Skip to main content

Middle East Seeks to Build Science Capacity

Building a bright future. A field of solar panels at the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology, Al-Oyeynah Research Station, demonstrates Saudi Arabia's commitment to strengthening its national science and technology programs to address regional challenges and become a global research power by 2025. Advanced energy technologies are one of 15 focus areas included in the country's National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan. [Copyright Fahad Shadeed/Reuters/Corbis]

A new agreement between King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) and AAAS's Research Competitiveness Program expands a 5-year-old collaboration that has helped KACST, Saudi Arabia's national science agency, in its efforts "to leapfrog Saudi Arabia toward a knowledge-based society," according to Ahmed M. Alabdulkader, Secretary General for the National Science, Technology and Innovation Plan (NSTIP) at KACST.

The country is one of many across the Middle East and North Africa that aim to develop their scientific output and international collaboration, and are engaging with AAAS to meet some of their strategic goals. While Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have sought hands-on assistance with grant review and administration from the Research Competitiveness Program (RCP), others have participated in more wide-ranging discussions through a meeting series organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP).

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 Alabdulkader. The NSTIP focuses on bolstering national R&D in 15 technology areas, from medicine and health to advanced materials and space, with the goal of making Saudi Arabia a global research power by 2025.

According to the new agreement, signed this year, AAAS will analyze the outcomes of the funded research projects under the NSTIP and the impact of the funds on achieving the country's strategic R&D goals. 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.

Building national scientific capacity in this way, through everything from stream- lined 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 details the discussions during a unique series of meetings, held in Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates between 2010 and 2012, and a cooperative grant program, both facilitated by CSTSP. While the meetings focused on safety and security in practice and in inter- national collaborations in the biological sciences, scientific capacity emerged as a critical and related issue among the broad group of participants. Each meeting drew over 50 scientists, collectively representing 14 countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Building this capacity and linking it to long-term national plans for science will aid countries in the region as they pursue a broad range of international collaborations as well, the meeting participants concluded. To explore some of these challenges further, the group has launched a BioScience Forum that will meet for the first time in 2014.

As research communities in the Middle East work toward these goals, the Research Competitiveness Program is poised to deliver assistance tailored to a country or university's specific needs. For instance, 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 inter- national 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," Milutinovich said. "So the implementation is going to change, depending on local cultures and the people involved, but the challenges are the same."



Becky Ham

Related Scientific Disciplines