Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President, Royal Scientific Society: Interview
Interview: Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan
How is research and development (R&D) enhancing the country’s economy, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises?
PRINCESS SUMAYA BINT EL HASSAN: In Jordan we have very few natural resources, so our greatest assets are our human resources. In the last four decades there has been great investment in education. Unfortunately, investment in research has not always been what one would hope. The focus has been more on a small “r” and a capital “D”. We are trying to shift the balance to make sure that we are focusing on R&D equally. But of course one needs to see the dividends of research. Research for the sake of research does not always work; we need to be thinking of applied research that really resonates with the main agenda items in Jordan. Energy, water and the environment might seem obvious, but material sciences are important as well. You can see that with the great influx of refugees coming to Jordan, and even before, there was a huge population expansion that needed housing.
To what extent is technical know-how and academic study being balanced in the country?
EL HASSAN: In 2000 King Abdullah II launched the REACH initiative, and through it we have been working very closely with industries to make sure that curricula are designed with the needs of the market and industry in mind. Moreover, what is really important is how we retain our talent. So universities today have to evolve in that regard. You can not just have academics in ivory towers; they need to be part of the real world. This can be seen more and more in Jordan through the development of entrepreneurial spirits. We can teach people the benefits of not just finding jobs but actually becoming wealth creators, and that is how the GDP of the country can be impacted in the long run. In the end this is something that has been recognised head-on, and it is about value creation over value capture. Of course, our higher education system also needs significant reform, and this will probably take a generation to evolve because socially and culturally there has always been an expectation that one needs to become an academic professional. There used to be a stigma against certain amounts of vocational training. Today, however, many polytechnics are emerging in Jordan.
In what ways is the regional turmoil and lower economic growth hampering Jordan’s path towards becoming a knowledge-based society?
EL HASSAN: On the contrary, I think it is making people look inwards more and realise that they now have to start thinking about exploring other avenues because, if we do not develop the right platform and legislation to make sure that innovation can take off, we will definitively be falling short. In the past there has been more imitation than innovation in the Arab world. Today we are seeing more innovation re-emerging from the region.
In Jordan it has been the vision of King Abdullah II to lead investment in innovation and technology, and so we have incubation entities such as iPark and Oasis500. iPark was established in the 1990s, and if it were registered today as a company, it would be the fourth-largest in the country, considering the companies that have emerged out of it, their turnover and the jobs they have created.
Certainly within the young student workforce there is a desire to do things entrepreneurially. It is also up to us, the people in positions of responsibility, to provide the right environment. We are very proud that in Jordan we have won the bid to host the World Science Forum in 2017, which is only the second time that it is leaving the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the first time it is coming to the Arab world. But this will not change overnight; it will take a generation. In the meantime, we need to see whether these wealth creators can have a knock-on effect on GDP.