Researchers in the Middle East, North Africa Pursue Ambitious Science Priorities and Partnerships

When the Royal Society published its landmark report on science in the Muslim world in 2010, it concluded that a research renaissance was well underway in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Investments in the scientific infrastructure and workforce, the report predicted, would lead to a “new golden age” to rival the scientific achievements of the region’s Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates more than 1000 years ago.

But the region’s researchers say they still face substantial challenges as they work to expand scientific capacity and pursue international partnerships. In a recent series of workshops co-sponsored by AAAS and held in Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Dubai, the scientists said young researchers in particular need better access to mentors, more opportunities to work with regional colleagues, and in some cases more funding and equipment.

“We can already see that governments and leaders in this part of the world are realizing that one of their best investments is to get younger people into science and technology,” said Hayfaa Almudhaf, senior adviser to the director general of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.

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Participants at the final AAAS workshop held in Dubai in March discussed ways to promote broader cooperation between scientists working in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

[Photos: Oliver Jackson Photography]

But at the same time, she suggested, “there are few national strategies or priorities when it comes to science.”

These priorities, from clean water to infectious disease, would benefit from stronger regional ties among researchers, the workshop participants said. Researchers from Morocco to Pakistan face similar threats to livestock health, while many of the scientists at the workshops said their countries should collaborate on ideas to improve waste management and bioremediation of polluted resources.

The scientists often face similar administrative hurdles as well, said Saied Jaradat, director of Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein Biotechnology Center at the Jordan University of Science and Technology. “These challenges include—but are not limited to—the long process of grants approval, or getting the permission to travel to attend scientific meetings or training,” he said. “The challenges posed by governmental bureaucracy and the gaps between scientists and policy makers in the regions were heavily discussed by the participants.”

“I think that there is a lot of learning to be done between countries that have similar socioeconomic backgrounds and similar challenges,” said Ayesha Abdullah, the managing director of Dubai Healthcare City who helped organize the final workshop in March. “But we don’t yet have enough conferences and opportunities for networking.”

The critical importance of regional collaborations was one theme that evolved over the course of the four workshops, organized by AAAS’s Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Funded by a $1.48 million grant from the U.S. Department of State, the meetings sought to promote best practices in international bioscience and encourage broader cooperation between American scientists and scientists working in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The workshops generated a number of international collaborations between the region’s institutions and universities in the United States. The participants have also discussed ways to expand the regional partnerships created at the workshops through new conferences in 2013 and a Web-based discussion forum.

Gwenaële Coat, a senior program associate at the AAAS center, said some participants attended all the meetings to encourage region-wide representation in these workshops and ensure “the impact of the meetings will last for many years.”

The Need for National Priorities

At the first meeting in October 2010 in Jordan, the participants realized that the workshops also were an excellent place to discuss broader challenges for the region’s scientists. Two months later, however, popular protests in Tunisia marked the start of the Arab Spring movement. Revolutionary demonstrations spread throughout the region, and by the time the second workshop was held in Kuwait in March 2011, the upheaval had added a new layer of uncertainty—and possibility—to the region’s prospects in science and technology.

The researchers were hopeful that new governments in the region would support a higher profile for science. But their discussions had a different focus: Apart from any political change, how should scientists become more active in aligning research goals with national priorities?

At the Jordan meeting and the second workshop held in Kuwait in March 2011, the participants “told us that they sometimes find it difficult to do socially relevant research,” said Kavita Berger, the former associate program director at the AAAS center. “They would say, ‘Our research priorities often differ from the research priorities of our countries.’”

“Scientists keep discussing [these] issues in their own communities,” Almudhaf said, “and think that the decision-makers will approach them first.” But she and others said that scientists must be more proactive in helping to align research and national priorities.

Bureaucratic barriers in some countries may make it difficult for scientists to engage with policymakers at the highest levels of government, said Mona Mostafa Mohamed, the head of Cancer Biology Research Laboratory in the Faculty of Science at Cairo University. “I suggest working with different sectors within government as a start, such as the ministry of higher education, or ministry of health.”

Amel Benammar-Elgaaied, head of the genetics department at the Faculty of Sciences of Tunis, said national science priorities in Tunisia could lend guidance to the country’s research community. “We are very free to establish collaborations,” she said, “but what we need is a political vision for research as a source for economic and social development of the country.”

Abdullah said countries in the Gulf region are investing heavily in science and technology as a pathway to economic development and full participation in the global economy. She said developing countries in the region, including some of the North African nations at the heart of the Arab Spring movement, may not feel they can make the same level of investment.

“For those countries that have immediate needs in education, health care, and providing a safety net for poor people…science and technology are not very high up in the agenda,” Abdullah noted.

“I think with time people will understand the importance of science and technology as a growth engine in developing countries,” she suggested. “Science could be an answer to a lot of the challenges that the region faces.”

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Ayesha Abdullah

Calls for Regional and International Collaboration

At each meeting, the participants were enthusiastic about the chance to discuss their work on these challenges with colleagues from neighboring countries. “There are not a lot of these regional conferences,” Coat said. “Many of the researchers said they don’t really have a tradition of collaborating with each other.”

“With young researchers, collaboration is easy to establish by Internet, but it’s often limited to exchanging information,” Benammar-Elgaaied said. Younger scientists, she suggested, need new ways to build relationships with established researchers in the region who are more likely to have financial and administrative support.

The workshops also offered practical advice on how to establish productive international collaborations with researchers in the United States and Europe, the participants said. Discussions ranged from the specifics of grant-writing with international colleagues to establishing a shared code of scientific ethics.

Benammar-Elgaaied and her students were among the recipients of five collaborative grants funded by the State Department as part of the workshops. Several of the researchers traveled to Washington, D.C. to work with faculty at Georgetown University to develop training for Tunisian biomedical scientists in safe and ethical research practices. The other grants brought together researchers from the region with U.S. institutions to work on projects in nanobiotechnology, wildlife conservation, genomic technology, and infectious disease.

Early career scientists who attended the last two workshops, held in Tunisia in November 2011 and in Dubai last March, also spoke passionately about the need for more networking and mentorship.

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SESAME—Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East—represents the ambitious future of science and technology in the region. Now under construction in Jordan, the particle accelerator will foster multidisciplinary research and build relationships across borders.

[Credit: SESAME]

The researchers also have different needs depending on which country in the diverse area they come from, said Almudhaf. “The oil-rich countries in the Gulf might need more human resources” like mentors, she explained, “while in other parts of the region, funding is a critical factor.”

These differences make it difficult to predict the Arab Spring’s impact on young scientists, said Mohamed, who was inducted this spring into the State Department’s Women in Science Hall of Fame for her groundbreaking breast cancer research.

In the North African countries at the epicenter of the uprising, she suggested, researchers who study abroad “for the time being might prefer to go and not to come back. They don’t know how it’s going to be yet.”

The Arab Spring gave a great hope for freedom and democracy,” Benammar-Elgaaied agreed. “But it also brought a lot of social, economic, and political instability that does not allow us to have a clear vision of the future.”

Despite the uncertainties, the meetings were most notable for the “enormous, positive energy they created among the participants,” Abdullah said. They pledged at the close of the Dubai workshop to write a collaborative article about their experiences and hold another regional conference in 2013.

Links

Read more about the AAAS workshops held in Jordan, Kuwait, and Tunisia.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy.