Academics want research capacity to boost economic growth
Posted – 26th August 2021
Libyan universities are looking to boost research capacity targeted at economic sectors that will be vital as the country attempts to recover from seven years of civil war that started in 2014.
A tentative peace has been holding so far in 2021, with an interim government planning elections for this winter.
A conference on Libya, held in Berlin in June, discussed how the international community can aid economic development, and Libyan universities are looking into how they can play a part.
Quality research into solutions in key areas such as renewable energy and health care management could help, said Ahmed Al Amin, the head of research and construction at the department of energy and mining engineering at Sabha University in Sabha, southern Libya.
Al Amin told University World News: “The problem is that we have serious power cuts. Once, the supply was cut for 12 days, causing many problems; we lost so much food and medicine because it could not be refrigerated.”
Al Amin stressed the need for irrigation in southern Libya: “We lost a huge number of olive trees in the south due to lack of water,” noting that local water supplies in this oasis city need to be pumped from the Numidian aquifer: “Every litre of water requires energy to lift 60 metres from the well,” he noted.
He said solar energy research projects are imperative for Libya’s reconstruction and resilience: “I am working on a solar irrigation system for olive and date farmers; we call it ‘solar cooling’,” he said.
“It is a solar-powered heat exchange system or absorption refrigeration plant.”
He said his research team is also focusing on cooling milk to between 5 degrees centigrade and 10 degrees centigrade (preventing storage) and freezing food.
Limited funds for research
One problem facing Libyan universities as they ponder their research role is the difficulties still prevailing from the former socialist regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, which fell in 2011.
“The priority was teaching rather than research,” Adel Diyaf, the head of international cooperation at the University of Tripoli, told University World News.
And, while, as with many Libyan academics, he had benefited from generous study bursaries (he secured a PhD at Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University on flexible solar cells), since returning to Libya he has struggled to continue his research.
“The problem is that we do not have great facilities,” said Diyaf.
Eager to find ways to continue his research, he looked for what equipment was available and, by chance, found a brand new “plasma-enhanced chemical vapourisation deposition chamber brought from the Netherlands” which deposits silicon in the gaseous state on solar cells.
However, he said: “That system doesn’t work in Libya because we don’t have access to gaseous silicon, nor the necessary safety equipment.”
As a result of the shortage of the appropriate materials, funding and equipment, Diyaf has “moved towards simulation rather than testing of materials in the lab”.
In general, he said, Libyan universities are suffering from lack of funds, noting that many researchers are self-funding. He added: “I’m doing [research] work by myself. The university is not providing anything, such as bursaries for research sabbaticals or [access] to conferences.”
Such services have been suspended since 2014, he said, when the United Nations imposed sanctions at the height of the civil war.
In the meantime, some small research groups are funded by the interim government, and academics look for outside funding, including from overseas, for instance from the European Union’s Erasmus programme, as well as from local communities or oil companies funding research.
Focus on health care, media, women
Marcello Scalisi, the Mediterranean Universities Union (UNIMED) director, said that its Erasmus+ project, called IBTIKAR (innovation), was continuing to explore research capacity-building in Libya, and was still analysing potential partners.
He said Libyan academics “have a mature understanding of what their needs are”. However, “there are many obstacles [such as] a lack of infrastructure and a lack of autonomy [which is very common in south Mediterranean countries like North Africa],” where universities have been traditionally under the control of government ministries.
A previously established project (launched in 2017), called ENBRAIN(Building capacity in Renewable and sustAINable ENERrgy for Libya) is an Erasmus+ project developing academic study in the renewable energy sector within Libyan universities, including the University of Zawiya (west of the capital) and the University of Tripoli.
ENBRAIN’s projects coordinator, engineering, Professor Pierluigi Leone of the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, told University World News: “I think Africa should be more included in research programmes and capacity-building at PhD level.”
However, he said, “before jumping to PhD programmes [research], we need some masters degrees. We want to create an ecosystem that will attract the attention of companies abroad offering jobs.”
Leone said that ENBRAIN had started seeking approval for launching masters courses in renewable energy with Libyan government ministries as the civil war wound down in 2020. However, there have been many obstacles.
“It has been very hard to transfer money into Libya,” he said. “Finally we are transferring money after four years [of the project].”
Leone wants an end to other barriers to Libyan collaborations, such as securing visas for conferences or visits to partner universities.
The failure of Libya to ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is also a problem, he said – that step would “open up access to the global community regarding renewables research” and, therefore, to investment”.
Another potential source of partners and funding is the EU’s European hydrogen strategy, he said.
Meanwhile, other academics want to see research to help develop the Libyan health care system, with a UNIMED project, funded by Erasmus+, called SAHA (pronounced SaHa). It has rolled out in six universities across Libya – the University of Zawia, the University of Tripoli, Misurata University, Sebha University, Sirte University, and the Libyan International Medical University in Benghazi.
Abdulbast Kriama, director of international cooperation at Zawia university, said that the SAHA project at his institution is focused on developing hospital management: “The [healthcare] system in Libya is very weak. We want to rejuvenate the system.”
Kriama continued: “We will have a data centre which will have the capability to digitise the management of the health service. The data system will be expanded to cover the whole of Libya. By the end of the project, there will be data from all Libyan universities.”
One goal here is to soothe the trauma experienced by Libyans during the country’s years of conflict: “Before, people loved each other, now it is horrible; they do not accept each other. We need to do a study on the psychological impact.”
Kriama added that the Erasmus+ PAgES project, which is focused on training Libyan journalists, could also help heal the country.
“The media that developed [after the fall of Gaddafi], was predominantly [spreading] propaganda, [and] encouraging more conflict,” he noted, stressing that the project will challenge students to think about how the media should operate in Libya.
UNIMED’s Scalisi sees universities playing the role of intermediary in the absence of a highly developed civil society across Libya, to support “civil society and youth; they can provide the right knowledge on the political side”.
He also noted that academia can change the role and place of women in Libya: “Female students are in the majority, but not in society nor in the job market,” he said, noting the lack of senior women Libyan academics: “We have to launch an initiative for female leaders in academia.”
UNIVERSITY WORLD NEWS – Elizia Volkmann
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