Arabs need more research grants and fewer research prizes

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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The Arab world allocates too much of its research expenditure to prizes for the best scholarship, and not enough to grants for research that is yet to be done. This reflects a fear of the unknown by funding institutions and helps explain why innovation continues to be so weak in the Arab world.

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Researchers need resources to do their work – especially cutting-edge scholarships that contribute to commercial innovation and economic growth. Broadly speaking, there are two available pots of cash.

The first is scientific grants, which you apply for prior to commencing your research project, and which allow you to execute your work in full confidence that you have the requisite financial resources in place. While securing a grant is difficult, ideally, the number of opportunities is sufficiently high that if you keep plugging away, you will get one eventually.

The second is scientific prizes, which you are nominated for – possibly by yourself – after the completion of your project. The chances of winning are always so small that you can never count on them as part of your research budget.

I am an Arab scholar who lives in the Arab world, visits many of its countries, and interacts with colleagues across the entire region. This comes after working as a researcher in the US for over a decade. Overall, there is no question that the total volume of research funding in a typical Western country, dwarfs what you find in an Arab one, whether it comes in the form of grants or prizes.

Further, the impression I have is that in the Arab world, the proportion of research funding that goes to prizes rather than grants is significantly higher than in the West. My American and British colleagues frequently share the happy news that they have secured a grant, but I rarely hear such joyous reports from my Arab ones. In contrast, when it comes to prizes, the odds seem much more comparable.

I used Google searches to investigate my hunch. For each country in the Arab world, I searched separately for grants and for prizes, recording the number of Google results. I then calculated the ratio of “grant” results to “prize” results as a measure of how much more prevalent grants are in that country. I then repeated this exercise for the rich and innovative countries of the G7.

As expected, the ratio in the G7 countries (50) was much higher than in the Arab world (20). This is bad news for our region, as it means that Arab researchers are even less likely to secure grants that allow them to pursue their projects. Winning a prize is certainly a great honor, but it is a very weak form of support for scholarship when compared to providing grants up front.

While many factors contribute to this situation, at its heart, it reflects a desire to reward the safe and known at the expense of the risky and unknown. Risk-averse research authorities prefer prizes because they already know the outcome of the research, and so they need not fear that they are funding something that they might end up not liking, which would be potentially very embarrassing.

In contrast, giving a grant means placing a bet. This kind of gamble is especially unappealing in social sciences, where the grant might result in social commentary that makes the granting institution look bad. Claw-back clauses could afford some degree of protection, but why risk the bad publicity? By shifting the funds to a prize, it is much easier to discipline research teams into respecting the red lines that research authorities wish to enforce.

Our scholars also bear some of the blame, too, through their fixation on status. For some Arab researchers, prizes are cherished not because of the prestige they confer within scientific circles, but because they allow the scholar to stand out in society. This allows them to say: “Look at me!” to societal elites, the group whose approval they crave the most. In contrast, a typical Western scholar is far more interested in being the editor of their field’s top academic journal – read by about 1,000 people – than they are of appearing on the front page of a newspaper – read by millions.

If Arabs are serious about rediscovering the sort of love for innovation that made Abbasid-era Baghdad into the world’s leading center of knowledge, then they need to shift resources away from prizes toward grants. Research authorities need to embrace the unknown rather than fearing it. Or, as the American writer William Faulkner once opined: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”

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