They say necessity is the mother of all inventions, whether it is the need to communicate faster and more efficiently — think from the carrier pigeon to email and the smartphone — or develop cleaner and greener materials and technologies to improve the environment. I am not sure if we could do without any of these.
On a more basic level, imagine your life without electricity, running water or waste treatment. None of these essential modern-day conveniences could have been developed without the will to do so and the necessary research. It might not sound particularly attractive, but science has and continues to have a big role in bringing these conveniences into our lives.
The truth of the matter is, studying the sciences or working in the field is considered either too technical or not as lucrative a career option as one gained through an MBA. We live in a world where instant-gratification is normal and hard technical work is either outsourced or undertaken by our most gifted and talented who happen to have an inclination towards such lines of work.
The study of life sciences and biotechnology has fallen victim to this on-going trend that is unfortunate, especially for the Arab world, which has a long and rich history of scientific discovery and innovation. Somewhere along the line, we lost our way and no longer lead the world with our scientific ingenuity. The challenge seems to be connecting economic prosperity to scientific research.
This is a worldwide phenomenon; take for example the UK, which was a leader in research and development as well as manufacturing during the industrial revolution. Today its working age population is less skilled than their American, German and French counterparts as a result of an education system desperately in need of a reality check.
Lessons to learn
In its 2011 budget, the UK government recognised that the real world challenges of food security, climate change and loss of biodiversity coupled with an ageing population suffering from diseases, called for an able and well-trained workforce. The UK government has subsequently made concrete moves in this direction by increasing investment in technical vocational training for unemployed youth. The need to incentivise employment generating multinational companies that invest in R&D and manufacturing through attractive tax systems was also highlighted in the budget.
For new and emerging technology sectors such as renewable energy, which is characterised by market risk and significant lag time before investments see returns, the UK government has provided more incentives and encouraged increased investment in the private sector.
The Arab world has experienced significant brain-drain, especially among its young, with its talented population seeking better opportunities in education, research and employment in developed countries. One of their main grievances has been the lack of good quality education that, above all, stirs their passion for a fulfilling career and helps them contribute to the development of their respective societies. However, we must remember that the developed world has risen to its current status primarily through focusing on science and technology. Herein lies a lesson for us.
Here in the UAE, we are blessed with a young population but face the constant challenge of channelling their interest into areas such as the life sciences and biotechnology. We have all the right ingredients, including a thriving and strong economy as well as a leadership that invests heavily in institutions which provide degrees and programmes in science and technology. Yet there still seems to be something amiss.
In 2005, His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, established Dubai Biotechnology and Research Park (DuBiotech), as part of his 2010 vision to develop Dubai into a knowledge-based economy.
Currently a part of the Tecom Investments' Science Cluster, DuBiotech was conceptualised to help build an indigenous workforce in the scientific field.
Although the park falls under the life sciences domain, the applications for biotechnology extend far beyond health and medicine, contrary to popular belief. Biotechnology has been applied to areas as diverse as pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, textiles, aquaculture, forestry, chemicals, household products and food processing, to name a few.
While the world continues to register rapid population growth, so does its need for food. And, we are increasingly looking to hike the agricultural yield from existing farmland on a year-on-year basis. Using green biotechnology, we can design safe genetically-modified plants to grow under specific environments in the presence or absence of chemicals. Scientists hope that these methods might generate more environmentally-friendly solutions than conventional industrial agriculture. For countries such as ours that are heavily dependent on food imports, the potential for developing our own agriculture industry through biotechnology is huge.
Chemical organisms developed through biotechnology research and engineering have led to the development of industrial processes and chemicals. The applications of biotechnology to our region's oil and gas and non-petroleum industries are equally innumerable.
These are just some of the interesting and exciting areas where a locally-developed science-literate workforce can really boost and diversify our nation's economic development. We cannot emphasise enough how integral scientific research and development is to our region, but there is no doubt that it must go hand in hand with other existing industries such as oil and gas as well as construction.
My question is: "Do we simply hope and wait for a chance to present our countries with a few gifted individuals who will drive scientific innovation and thereby contribute to overall economic development, or do we take control of our destiny and truly inspire an entire generation to pick up where our ancestors left off?"
Part of the answer lies with parents who can get more involved in their children's education and thereby instil a natural hunger and awareness of the importance of science in their world. It starts off simply with a structured approach, where children from a young age can be taught critical thinking — a key tool to prepare them for a life dedicated to science — as well as ways of learning how things are done around us.
The UAE has the opportunity to become the scientific leader in the Middle East we just need to tap into the nation's natural urge to reach that goal and work together for greater successes. Our neighbours such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have developed interesting models in academic scientific research. Together we can combine our resources and truly nurture the home-grown scientific and technical talent that the Arab world so urgently needs.
Marwan Abdulaziz is the director of business development, DuBiotech.