they are in fact worthy of consideration and implementation, it is easier to brand all local research as being poor and irrelevant. This makes it easier to hire foreign consultants, who are more credible just because they are foreign.
As for the friends of scientific research society, they are doing a disservice to scientific research, by conceding that research is poor (indicting themselves), and blaming this on the lack of funds. A real breakthrough will require decision makers to read and fairly consider the results of local researchers, and move from there. The pharmaceutical industries' experiment should be used as a case study.