UAE aims to boost research as Mars probe shifts views on science

Minister tells THE summit that space project on which she works typifies national priority to diversify economy

May 1, 2019
Sarah Al Amiri

The United Arab Emirates is starting to change its visa system to attract international researchers and working on research commercialisation to help diversify its economy, as a Mars probe project shifts national attitudes to science, according to a minister.

Sarah Al Amiri, minister of state for advanced sciences in the UAE government and deputy project manager on the Emirates Mars Mission, gave the opening keynote address and fielded questions at the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit, hosted by Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University. The summit was held in the UAE to reflect the region’s role as a nexus linking Asia and the West.

Like other countries in the region, the UAE is in the midst of continued efforts to diversify its economy away from reliance on the oil industry. The UAE’s economic diversification plan is now in its third phase, including a focus on science and technology in key sectors, Ms Al Amiri told the conference.

The priorities in this field were “commercialising the outcomes of research” and “having the right talent base for that to happen”, she added.

Ms Al Amiri, who chairs the UAE Council of Scientists, highlighted the Mars project on which she works, based at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre. The centre was set up by the Dubai government as part of its attempt to drive the transition to a knowledge-based economy, she said.

The centre was responsible for the first ever UAE-designed and built satellite and is now working on a Mars probe scheduled for launch in July 2020, which will be the Arab world’s first mission to Mars.

There have been spin-off benefits for manufacturers of parts and there is “potential for commercialisation that comes out of a lot of the knowledge acquired in this project”, the minister said.

The project is also “inspiring people to enter the sciences”, said Ms Al Amiri, a computer engineering graduate of the American University of Sharjah, with examples of students shifting from business or international studies into physics and mathematics “because of this project”.

There are “a lot of these stories where parents are finally finding an outlet for their children who are scientifically inclined”, Ms Al Amiri added.

In the past, young people wanting to study space-related science courses were confronted with the question “what do you want to do with that field?” and with doubts about whether such courses would lead to jobs, which is “something that I heard”, she continued.

“For the first time we see a generation that is not hearing that…It percolates to universities through the students they get and the passion that comes with that,” the minister said.

On the UAE’s general aims, Ms Al Amiri continued: “For advancing science…we need diversity.”

She said: “One of the most important initiatives the UAE federal government has launched is the talent visa [that] allows people to remain here in the UAE for five years [or] for 10 years, when a typical visa period is two years. For the first time the prime minister has announced that the visa will be given to 20 scientists.”

She also said that in scientific collaboration “the next phase is…collaboration with Asia, especially with the shift of the geopolitical landscape and the overall world order”.

On research commercialisation, the UAE government is working on a programme that will “bridge the gap” between universities and companies. Ms Al Amiri said that one role model here was the UK’s Catapult Centres, which have “stimulated a lot of industries that have shied away from investing in research…It’s created quite an interesting model of collaboration between the two entities.”

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