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AAAS Research Competitiveness Program Boosts STEM Ecosystems at Home and Abroad

Charles Dunlap, Irene Aninye and Heather McInnis
Charles Dunlap, Irene Aninye and
Heather McInnis in Saudi Arabia.
Credit: Courtesy of AAAS RCP.

Charles Dunlap and Heather McInnis, director and associate program director of the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), have logged some serious travel time in the past year in support of the AAAS mission to advance science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) programs and innovation.

"I was home for a total of five days in June," McInnis says. I love to travel, and in this case, it was fascinating to travel between familiar locations in New England and Bahrain and provide support for similar aspects of research capacity building.”

In fact, much of RCP’s work involves travel to work with universities and governments, and in the past year she has gone to Saudi Arabia three times and recently returned from the adjacent island nation of Bahrain.

Begun in 1997 and staffed primarily by scientists, RCP offers strategic assessment, support for peer review systems, short courses, and other assistance to universities, governmental bodies, project teams and other groups overseeing scientific endeavors, says Charles Dunlap, a geochemist who has worked on STEM capacity-building for more than twenty years and directed RCP since 2015. The idea is to support and boost STEM ecosystems.

Dunlap too traveled to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the past year. In Bahrain, expansion of the country's relatively young university system led to the creation of a Higher Education Council to define and oversee research strategy. AAAS was invited to help, and the RCP site visit panel provided recommendations in numerous areas, such as suggesting mechanisms to expand research productivity. Another area of interest was how to build the knowledge-based economy through research that has the potential to be developed commercially, such as drugs or medical devices that might be marketed locally and worldwide.

The Saudi system is more mature. There, Dunlap, McInnis, and Irene Aninye (RCP’s Senior Program Associate) taught a short course on scientific ethics in four cities and helped with efforts that could enhance collaborations with scientists from other countries: RCP also designed and led the review of more than 700 proposals submitted to the International Collaboration Initiative of the Saudi Ministry of Education’s Research and Development Office.

Dunlap says, "We don't find doing international science to be dramatically different" from the projects that RCP works on in the US: differences in culture, funding mechanisms, and scope occur across the US as well as among countries. We adapt our approach to support the same goals everywhere — to do good science and to put it to work solving local problems.

Countries in the Middle East are looking to build knowledge-based economies, especially around science and technology, to support the eventual transition from fossil fuels, Dunlap says.

Unknown, Mark Crowell (RCP Panel Expert), Farzana A. Al-Maraghi (Director, Scientific Research, Higher Education Council, Ministry of Education, Bahrain),  Charles Dunlap, Heather McInnis, and Unknown
RCP and Higher Education Council
members. Credit: Courtesy of RCP
and the Higher Education Council.

"Stability, health, water, food, equity and inclusion, and other fundamental human rights concerns may all connect back to strength in STEM. Countries need the capacity to solve the challenges that matter to them," Dunlap says.

As for McInnis, an anthropologist and archeologist by training, she says her background helps her keep in mind the culture she's operating in on site visits — "in this case, research culture," she says. "We're always thinking about the environments researchers are working in, the resources they have and how we can help them navigate some of the issues we know will come up."      

In Bahrain, McInnis was thrilled to meet and talk with administrators from the country's 16 universities and colleges, an experience she says gave her a "rare comprehensive picture of higher education in a country."

McInnis says the RCP team in Bahrain was able to give very specific and actionable recommendations on how to strengthen research endeavors. She's been a researcher and a university teacher herself, and says, "I understand how difficult it is to balance academic teaching and research responsibilities and navigate potentially complex ethical challenges."

In Saudi Arabia, McInnis and Dunlap co-taught RCP’s short course "Research Ethics for International Collaboration," in Riyadh, the capital, and three other cities for a Saudi government initiative that's focusing particularly on early-career faculty. More than 200 academics in 26 Saudi institutions of higher learning have taken the course.

A major issue is mentoring, a pillar of ethical scientific research — preparing and supporting the next generation of scientists in their studies and practical work. While some other ethical issues are straightforward, "mentoring can be defined in different ways," McInnis says. For example, she says, a faculty supervisor may not see guiding students' careers as a primary obligation and may see students more as employees.

"We can't go back and correct behavior, but we can say, moving forward, these are proven good practices for mentors and students," she says.

McInnis recalled how one memorable mentoring experience in Saudi Arabia took months to unfold. In October, in Dammam, she met several early-career female scientists, including one who had served in a post-doctoral position in the United States and another who had been a post-doc in the United Kingdom.

 "We had lunch and an enjoyable chat," McInnis recalls. "I learned a lot about their experiences as researchers, which was very helpful to me in teaching the Research Ethics course.”

When McInnis returned to Saudi Arabia in December to teach in Riyadh, those two women traveled from Dammam to take her course. "I was really excited to see them again, and of course that allowed me to solidify the connection I'd made with them, as their teacher but also on a personal level," she says. “We’ll follow up to see whether the course materials are being used and whether policy discussions and policy changes have resulted.”

Whether traveling abroad or working in the U.S., RCP seeks to quantify the impacts of its work to build capacity for the STEM ecosystem and to adapt new programs based on the data.

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