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Targeting research, innovation and international collaboration

Interview - May 9, 2012
H.E. Dr. Hilal Ali Al Hinai, Secretary General of The Research Council (TRC), shares with United World the origins of the newly established organization and its work towards capacity building, research excellence, technology transfer, and the creation of an enabling environment

Please tell us about the vision behind the establishment of The Research Council (TRC) in Oman and the role it plays in the social and economic development of the Sultanate?

Research is the highest level of any educational system, as it is built on higher education capacity. Research councils are there to support and encourage research financially, morally, and legally through approved processes.
The Research Council of Oman was established in 2005, 35 years after the renaissance process was initiated by His Majesty. If you look back 40 years ago, and you look at Oman today, you will realize that the country has been through an astonishing transformation. Before 1970 we were literally living in the Middle Ages as we only had three elementary schools, no healthcare, there were no roads and very few people could read and write. When the educational system was started, those who could read and write were recruited as teachers.

Obviously developing human resources is a lengthy and cumbersome process and so is building schools and educating people who can fill positions in government. A government structure evolved with positions to be filled by people with education, those who can communicate with the rest of the world. That was the challenge for the educational system at that time – to produce quantity, despite the very difficult situation due to the lack of human resources and the severe limitation of financial resources.
We are labeled as an oil-rich country, but it is all relative. The country’s income is significantly dominated by oil revenues but these are small compared to developed countries or the major oil producing countries in the region. The country has a very challenging topography with people living in the mountains and in the desert, and schools had to be built in those areas. We had to overcome all of those challenges in a very short period of time. We had to develop the capacity for a research system to evolve and this is why we have only just recently established The Research Council (TRC).

When we started developing the strategy and programs for TRC, we had to take stock of what we have in terms of research capacity. Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) is very strong; it has research of the caliber that can be found in the best universities in the region. The challenge is how to capture value not only from the knowledge generated through domestic research but also the knowledge available internationally. In our research strategy we support knowledge generation via research, which is a form of converting money into knowledge but we are also trying to complete the cycle, so that we can capture value from this research expenditure. The value could be in finding a solution to a social problem, or creating jobs for the young people that are coming out of the educational system. We have identified three pillars for our research structure, namely, research, innovation and international collaboration.

In developing our research priorities, and realizing that we are a small country in terms of human and financial resources, we aimed to identify the niche areas that we can excel in regionally and internationally. We looked at our areas of strength such as location – we are in a central location, where east meets west, and south meets north. This has given us advantages over the centuries – we have been traders and had friendly connections with the rest of the world. Indeed, through our trading links, Oman had the first Arab Ambassador to the U.S. Looking east, our trade links extended to Japan and China, to Russia in the north and to the deserts of North Africa, South Africa and the eastern and western African coasts. That central location has been an advantage, and it still is, so we are looking to build on it in developing our research collaborations.

Another area of strength is our oil industry – it has been around since the early 60s. In this industry we have highly trained world-class human resources. We also have very challenging oil reservoirs, which require new technologies to enhance the recovery of oil. Because of this, Oman has become famous within the international oil industry for using the latest Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) technologies in its oil reservoirs. 

We realized that if we focus on EOR we already have clear advantages, not only with the high-caliber human resources, but also with the established links with international partners in the oil industry. Because of this, there are already Omani companies that are competing in the world market, and there are many others that are trying to develop their niche areas and work within Oman and the region. Obviously developing technologies that would help us now to enhance our recovery can be applied elsewhere.
The good thing about EOR is that it can also be used as a vehicle for developing research and innovation capacity to meet our other needs in areas such as renewable energy, water and ICT. In EOR we use a lot of gas to produce steam, which is injected into the ground to reduce the viscosity of the oil and to improve the recovery. If, instead of using gas, we use solar energy to produce steam, obviously we will be mastering a technology that will help not only EOR, but also produce electricity and capture value from the abundant solar energy resource we have.

With EOR, there is a significant need for water treatment. For every barrel of oil we produce, there are about nine barrels of water coming out of the ground with the oil. That water needs to be treated, otherwise we will pollute the environment, whether it is shallow water reservoirs or the surface environment. We have to do that and obviously mastering this type of technology will also give us an advantage when it comes to treating and desalinating water. The same goes for ICT – if we focus on ICT for smart oil fields then our ICT sector will have an advantage within this niche area.

The good thing, as well, is that expenditure is available and significant resources are being devoted to research in this sector. This means that significant value can be captured enabling us to develop our capabilities and capacity in research and innovation. That can help us in fulfilling our needs in the short-term, as well as playing a significant role in the region and internationally.

Obviously, we cannot ignore our other needs – there are certain research areas such as health and health-related issues that need to be tackled. They are important to us because of their specificity in our region. We are also blessed with significant marine resources and there is a lot of potential to be tapped from that for food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic uses. This can provide us with tools to diversify from oil revenues in the future.

What are the main on-going research and innovation programs of TRC?

Within our strategy, there are four main objectives, namely: capacity building, research excellence, technology transfer, and the creation of an enabling environment. We have developed several programs to meet these objectives. The Open Research Grants Program aims to build research capacity by injecting financial resources through a competitive process where researchers apply for research grants in areas of their own choice. Obviously, being relevant to Oman is one of the criteria used in ranking different proposals for funding. It is called ‘open’ as research can apply for any amount in the fields of sciences and humanities. The evaluation is based on international procedures; we have funded around 60 research grants in the past two years, with a good success rate, because of our need to build capacity and inject money into the system to get research going.

The goal of the Strategic/Directed Research Program is to find solutions to issues of national importance within the six research sectors: health and social development; education and human resources; environmental and biological resources; ICT; energy and industry; and culture, social and basic sciences. We identify priorities within each of these sectors. For example, in the health and social development sector, road traffic safety was identified as a national priority. We established a program to call for research proposals locally and internationally to help us find solutions. We are about to fund four projects, mainly from international research institutes.

Similarly within the environmental and biological resources sector, the Dubas Bug, which attacks date palms, was selected as a priority research area due to the health, environmental and socio-economic impact it has on Omani society. We have called for proposals from around the world to help us find a solution to this problem.

In the social sector we are developing a social observatory program to provide indicators for social development and areas that require special attention.

The Research Chairs Program aims to create centers of excellence in areas of national importance. We started with the Chair in Nanotechnology for Water Desalination at SQU. Its goal is to create a center of excellence in this area within five years so we can capture value from nanotechnology. We hope to establish several other chairs, or centers of excellence, in niche areas of national importance.

We have a variety of other programs under development including research grants for undergraduate students and mobility grants for researchers.

On the innovation side, we have started several Innovation Assistance Programs. They target schools, higher education institutes, industry, individuals and communities. The Education Innovation Assistance Program, in partnership with the Ministry of Education aims to sow the seeds of research, innovation and entrepreneurship in general education. The Academic Innovation Assistance Program is being developed in collaboration with SQU to help academics and students in higher education institutes develop their innovations and become more entrepreneurial. The focus of the Industrial Innovation Assistance Program is to increase awareness of the importance of research and development in the industrial sector. We also are linking SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) with researchers to bridge the gap between academia and industry. This will help them benefit from the research capacity within higher education institutes to solve the technological issues they face as well as show them the benefits of focusing on research and development in terms of improved competitiveness. This is a program developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Public Establishment for Industrial Estates (PEIE).

What is the budget currently allocated for R&D in Oman?

The Research Strategy approved by the Government targets a national expenditure (in the public and private sectors) of 1% of GDP in the current Five-Year Plan, rising to 2% by 2020. This is a significant amount of investment compared to what we currently spend which is estimated at around 0.2% of GDP and thus research capacity will be the greatest constraint in terms of spending these financial resources.

One of the priorities of TRC is to encourage knowledge transfer. How closely do you co-operate with other international institutions? Do you have any relations with American institutions?

As an organization, we are just starting and we aim to benefit from international experience from around the world. We have consulted international experts to help us develop the strategy; in particular, Charles River Associates International helped us in this regard. In terms of collaborating with research councils, we are certainly building links. We see the Obama Initiative for Science and Technology Development in the Islamic World as an important initiative and we are collaborating with the implementing agencies, CRDF for example. However, I think there is a lot that can be done in terms of research collaboration. There are companies from the private sector that work here in Oman within the research and innovation arena. We hope this will flourish. Our International Department is being developed, especially when it comes to marketing and communication issues.

Part of your vision is to have the largest research capacity in the region. Could you comment on the level of R&D in Oman in the context of the region?

I think we are in a very good position. We can divide capacity into human resources, infrastructure and financial resources. In terms of human resources, there is no doubt that we are in a much better situation than both countries. Omanis are known as hard workers and are now highly educated, capable of taking on the challenge of innovation, development and entrepreneurship; the future looks bright and prosperous. In terms of research infrastructure, the facilities we have in our universities are comparable to those found in many developed countries. As for financial resources, with the Government’s target expenditure of 1% of GDP we feel that we have sufficient financial resources to take us where we need to go. The efficient utilization of these resources is important for developing a solid base for the future.

What message would you like to convey to the international audience about Oman, following the major changes in the region?

Throughout history, Oman has been a hub for civilization. If you look at our location, we are at a crossroads, connecting east and west, north and south. If you look at the challenges the world is facing now, I think there is plenty to learn from Oman in addressing these challenges. For example, if you visit traditional villages here in Oman, you will see beautiful examples of sustainability, which have evolved over thousands of years. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt in the areas of town planning, energy conservation and water management, which would help the rest of the world in adapting towards a more sustainable future. In the field of water management, Oman is one of the very few places where irrigation water is bought and sold in village markets on a daily basis. These examples are beautiful lessons for the rest of the world.

Oman is a melting pot where cultures flourish. It is a beautiful place to use as a platform to work in the region. We have modern infrastructure to support companies coming to use Oman as a platform for launching and demonstrating technologies in the region. We have several science parks and we are now developing a large science and technology hub consisting of a science and technology city, a medical city and Oman University for Science and Technology. This hub is highly attractive, giving companies that are interested in the region clear advantages. Similarly, our marine environment is very strong indeed and cannot be compared to any other country in the region.
This interview was conducted by United World’s team in Oman. Project Director: Barbara Jancovick.