Could you explain what the Fraunhofer Institute is and where it is located?
It is an applied research institute. We have to earn our money like a company doing contract research. We are following the demands of the industry: engineering, technology and software. Most of the Fraunhofer Institutes activities were for many years focused on Germany but about fifteen years ago we started to go more international. In Europe, I think we are the largest: 18,000 staff of qualified scientists and engineers, and we have a research budget of about 2 billion US dollars per year. I have been working with the Fraunhofer for 25 years. During my time at Fraunhofer Headquarters, I have opened our offices abroad, in USA, in Japan, in China, etc. Now my job is to develop business in the Middle East. We also have a branch in Cairo which develops our activity in Northern Africa, especially in Egypt but it is just starting. From Dubai, we work more with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.
What is the state of research today in the Middle East?
In this region, contract research does not really exist: if a company needs a technology it buys it but it doesn’t buy research to develop that technology. Therefore it is quite difficult for us to develop business. Here in the Emirates most of our contracts thus are consultancy, not real scientific research. At the moment our first real research customer is in Qatar. Qatar has really nice research opportunities. One of them is about a new technology that uses solar energy to crack down natural gas to produce hydrogen. And the waste material, that is carbon, can be used in the tire industry. So no waste at all! Clean energy, completely new technology and very challenging. We just got a big contract of above one million euros from the Qatar Science and Technology Foundation.
To what extend are research and innovation important for a country’s economic development?
For example, there is a need here on environmental issues, solar energy, water treatment and water desalination. They always say they want industrial diversification and to find new sectors away from oil and gas. We can build factories for them, we can give advice in logistics and planning. We do a lot of logistics research and all kind of engineering excellence and testing, for example building materials… So, it is a systematic approach to develop the market.
How could we promote research and development and innovation in the Middle East?
Education is at the basis of research and science. So, it is very important in countries like these to have a larger number of people with a higher level of education having an interest in science. But most of the students are in finance, management or design, maybe marketing. As soon as it comes to natural sciences or engineering, numbers are very small.
Then, if you have the critical mass eager to study and having an interest in science, the next level is to create an infrastructure, like Dubai Technopark with Dubai Institute of Technology. It would be the first non-academic institute doing practical research.
If we don’t create the institutions, the companies will not come. For example only very few industrial companies cooperate with universities, which is different from Europe, the US or, Asia, where companies sponsor universities and get some information in return, in a win-win situation. People have always been talking about a gap between science and business. In most parts of the world, this gap is closed. In this part of the world the gap still remains. So we need links between the public sector and the private sector (public and private partnership), industries and society, because they have common goals. They want to improve our life: less unemployment, better food, and education… So everybody should participate and work together.
How could we explain this lack of investment?
What I still have difficulties to understand is that if you talk to top people, they are completely convinced that there is a lack of investment. But if you start to do it because you have to make the first step, it does not seem to work. Maybe this is delegated to levels where people are more interested in revenues and in creating business immediately. In science and research, it will not happen because you have to invest first, later on comes the business.
The best scientists in the Middle East are from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. For many years, they have been leaders of the Arab world on publications and research. But I don’t see their industry in the high-tech sector and the research sector really improving accordingly.
Can research, development, sciences and technology lead to economic diversification?
Of course, every country that has done it proves it is working. For example, Malaysia. Developing its own technology is one of the most important success factors for the economy. In the UAE, I think they know it but they are still reluctant to invest. Three years ago when we started the collaboration with Technopark, they invested money for one year, two years and now they are asking “how much business have you created after two years? If you haven’t created business then we stop”.
Is it a consequence of the economic crisis that has strongly impacted the region?
Yes, I think so. But if people stop things like that, in five years they will be in the same situation as five years ago and continue to be dependent on international partners. What we wanted to do here was creating their own capacities, their own know-how with their own young people.
In your opinion, what are the different options of Dubai government to curb the effects of the economic crisis?
At the moment, they just cut expenses and stop projects. My impression is that everybody was shocked by the impact and the losses and that they are still waiting. Everything was relying on growth. They said we invest in wonderful infrastructure and then the world will come and fill in with intelligence, with know-how and money. But now we cannot complete the constructions, and we have many buildings half ready. If it breaks down, they will move to something new, something different, but I don’t know where they will want to go.
We often have the impression that Abu Dhabi invests a lot in research and development, as the Masdar example shows. What is your opinion about it?
Good question! I thought it was different because they have much more money compared to Dubai. They have all the oil. But even a project like Masdar, at which the entire world is looking with admiration, is slowing down. Here in the region, there are few big projects that have to deal with solar energy for example and with new kind of buildings, intelligent buildings and low energy buildings… Masdar is one of the good projects even if it is just at the beginning for example in industrial diversification where they bought shares in international technology companies and try to transfer skills from these partners to Abu Dhabi.
It is important to create awareness. For example a few weeks ago I organized with some partners a challenge with hundreds pupils competing in science, with a travel to Germany for the first prize. This is one example of Fraunhofer activities: we think it is important to show a commitment to education.
Could you mention other examples in the region?
Concerning science, research and technology, Saudi Arabia has the largest potential in the whole region. Saudi Arabia wants to produce human capital - Saudi people who work in Saudi Arabia. Very often, those who study abroad in the US don’t come back. It is a brain drain.
Qatar is also doing a smart investment policy with the Qatar Science and Technology Park and the Qatar Foundation.