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Can Jordan become a country of innovation

Jan 05,2020 - Last updated at Jan 05,2020

We always use examples of success stories of countries like Singapore, Finland and South Korea because of the inspiring story they tell about countries that just a few decades ago were considered developing countries with limited resources and humble wealth. And most of us recognise the role Science and Technology (S&T) and Research and Development (R&D) investments played in getting these countries where they are today globally.

We scratch our heads and wonder whether Jordan can follow suit and become an exporter of innovation given that we have an educated young population? The simple answer is that we first need to invest in S&T and R&D before we get there. But even if do so, I do not think we can make a significant dent in Jordan’s innovation ecosystem with the current policies.

Innovation usually comes from institutions of higher education, mostly universities, and Jordanian universities are doing something else; mostly teaching because they view this as their main role in society and their source of revenue.

I argue that R&D can be a significant source of revenue for universities and it increases the quality of education. Having spent more that 20 years as a university professor in the US, I witnessed this first hand and many people can attest that ivy league universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have made a name for themselves not because they are excellent at teaching but because they are outstanding research institutes.

Ironically, students pursue such universities more aggressively despite the fact that it is easier to be admitted to less prominent universities with an environment that is more conducive to teaching. As a result, the best students go to these universities, which in return increase the demand, and revenue for such universities. But even if the Ministry of Higher Education enforces policies on universities to invest more in R&D, unless universities really believe in R&D from within, they can always find ways to superficially comply with the policy without really implementing its intended core. So what does this mean in practice? I believe that addressing the following policies must change within the institutions before we can see any noticeable change at the R&D landscape in Jordan.

First, teaching loads: Currently university professors at Jordanian universities spend almost all of their time teaching large number of undergraduate students, which leaves no time to do research nor development. To make things even worse, younger assistant and associate professors, with more energy and fresher ideas, have heavier teaching load than full professors. Research-based universities in the industrialised world actually do the opposite, where they give new faculty less teaching load to establish a research programme that can take off in the first a few years of their careers and senior faculty spend more time doing university and professional service, in addition to some teaching. Adjunct (i.e., part time professors) can be hired at very reasonable rates to cover for load reduction.

Second, promotion. Faculty promotion polices, especially in the fields of Science and Technology, are not aligned with effective R&D vision; instead they are mostly focused on publications. Naturally, faculty members will pursue publications regardless of their impact to be promoted.

While publications are important for both individuals and universities, especially when it comes to ranking and branding, they should be a natural dissemination outcome of work faculty members do in pursuit of knowledge or solving problems that have impact on the community.

Unsurprisingly, individuals start chasing the metrics, number of papers and citations, rather than impactful projects that can lead to further development, intellectual property, technology transfer and innovation. Just as a side note, if Albert Einstein applies for a promotion at our institutions today, his application may be denied for not meeting the minimum requirement of peer reviewed papers (Albert Einstein only published five papers).

Third, grant development and support. It is necessary for universities to identify funding opportunities for faculty members and train them how to develop research proposals. There are local, regional and international funding opportunities in Jordan more than what people think. But faculty members need to be given the time, incentives and support to pursue them.

Initially, the university must make this investment, but as faculty develop the skill to bring in funding, grants can pay back the university and faculty for their time, in addition to supporting research assistants, lab equipment and conferences and publications. In essence, grants can become the engine that drives all the metrics up including revenue. Such models are implemented all over the world and there is no reason for them not to work in Jordan. 

Fourth, working with the industry. Bridging the gap with the industry, or the lack of, has become a cliché that people use to explain the lack of R&D. Although this is true in general, some of the ministry’s policies must change to make this connection more natural and fruitful for both sides. For example, adjunct professors from the industry are not allowed to teach courses unless they have recent publications, despite the fact that it is not typical for professionals from the industry to publish. 

Fifth, pilot first. It is totally understandable for universities, policy makers and executives to be skeptical and blame it on cultural differences from the more advanced world. The answer can be in piloting things out and implementing things on a small scale first and then observe and remove obstacles from the way until the wheel start turning.

With some R&D funding aligned with more progressive higher education policies and university policies, I believe Jordanians have the necessary talent and education to make an exporter of innovation.

 

The writer is VP for R&D at Princess Sumaya University for Technology and professor of Engineering Management and Systems at Old Dominion University, Virginia, US. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times. Views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect institutional policies

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