Towards a Mediterranean Research Area in ICT

The MED-IST project over the past two years has carried out a survey across the region to identify the current scientific ICT capacities and the future priorities in each country. This not only gives us a fairly good picture of the future ICT R&D directions the countries are interested in, but also a clear view on where these countries see the problems in intensifying their R&D efforts, in particular with respect to cooperation with Europe as for example in the Framework Programme 7. So one of the main topics at this conference was to get a consolidated view on the barriers to overcome and challenges to be met, before a 'Mediterranean Research Area in ICT' can become reality. However, understanding such barriers is one thing, more important is the question what steps are needed to overcome them: what the countries need to do to support R&D in terms of policies and strategies.
Two panel sessions that led to very lively discussions with all attendees were held on these two topics of 'barriers' and 'policies'. The main emerging issues from both, which we will briefly summarise here, were:

The Research Environment in the MPC
"The environment in the MPC does not encourage research." There is clearly a lack of full time researchers in the entire region and a 'research career' does not really exist. There is also a lack of a systematic evaluation of research. Hence there is little motivation.
The region needs a vision There is a lack of a long-term vision concerning research in most of the countries and clearly no cross-regional vision.
The role of research needs to be defined: is it just to help researchers to make good publications or for the benefit of the countries (i.e. economy). If it is for the latter (as it should) one needs a clear path from research results to the private sector.
Cooperation
"The culture in the MPC does not favour collaboration." Collaboration is indeed rather rare in the region, be it within a country between universities or universities and private industry, between countries in the region or internationally. Incubators have become quite fashionable across the region over the past decade, and in general are seen as very successful, however they could play a much stronger role in bringing academia and industry together.
There was a long debate on the reasons and one of the arguments brought forward quite often was that collaboration is not a strong element in the culture of the region. At the same time, however, everybody not only agreed that collaboration is necessary but was eager to practise it.
The conclusion on this discussion was that the problems in collaboration are not cultural ones but simply due to the lack of opportunities.
How to foster cooperation? European Programmes, in particular FP7, can act as a catalyst for cooperation and networking. The EC seems to be interested in the MPC region, but there is still a lack of opportunities for collaborative research in the FP7 workprogramme until now.
Such catalyst function needs a sound back-up in terms of research funding coming from the region. Since there is little money available there (and the EC will not provide such large funds) a pan-Arabic approach appears to e a good solution.
Visibility
Is the MPC region seen by European researchers and interesting one for FP7 cooperation ? Or only a few countries ? Visibility is indeed limited, not only from the outside but also within a country, "We are not even visible to ourselves!". There is little recognition for the importance of research in the countries.
One important reason for the limited visibility is lack of funds that prevents active researcher to present their results (the cost for attending a scientific conference in EU or US is equivalent to 3 monthly salaries).
Does it make sense to establish ICT Challenge-oriented clusters across the region to increase visibility ? Clusters may be a good idea, but before creating them one needs a long-term vision in the region, which is lacking right now.
Clusters need managerial support (and some funds). There are some associations in specific areas across the region: one should identify them and propose the cluster idea to them.
Policies
Are existing national policies emphasising collaboration sufficiently? All existing policy and strategy documents across the region mention the need for 'collaboration', but generally the emphasis is not very high.
It appears that on the 'working level', i.e. active researchers and developers, the need for cooperation on all levels (between universities in a country, between academia and private industry, between countries and internationally) is well recognised.
However, active support in form of funds is needed from the governments.