You are here

Scientific research, a huge challenge

Apr 03,2014 - Last updated at Apr 03,2014

A couple of week ago, I took part in a two-day seminar at the Dead Sea on scientific research, organised by the Arab Open University and attended by a large number of academics from Jordan and the Arab world.

The objective was to pinpoint the challenges facing scientific research at our universities and to prescribe solutions.

Nearly all those attending the seminar were in agreement that Arab universities’ contribution to scientific research is way below expectations.

To be sure, sporadic serious research activity does happen in some universities here and there, in some disciplines, and by some individual faculty members.

However, most of the research that is conducted is done primarily for academic promotion, as promotion from one academic rank to another is tied to a number of research papers that one must publish.

While some of the research conducted with this purpose in mind can be of good or acceptable quality, much of it, alas, is mediocre.

The picture looks particularly grim when one examines Jordanian and Arab universities’ contribution to scientific research, both quantitatively and qualitatively, within a global context.

When Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail visited the University of Jordan to receive an hono

rary doctorate in 2011, and delivered a lecture, he said it clearly and bluntly: Arab contribution to scientific research worldwide is zero.

Shocking? Not really.

All those who know about the status of research in our higher education institutions know this to be true.

The seminar participants named more than a hundred reasons for this state of affairs.

Among them: shortage of funds, absence of strategic thinking and strategic planning, lack of interest and support from the private sector, the disconnect between scientific research and developmental and societal needs, brain drain, scarcity of well-trained researchers, absence of a culture of research, lack of incentives for researchers, weak coordination and networking among universities, scarcity of research-relevant data in some spheres, the decline and fall of the humanities.

One could think of many other specific and general impediments.

I would like to suggest two, however, which I believe to be fundamental. One is the duality built in our universities’ core mission regarding teaching and research.

Nearly all our universities want to do both teaching and research at once.

In principle, there should be no problem, depending on how one manages the two daunting tasks. In practice, however, there is a problem, as the two big tasks often collide.

In other words, success or excellence in teaching and research depends on how much attention one devotes to each.

That is, one will excel in the field to which one dedicates himself more.

What if one wants to devote equal attention to both? This is the problem, as divided attention will result in a mediocre job in both.

What this means, by way of solution, is that each university has to choose between being primarily research and secondarily teaching oriented, or dedicating itself primarily to teaching and secondarily to research.

Such formula can be applied to the university as a whole, to colleges within the university, or to individual programmes.

One university, for example, may opt to prioritise research in agriculture, pharmacy or business administration. Another may prioritise teaching in Islamic Sharia, languages or nursing.

This is not happening. All our universities are put in one basket and all colleges and programmes within each one of them are also put in one basket. It is the all or nothing mentality.

This has got to change, and each university, college within it or programme must start prioritising. The second major impediment is the individual faculty member’s academic load.

I call it “academic” as opposed to “teaching” because faculty members at our universities are doing a lot of teaching — much more so than in research-excelling universities worldwide — and are doing a lot beyond teaching: committee work, quality assurance, administrative chores, etc. One should ask one simple question here: Who is expected to do research at our universities?

Obviously, it is the individual faculty member.

If the faculty member is overburdened with a cumbersome teaching load, a huge advising load, countless committees, voluminous administrative work, etc., how can he/she produce outstanding research?

Under the faculty member’s current academic load, only humble research — quantitatively and qualitatively — can be produced. Faculty members simply do not have the time.

The solution lies in reducing the faculty member’s teaching load. And, again, not all faculty members, but those who are willing and capable of doing research. Can our universities do this?

I doubt. They suffer from lack of funds. To get funds they admit more students. Admitting more students means a heavier academic load for faculty members, and therefore less attention to and focus on research.

I have been part of the higher education sector in Jordan since 1984, and I have not seen, in 30 years, any serious movement towards addressing these two major challenges.

On the contrary, the movement has been in the opposite direction: insistence on doing both research and teaching (and therefore doing neither of them well), and overburdening faculty members with heavier loads.

Until these two matters are seriously addressed, among others, our universities will be unable to produce serious scientific research, except in a sporadic, fragmented way, like we have now.

78 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.