AAAS Programs Work in Middle East to Strengthen Science Capacity

The main campus of King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), Saudi Arabia's science agency. [Courtesy KACST Media]

Saudi Arabia's national science program and AAAS' Research Competitiveness Program (RCP) have expanded their five-year partnership with a new agreement to analyze the impact of grants made under the country's strategic science plan.

Under the new agreement, AAAS will analyze the outcomes of research projects funded under the National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan (NSTIP). The NSTIP focuses on bolstering R&D in 15 technology areas, from medicine and health to advanced material and space, with the goal of making Saudi Arabia a global research power by 2025.

Since 2008, RCP has managed the peer review of thousands of research proposals submitted to the NSTIP. The analytic reports by AAAS are the next step in achieving "a high level of credibility and reliability of the national R&D ecosystem," said Ahmed M. Alabdulkader, Secretary General for NSTIP at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), the national science agency.

Now that the submitted proposals have reached a critical mass, the agency wants to "make sure that the projects they are funding are actually proceeding as expected, and that they are able to capture to some extent the great research and educational developments that are bubbling up," said Mark Milutinovich, director of the Research Competitiveness Program.

Alabdulkader said the new reports "will provide NSTIP with a precise added value to assess the level of achievement of this program, and its impact on the R&D movements at the national and international levels."

The AAAS Research Competitiveness Program's work in Saudi Arabia is a natural extension its work in 30 U.S. states and several foreign nations since its founding in 1996. It assembles teams of scientists, engineers and policymakers, to provide its clients with expert peer review and guidance in strategic planning, research infrastructure, and technology-based economic development.

The program also works on a smaller scale with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, providing advice on grant management and ways to create public-private partnerships for Kuwaiti researchers.

Lessons learned from program clients closer to home have proved useful in international scientific capacity building as well, Milutinovich noted.

"A lot of the work we've done in the past years is tied to U.S. states that have limited resources, and need to think very strategically about how they can leverage their resources and how they can work collaboratively to achieve their aims," he said. "So the implementation is going to change, depending on local cultures and the people involved, but the challenges are the same."

While Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have sought hands-on assistance with grant review and administration from the Research Competitiveness Program, others have participated in more wide-ranging discussions through a meeting series organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP).

Building national scientific capacity through everything from streamlined grant-making to infrastructure and workforce development, is a significant goal for many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, according to an independent report released this month by CSTSP.

The report summarizes discussions held during a unique series of workshops, convened in Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates between 2010 and 2012, and a cooperative grant program, both facilitated by CSTSP. Research institutions and leading scientists from 14 countries in the region, plus the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Brazil participated in the meetings.

At each workshop, researchers discussed ways to build safe and secure research environments for the biological sciences, with an eye to mutually beneficial international partnerships. The five cooperative grants, linking U.S. researchers to scientists in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and Pakistan, served to demonstrate the potential in these collaborations.

"The trust and open lines of communication built have become invaluable as the U.S. scientific community attempts to work with scientists in the region to address current security risks," said CSTSP Associate Director Kavita Berger.

Workshop participants stressed the "collective responsibility" of individuals, institutions and governments in the region to promote secure research collaborations. Regional and international scientific partnerships, they noted, will benefit from strong national support for science that includes funding, regulatory guidance and workforce development.

Read the report, "Scientific Engagement in the Broader Middle East and Africa," from the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.