Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Scientific research

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.

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At 10:01 AM, Blogger The Observer said...

Excellent article.

We have a real problem with knowledge and research in Jordan. Hope that they do something about it.

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

Here are some additional observations:

1. A university degree in Jordan has a lot to do with being a social status symbol rather than a true fit to the country’s needs and the student’s aptitude.

2. The educational system places so much emphasis on the process and little on the outcome. Therefore, academic achievement is measured only in grades. Grades determine choice of field, and later on, impact career path. For example, top university graduates are offered graduate scholarship and could end up as university professors in a few years. However, some may lack the interest or ability to be effective educators and researchers.

3. Jordan’s graduates are superior in the amount of information and theory they amass throughout their education, BUT, they lack some core skills: initiative, innovation, communication, critical thinking, etc. These skills are critical for successful research.

By the way, did you notice that the two papers (Al-Arab Alyawm and Al-Ghad) cited different names (Anwar Battikhi and Anwar Jabassini, respectively) for the head of the Friends of Scientific Research Society?

At 8:25 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

very important topic - and a complex problem.

I've written my thoughts on this a while ago, and I would truly appreciate your feedback:

Ayman, I agree 100% with your observation on the process vs goal oriented system.

I think the biggest problem we have, is that we don't know why we have an educational system. People take it as given: you are born, and then you go to school, and start stacking degrees. just like food & water. You eat, you don't ask why.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger FadiMalian said...

Khalaf, you have a great blog (I am sure you already know and heard that a lot). I’ve been following it for a while and it is among my few sources for quality news and analysis about what is going on in Jordan. I do agree with many of what you say, but I usually focus more on the disagreements to gain more of any short discussion our times may allow.

”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” – While that maybe the case for some branches of science, but it is not the case in many others, such as technology and medicine. These tend to be more international in nature. But still, we are struggling in getting enough quality publications in these fields in competitive international conferences and journals compared to other nations. And in fact, such quality research can with time build a reputation and attract grants from international firms to produce results in topics of interest to them. But that is definitely a long journey to walk.

I lack the experience to comprehend the reasons for research “weakness” in Jordan, but definitely it needs proper planning, funding, time, and effort to reach the level we like to, or the level of some universities in other small country with comparable resources like Israel. But that can not happen without transparency, decentralization, and accountability. Otherwise, no matter how much you pump fund into research it will be gone without result. Definitely some central governmental agencies can steer the research through funding of selected topics, but they can not directly manage the research itself.

Another angle to the topic, we need to start creating research universities. Out of the thousands of US universities couple of hundreds are considered research intensive and create very high percentage of the research. These universities are usually characterized with high percentage of graduate students (University of Michigan for example has 25,555 undergraduates and 14,470 graduate and professional students), with large percentage of them PhD students, low load for faculty members, more emphasis on research, and the main criteria for a faculty member to keep her/his job is quality research and getting money (grants). In fact, in these universities, the majority of research is produced by newly graduate faculty members and graduate students. The more senior ones do manage and steer the research, and they provide the wisdom and the in-depth knowledge, but they will not produce as much without their student’s. Students work hard because they get paid “enough” to be full-time students. It is not easy to reach there, but we must have the vision for our end goal and we must aim high to achieve something. My point after this long comment, is we need to focus on evolving one or two universities into research ones, but we still need regular teaching universities as well.

Sorry for the very long comment, just you open the right topics for me, and I am looking for your input on it (and the previous one on freedom of speech).

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Observer: I agree. However, to tackle an issue, it should be properly framed. The debate thus for is poorly framed, which will mean that the issues will not be dealt with yet.

Ayman: You are right. I particularly agree with the third point about the core skills. Many researchers (let alone students) lack proper problem formulation skills. This hinders their ability to write grant proposals and to get funded. What is disturbing is that many of these researchers received their Ph.D.'s in the west. Apparantly, not all of their advisors bother to teach them these things.

I did notice the sloppy reporting (by Al Ghad). The name is Battikhi.

Arrabi: I have responed and sent you an email.

F.M.: Thank you. You forgot to include the word "relevant" when you quoted me, which changes the intent of the original statement. You are right that some fields can only publish things that are judged on an international scale (there is no local physics or mathematics issues). On the other hand, the demand that research to be relevant to society is an invitation to focus on local issues. This is a legitimate request, as long as people who are respond to it are respected and their results and opinions are taken into consideration.

Differentiating teaching and research universities is an interesting idea. However, there is a synergy between the two which demands that all university faculty be involved in research at some level, and good researchers can use their wisdom to be better teachers.

I must say that the debate on this blog on this issue is better than what is happening in the press.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Caught in the middle said...

Great article... Well said... I have nothing to add... Great opening paragraph btw... Your writing skills are unbelievable!

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