New infrastructure for education and research

Lebanese academia progresses on path of collaboration

To say that infrastructure is a hot topic in Lebanon is quite the understatement. As infrastructure deficiencies loom large and many new initiatives to implement necessary projects are, realistically, still months or even years away, it is good news that an oft-overlooked need for an academic research and communication network is moving gradually toward fulfillment—with five academic institutions recently reaching an agreement on the creation of a Lebanese academic Lebanese research infrastructure.    

The five universities—the American University of Beirut (AUB), the Beirut Arab University (BAU), the Lebanese American University (LAU), Holy Spirit University Kaslik (USEK), and the University of Saint Joseph (USJ)—in May signed a Technology Cooperation Agreement for Research and Education, dubbed TechCARE, taking a significant step on a rather complex journey toward the creation of a national research and education network (NREN). NRENs are information and communications technology infrastructure networks that have already been deployed in many countries—including innovation-minded countries in the Middle East—and that power academic collaborations at a national and global level.

Infrastructure is an existential economic good that is usually in dire undersupply. It is expensive to create and tends to degrade quickly where it is most needed and thus used most intensely. Infrastructural projects often generate huge returns to both society and the economy but, in order to be self-sustaining in the short or medium term, typically require a lot of careful planning and complex financing arrangements. Moreover, some of the important tech infrastructure needs of a knowledge economy are far less obvious than an overburdened highway, an absence of urban parks, or an underpowered electricity grid.   

Coming together     

The idea of developing an infrastructure for academic collaboration infrastructure is compelling for Lebanon, which has a reputation as a small country where the quality and density of higher education providers are high in relation to its regional peers. Recent surveys by the World Economic Forum—which ranked Lebanon overall 105th out of 137 countries in the 2017/18 Global Competitiveness Report (GCR)—show Lebanon ranking in the global top 20 for quality of education in several measured categories, and for quality of management schools. The GCR also shows Lebanon to be punching above its weight in terms of national tertiary education enrollment rate.

A noted source of academic rankings, the QS World University Rankings includes six Lebanese institutions in its just-published 2019 report of the 1,000 top universities, allotting the country as many top entries as some much larger countries in the region (such as Egypt and Iran) and more than, for instance, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, or Oman. The QS 2019 report moreover ranked the American University of Beirut (AUB) 237th globally, and the third best university in the Arab world, after two Saudi institutions.

These educational accolades, however, do not mean that Lebanon’s academic landscape has historically enjoyed harmony between its almost 40 licensed institutions of higher education. Competing communal and political interests have reportedly interfered with educational collaborations time and again, as have academic jealousies between and even within the various ivory towers. Joint initiatives for the advancement of research and education have been uncommon in the Lebanese context, as have assessments of the—direct or indirect—economic potential that could result from national academic networking on levels involving more than two or three collaborating institutions. 

To anyone who is familiar with the structure and dynamics of academic research in Lebanon, it is unsurprising that AUB was one of the five initial signatories to the NREN plan. Equally unsurprisingly—although this university with about 9,000 students as of April 2018 is neither the country’s largest nor its fastest growing tertiary education provider—AUB can be identified as a main force behind the successful initiation of the agreement. The driver of the initiative at AUB over the last few years has been the university’s chief information officer, Yousif Asfour, who sat down with Executive to speak about the NREN initiative.

The idea of an NREN is to facilitate interconnections for education and research so that stakeholders can collaborate, and share data, information, and services. Sounds familiar? It should, because this is fundamentally the concept behind the internet. As a matter of fact, as Asfour emphasizes, at the dawn of the digital era, the infrastructure of the internet resembled an academic NREN that had been set free in the commercial wild via the information access and communication protocols of the world-wide web.

According to Asfour, the process of building a 21st century NREN for the interaction of academic institutions usually begins with the development of a high-speed, reliable, cost-effective network that can be used by universities and research institutions. After hardware has been installed, bandwidth acquired, and a network established, services are built into this existing framework. Universities then start collaborating and using these services to facilitate their research and their cooperation with each other. However, “cost-effective” in this case does not mean cheap. This traditional route, constructing a high-powered network as the base of sustained collaboration, requires massive upfront investments.

Moving forward

In Lebanon, this path to an NREN proved impractical. “Because of the politics and because of the high cost of the network, building an NREN was virtually impossible,” Asfour says. “[But] if you can’t build a network to build the service and encourage collaboration, and if the whole point of an NREN is to collaborate, why don’t we do it backwards?”

“Backwards” meant reversing the process, so that universities would start by collaborating to interlink their existing networks and then develop more and more joint services on a step-by-step basis, which would eventually lead to the creation of a powerful NREN. In terms of past university politics, the process of developing a Lebanese NREN, which had first been proposed several years prior, has apparently also hurdled some barriers, which Asfour identified as “administrative,” declining to specify further.

According to Asfour, 11 Lebanese universities had originally joined in the first discussions over establishing an entity that would operate the NREN. The discussions resulted in a call for the formation of an organization, which was to be called LEARN. However, this initiative did not proceed due to administrative reasons. Instead, years later, the TechCARE agreement was signed in May by only five (AUB, BAU, LAU, USJ, and USEK) of the 11 universities originally engaged in the project.

Asfour noted that the remaining six partners from the original discussions—including the Lebanese University, the country’s largest and only public university, and the public sector National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS)—are expected to join the new agreement after some administrative barriers are cleared in the near future.

What characterizes TechCARE is the equality of its institutional stakeholders. “The agreement sets the framework for defining, developing, and funding different services in a very democratic manner. All members have an equal say. Decisions like the entry of new members is by majority, and also decisions concerning the development of services are [made] democratically,” explains Asfour.

The services development road is where Asfour sees potential for university research and for members of academia in Lebanon. He cites as an example the case of EDUROAM, which provides researchers, university teachers, and students easy and secure network access when visiting an institution other than their own. As an international network that connects academics and students with resources on the basis of their university ID and registration in their university’s IT network, the development of this service in Lebanon since 2015 has been both low cost and very successful, Asfour says. Other network offerings could follow and be deployed in Lebanon in collaboration with large research networks outside of Lebanon, such as the GÉANT meta-network of NRENs based in Europe or the Arab States Research and Education Network (ASREN). In such a manner, TechCARE could result in the creation of seven or eight other new services within 12 months, Asfour estimates optimistically.

In terms of bandwidth, the network connectivity between different universities will be approximately 300-800 megabits per second (Mbps), which might seem high but is in fact relatively low in the research world. In this realm of large data transfers, gigabits per second, or 1000 Mbps, are the present measure, Asfour explains. “For research you typically need 10 Gbps. However, if you’re doing astrophysics or genomics, we’re talking 100 Gbps.”

Lebanon will need to grow its nascent NREN before it can reach a point where contributions by Lebanon-based researchers in fields such as astrophysics or genomics will be viable. But local minds have the potential to add new insights to all sorts of disciplines, if the adequate data networks and IT environments are put in place. “I think the talent is there but the ecosystem isn’t. Putting an NREN in place helps the ecosystem to enable and expose that talent and eventually get there. So if you were to say, ‘We don’t have astrophysics, let’s not do this,’ we’ll never get there,” Asfour says.

A force multiplier

But why does it all matter? Well, in most cases, if not all, development and advancement come from research and collaboration. And that is what is most needed in Lebanon and across the region. An NREN, or at least a collaboration agreement, would undoubtedly facilitate and encourage both research and cooperation. It would benefit Lebanon and give it a better international standing, academically. It would also encourage foreign researchers to collaborate with local ones and would definitely cut the costs of research.

While examining the importance of NRENs, another well-debated question comes to mind: What if an academic institution affiliated with a political power wanted to join the NREN? And what if the concerned political party did not have good relations with a country that AUB or another NREN member had to comply with? While Asfour acknowledges that compliance is an issue, he says TechCARE would deal case-by-case with questions such as a foreign stakeholder’s objection to a local university on grounds of political or religious affiliation. He notes repeatedly that decisions in the NREN will be made democratically and insists that TechCARE will be inclusive, and is not to be misunderstood as an initiative by just one university—even the country’s best reputed one.

Last but not least, when asked about the economic output, Asfour describes the NREN as a force multiplier. “AUB certainly has an impact on the Lebanese GDP. Getting five universities together to collaborate is more than five times the impact of five universities.” He also notes that  Lebanon has been able to build an NREN without huge cost, and emphasizes that the network, without its facilitators focusing on financial gain, is designed to help Lebanon’s academic community cut costs, collaborate, and move forward.

At its present level of development, Lebanon’s NRENs remains a long way from perfection, but it has great potential to enhance Lebanon’s academic research standing in the region, and hopefully the world; help the lucky students of linked universities put their talents to greater use; and contribute to the economy in immeasurable and measurable ways.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

Samir Sleem is an undergraduate student at AUB’s Olayan School of Business, under the Executive summer internship program for business journalism.