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Bridging the Arab-EU technology gap

Collaboration between education, industrial sectors would create jobs
Conference at Balamand University hosts figures from around the region in attempt to stimulate economy, fight 'brain drain'

Balamand University's conference, "Building Research and Development Partnership in Lebanon and the Region," struggled to meet participants' high expectations during the daylong meeting Friday, magnifying the gulf between Europe's technological advancement and the Arab region's.

Regional aademic and business figuresgathered on campus to discuss ways to boost Lebanon's economy through collaboration between the industrial and education sectors to create new jobs and fight the "brain drain."

University president Elie Salem gave the opening speech to Balamand professors, members of UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Lebanese Industrialists Research Achievement program (LIRA), the Tripoli Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Industry Ministry and the National Council of Scientific Research (CNRS) and members of European firms.

He stressed the importance of collaboration between universities worldwide, and especially in Lebanon, with the industry sector in a bid to produce a better workforce.

As speeches were given and powerpoint presentations battled to be more advanced, elaborate and colorful, the audience appeared awed by the concepts suggested - and rightly so.

According to several speakers, such as Luis Sanz, the CEO of the International Association of Science Parks, and Gabriele Gatti, the director of AREA Science Park in Italy, we now exist in what is known as the "Knowledge Era," as opposed to the formerly "Modern Era."

Whereas the "solid modern era," according to Sanz, relied on raw materials, a heavy and static labor force and bulky "mammoth" buildings, the "liquid information society we know live in is rootless, movable and lighter."

"Everything one needs to create millions of dollars can be carried in one suitcase," he said.

This era is the era for economies based on knowledge; hence it is reliant on powerful "knowledge systems and their infrastructure," according to Gatti, as well as the current buzz word: "innovation."

In this "knowledge-based economy," Sanz reiterated, universities are the main reservoirs of knowledge and societies cannot afford for their universities not be involved in economic development.

The transfer of knowledge from universities to the "real world," as Balamand's vice-president George Nahas put it, creates a central role for universities where they become the environment for knowledge development and creativity and a place to promote excellence.

"The research council of UOB has taken the initiative to study this process through several industrial sectors and partnership procedures."

A special committee has been formed to study the sectors of biomedical engineering, electronics, food and beverages, Information Technology, renewable energy and others, with a vision to define research figures, produce students with practical knowledge and create projects that may turn into future concrete projects.

One of the main areas of collaboration discussed - a long- to mid-term project that will allegedly benefit any country if implemented properly through the accurate research, sufficient funding and professional expertise - is a science and technology park.

"Universities and industries talk of the same problems, yet in a different language," said Sanz. "Science parks can be the translators."

According to a publication by Sanz in October 2001, a science or technology park "is a space - physical or cybernetic - managed by a specialized professional team that provides value-added services and whose main aim is to increase the competitiveness of its region or territory of influence by stimulating a culture of quality and innovation among its associated businesses and knowledge-based institutions, organizing the transfer of knowledge and technology from its sources to companies and to the marketplace, and by actively fostering the creation of new and sustainable innovation-based companies through incubation and spin-off processes."

As Sanz and Gatti presented models and examples of similar parks that had been created in Europe, they appeared too good to be true. A science park is a center that would host companies (some of which would be feasible, innovative and well thought out company ideas created by university students during their course of study), provide research facilities, produce stronger companies, more employment and improved living conditions.

However, to create a successful park, certain factors need to be considered. Whereas these parks have a high probability of succeeding in European countries - a more stable region that attracts investment and receives aid from respective governments - the current political and economic situation in the region, and more specifically Lebanon, leave much room for doubt.

To create a science park, funding is necessary, as well as accurate marketing/research figures and a lack of political interference.

For a resident Lebanese citizen, it is self-explanatory as to why these criteria make it near impossible to establish and successfully run a science park. However, a foreign investor must understand that funding from the government is virtually nonexistent, so the venture would have to be a private one. There are no national archives with accurate numbers and facts regarding the country's statistics, and the chance of no political interference is slim to none.

Added to Lebanon's tough legislation, the concept is "not only improbable but downright impossible," according to a participant in the audience.

Nonetheless, Sanz, Gatti and several others remain optimistic and motivated - another requirement for the success of such a venture.

Maroun Chammas, the president of Berytech Lebanon, a technological pole - or "mini-science park" - presented Berytech as a prototype/success story of a science park in the country.

Partly funded by Universite Saint Joseph, who offered $4.5 million, this media and information technology village officially started off in November 2002 with 20 companies and now hosts 37.

"And we're aiming to host 100 within the next three years," added Chammas.

However, this mini-science park, despite the positive outlook it provides with its current success, is a private venture, where a group of people took the initiative to pay out of their own pockets - something that left participants with the view that only a private venture of this kind is feasible any time in the near future.

Beirut,07 19 2004
Mayssam Zaaroura
The Daily Star
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