Beyond bricks

Building a high impact research ecosystem in the GCC

Executive summary

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries1 are investing heavily in research infrastructure, but less on high-quality research and development (R&D). At present, private-sector-led and academic research is limited. Local universities have few channels for collaboration with international universities, the private sector, or the government. This reduces the output and quality of their research, and precludes innovation and any meaningful input into social and economic policy. A further deterrent to leading-edge R&D is that the region’s legal system does not effectively protect researchers’ intellectual property (IP) and does not provide them with commercialization support. Consequently, GCC countries pay a high price to import knowledge, an unsustainable solution that does not always answer their specific needs.

Instead, GCC countries need to put more effort into fostering the research ecosystem so that they produce high-quality research that can lead to innovation and that can inform public policy. By carefully moving part of their spending from facilities to R&D, and by creating incentives for high-impact, practical research, they can facilitate the transition toward a diversified economy, better manage an array of societal challenges, and reduce dependence on imports generally. There is empirical evidence that a 1 percent increase in R&D can boost economic growth by 0.6 to 2.2 percent.

GCC governments must focus on improving research capabilities and the quality of output. Governments should create national research frameworks, invest in building their local talent, and fund research on a performance basis. They should also encourage research in high-priority socioeconomic sectors through collaboration with enterprises. Finally, they should establish an effective intellectual property (IP) framework and provide support in prototyping and commercialization. Research collaboration amongst GCC economies can also help foster innovation in the region.

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GCC governments need to build a comprehensive research ecosystem

GCC governments can do more in terms of increasing R&D by encouraging the output and quality of academic and corporate research. This can enable innovation and the development of new products and solutions, and enhance workforce skills. These advances in turn contribute to adaptability and increased productivity.

To maximize the impact of R&D spending, GCC countries should foster an enabling research ecosystem that will allow them to become more effective producers of innovation and address socioeconomic challenges specific to their countries. For example, this can lead to GCC-originated approaches to reduce fossil fuel dependence, combat water stress, and manage healthcare problems.

To build this ecosystem, GCC governments need to focus their efforts on five initiatives: putting research at the center of the GCC public-sector agenda, nurturing and empowering local researchers, introducing a performance-based funding model, promoting the university–industry link with commercialization enablers, and establishing an effective IP legal framework.

1. Putting research at the center of the GCC public-sector agenda
GCC countries need a clear governance model for their research ecosystem that will place research at the center of the public-sector agenda. This will help to formalize coordination between their research bodies and government institutions, which is critical as the public sector continues to play a dominant role in GCC economies.

As part of this, GCC governments should include clear goals for research initiatives in their national development and public policy visions. Only in this way can GCC governments ensure the desired effect and impact of R&D across all sectors. Governments should also design the right governance framework to channel research efforts and monitor them effectively. In Germany, for example, the Ministry of Education leads the German scientific research framework. The ministry coordinates and governs the implementation of research priorities. It formulates the research priorities in line with the country’s economic priorities. In Germany, this includes five focus areas: communication and mobility, environment and energy, future and society, health and security, and interdisciplinary technologies. Research performance is monitored closely and shared with the public. The German government publishes several annual reports providing an overview of the state of research activities.17

In addition, GCC governments should leverage the evidence-based information and in-depth analyses of academia to tackle complex societal and economic challenges. They should do so by increasing and formalizing coordination with academia. The Institute for Government in the U.K. recommends that governments establish clear responsibility within departments for how officials engage with academics and for the quality of the evidence and expertise used in policymaking. Such roles are led by “chief scientific advisers,” which 15 British government departments now have.

2. Nurturing and empowering local researchers
GCC universities should create an environment of research collaboration and individual excellence to empower local researchers. With the support of their governments, they should launch initiatives such as introducing sabbaticals for professors to focus completely on research, funding professors’ participation in conferences, or establishing faculty exchange programs. Given sufficient funding, administrative support, and time, GCC professors will be in a position to improve their research productivity and reduce universities’ reliance on importing knowledge or contracting researchers from outside the region.

In 1999, the South Korean Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development launched the “Brain Korea 21” (BK21) program with $1.4 billion in funding for local graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and contract-based research professors at top universities. The first phase of the program ran from 1999 to 2001 and raised the average number of papers per participating professor from 2.74 to 3.72 in the fields of science and engineering, and from 1.1 to 2.3 in the humanities and social sciences. The second phase of BK21 ran from 2006 to 2012 and allocated $2.1 billion to focus more on university specialization at the level of specific departments to cultivate excellence and develop the link with industry.18

3. Introducing a performance-based funding model
To improve the quality of university-led research, GCC governments need to rationalize and standardize the allocation of funding based on performance. Traditional performance-based funding relies on one of two models: bibliometric assessment or peer-review assessment.

The bibliometric assessment model — which countries such as Belgium, Sweden, and Norway have adopted — provides funds based on research productivity, using the h-index.19 In this model, data is analyzed to determine the popularity and impact of specific articles, authors, and publications. Some pragmatic considerations include understanding the age of material used in a discipline, and the extent to which recent publications supersede older ones. However, there are some limitations to this approach because data is often incomplete or biased, as it is largely collected by hand.

The peer-review assessment model, used in Italy and the U.K., involves a review of research outputs by experts based on set criteria and standards of quality. Funding for research is allocated selectively based on the quality and impact. In the U.K.’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), panels comprising senior academics, international members, and research users assess three distinct elements: the quality of published research outputs (originality, significance, rigor); their impact on the economy, society, and/or culture; and the significance and sustainability of the research environment behind these outputs. The REF sets benchmarking and reputational criteria within higher education, provides accountability for public investments in research, and produces evidence showing the benefits of such investments, thereby informing the selective allocation of funding for research.

4. Promoting the university–industry link with commercialization enablers
GCC governments must encourage more collaboration between universities and the private sector. Such mobility is critical for the transfer of knowledge in formal and informal ways. Formal relationships include collaborative agreements, R&D contracting, policies, IP management, and spin-off activities. Informal contacts can mean exploiting research results published by universities in public journals, or hiring research students. However, these channels are not sufficiently developed in the GCC.20

One example, from Chile, involved the government launching the Science for the Knowledge Economy (SKE) program in 2003, which aimed to enhance the link between universities and companies. Previous initiatives to promote R&D were limited to public-sector research grants, and the outputs were insufficiently relevant to private-sector business needs. The SKE program covered a wider range of policy instruments. It provided scholarships for students to conduct their research within private companies. Between 2002 and 2004, the number of science and technology researchers employed by the private sector increased from 14 percent to 50 percent. The program also allocated funding for research on a competitive basis and supported patenting and commercialization activity by establishing internal connections. By 2007 when the program ended, Chilean firms’ probability of patent activity and introducing new products had increased by 37 percent and 29 percent, respectively.21

In particular, it is critical for universities to reform the reward systems for researchers by rewarding them in their careers for collaborating with businesses and governments. The partnership between the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Aramco provides one example of an attempt at closer collaboration with the private sector. In 2015, KFUPM and Saudi Aramco established the School of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences that brings faculty, students, and oil and gas experts closer together to design effective business and technical solutions for the industry.

5. Establishing an effective IP legal framework
GCC governments need to upgrade their IP laws and build an effective supporting judicial system to implement them and streamline related procedures.

GCC countries currently have a unified patent law and are in the process of developing a regional trademark law. Stronger IP laws would help decrease the possibility of patent infringement and validity issues. It is important to ensure that these laws include a detailed view on penalties in the event of the unauthorized use of IP.

GCC governments must establish dedicated IP courts to handle any IP-related issues. They must ensure they have local lawyers and judges who specialize in IP law and have a detailed understanding of all of its aspects. They then need to streamline formal patent application, registration, and protection procedures. Finally, governments need to raise awareness about these laws and procedures and make the information easily available to the public.

Patent litigation within the common law legal system of England and Wales22 provides a good example to follow. The government established the Patents Court and the Patents County Court, which have exclusive jurisdiction to hear patent and registered design infringement proceedings. They include a number of full-time assigned judges who have a technical background in IP related issues.

Once the key enablers are in place and a trend can be observed on the quality of output, GCC countries will need to build centers of excellence and critical mass in the higher-performing sectors of the research system and provide frameworks for experimentation and scaling up of solutions. A regional initiative for research and innovation excellence such as the European Research Framework would also boost the output and impact of research across the region.

How the EU encourages regional collaboration in research

The EU seeks to foster collaboration to improve the impact of research through Horizon 2020, a major research and innovation program that will invest up to $94 billion between 2014 and 2020. Among the program’s objectives are addressing social challenges and strengthening the EU’s global position in research, innovation, and technology.

The program’s investment in research prioritizes three areas: excellent science, industrial leadership, and societal challenge. Through knowledge transfer, policy learning, and partnerships with EU states, the program is trying to create an EU-wide market for knowledge research and innovation, similar to the European Single Market.


A strong local research environment will be instrumental in promoting innovation across GCC countries and helping them achieve economic growth. Governments should launch structural initiatives to shore up this ecosystem starting within academia and, more important, acquire a better understanding of the ways in which academia can contribute to societal and economic improvement. However, the real impact will be generated by enterprising and fruitful collaboration between universities and corporations.

1 The GCC consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

17 Research in Germany.

18 “Brain Korea 21 Phase II: A New Evaluation Model,” Rand Education, 2008.

19 Measure of the productivity and citation impact of the publications of a researcher.

20 Reinhilde Veugelers, “The contribution of academic research to innovation and growth,” WWWforEurope, Working Paper no 71, Dec. 2014.

21 José Guimón, “Science for the Knowledge Economy Project in Chile,”Innovation Policy Platform, OECD and World Bank, 2013.

22 There is no single legal system for the four countries of the U.K. (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland), although England and Wales share a body of common law. Christian Helmers and Luke McDonagh, “Patent Litigation in the UK,” LSE Legal Studies Working Paper No. 12/2012, Sep. 23, 2012.

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