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Another Revolution Needed?

By Fahd Al-Mulla Another Revolution Needed? Counting the many plagues that threaten research in the Middle East and North Africa region Andrzej Krauze Scientists around the world face obstacles during their research—a rejected manuscript, a failed funding application, an illegible electrophoresis gel. But these annoyances are simply par for the course when doing science. In the Middle East, however, scientists are up against much steeper challenges&#

By | March 1, 2011

Another Revolution Needed?

Counting the many plagues that threaten research in the Middle East and North Africa region

Andrzej Krauze

Scientists around the world face obstacles during their research—a rejected manuscript, a failed funding application, an illegible electrophoresis gel. But these annoyances are simply par for the course when doing science. In the Middle East, however, scientists are up against much steeper challenges—a lesson I learned all too well when I finished my PhD and postdoc at the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom and returned to my native Kuwait.

In Glasgow, research was facilitated and encouraged. We had several well-trained technicians, up-to-date equipment, and a reasonable amount of funding to support our work. But when I moved home in 1999, full of energy, enthusiasm, and patriotism, I was disappointed to find that science here was not nearly as well supported. Not only is funding hard to come by, excessive regulations can actively slow the process of doing science.

I’ve stayed because I am driven by the need to serve my people, and to explore their unique genetic background. The population of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is a mixture of many cultures that encompasses considerable genetic diversity. Moreover, many MENA populations exhibit unusual rates of consanguineous marriage—as high as 70 percent in some areas. Such behavior has generated atypical populations with very high incidences of rare genetic diseases that are truly valuable for scientific discovery.

Diabetes in the Arabian Gulf states, for example, affects some 20 percent of the population—significantly higher than the 4–6 percent prevalence rates in other parts of the world—and there is strong evidence that it’s a recessive trait. This month, I will present data at the Human Genome Organization conference in Dubai deciphering for the first time the Arabian genome, which my colleagues and I found to contain many long runs of homozygosity that could explain the high incidence of diabetes in this area.

Unfortunately, this type of research is not valued in the MENA region. Here, governments devote less than 1 percent of their gross domestic product to research and development. While funding is a universal challenge in science, this is a meager share compared to the 2-4 percent allocated by Western societies. Those in power here seem to focus on the short-term gains they can achieve from building construction and leasing; they fail to recognize that, oil aside, drugs like Lipitor and Viagra have the potential to generate more money than most economies in the MENA region put together.

A number of recent efforts seek to improve this status, such as Qatar’s dedication of 2.8 percent of its GDP over five years to research and development, the creation of the EU-Egypt Innovation Fund, and other similar initiatives. However, in the majority of the other MENA countries, including Kuwait, funding remains suboptimal.

The lack of government support can also cause needless logistical headaches. Something as simple as obtaining reagents, for example, can take up to a year, because any research item purchased for more than US$6,000 must be tendered by local agents or companies. It’s an intolerable wait after receiving shipments in Glasgow in as little as a few days, and one that can delay research to the point where I am forced to submit papers for peer review before they are completed to buy time for the necessary reagents to arrive.

Confronted with such hurdles, many MENA scientists decide to move to countries that provide better research environments. Of course this hurts MENA countries’ science, and ultimately their economies. A potential work-around for the obstacles we face here is to collaborate with those who have left, and other scientists abroad, sharing genetic samples of MENA populations with better-equipped labs around the world. Unfortunately, in Kuwait we are not allowed to send samples out for research purposes! Another brick wall.

The only way now is to look forward. The recent turmoil in MENA countries, which began in Tunisia and Egypt, is an avid call for change. Governments need to understand that prosperity comes from the kind of scientific innovation and entrepreneurship that drives economies. The increased spending for research by some MENA countries is encouraging, but the road will be long and requires drastic governmental decisions to improve research infrastructures and introduce science culture into our societies.

Fahd Al-Mulla is the head of molecular pathology at Kuwait University and director of the research core facility (RCF) at the university’s Health Sciences Center.

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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 3, 2011

This article rings true to the current situation in Kuwait. Other Arab countries in the region might have other problems causing scientific research stagnancy, but as in Kuwait it is essentially due to the lack of public and government interest in research. Moreover, the US and EU research societies rarely recognize the Arab world, or Arabian gulf countries' outreach for recognition in scientific research fields relevant to global and regional issues. What we need is true transparent cooperation and collaborations to globalize the idea of united scientists for the benefit of humanity without paying heed to religion, ethnicity or race. In essence, I personally second the author's stated predicament and support his ideas for reinstating the value of scientific research in MENA region and pooling funding resources to establish our presence in the scientific community. Age of dependence on western development be gone.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 3, 2011

Indeed, the development assistance from the West/North can and should be left behind, but merit-based science funding is NOT development assistance. Scientists can't respect one another if they don't know one another. Every available opportunity for increased collaborations between scientists must be pursued. If science engagement isn't valued, (and that's a two-way street), then we're "sunk". Governments must be supportive of these global collaborations.
Avatar of: HATEM EL-SHANTI

HATEM EL-SHANTI

Posts: 1

March 4, 2011

This is a well written editorial that talks about various challanges to MENA region scientists.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 5, 2011

I would like to thank Dr Fahd AlMulla for this wonderful editorial which truely reflects the current challenges faced either by scientists or by graduate students in Kuwait university. I hope that this editorial could be the beginning of a realistic movemnet towards the CHANGE or as the author called it 'The revolution', a revolution from another kind, the one which is not concerned with killing people or destroying dictatorial governers but rather will favour the science in arab world!! Science is what will make us improve and cope with the development in Western Countries.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 5, 2011

I agree with Dr. Fahad. Research in this region is under-funded and under-valued. And in cases where funding is available like in Saudi Arabia, it is hindered by the funds being managed by people who never conducted an experiment in their lives. In addition, pre-historic Import-Export rules and custom clearance procedures are hindering companies from importing technology and providing it to the researchers. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find the latest NGS hardware setting idle because there are no chemicals to run it as it is more costly to the traders to import them on a regular basis. The sighs are aplenty but the hope remains that things will only get better.
Avatar of: Krishna Murthy

Krishna Murthy

Posts: 1

March 7, 2011

I agree with Dr. Al Mulla's views.\nCongrats for the article. Certainly it is a MESSAGE and a wake up Call for the POLICY MAKERS in Advancement of Science and Research in Middle East.\n\nI have experienced personally the what is the VALUE FOR SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH in Kuwait for having spent more than 25 years in Ministry of Health (Genetics Centre, Maternity Hospital 1980-2004). \n\nRevolution and major changes can take place by COLLECTIVE EFFORTS OF LIKE MINDED SCIENTISTS. It is a long way to go.Hope more and more Scientists will come forward to support your views and cause.\n\nThere is a need to establish a Scientific body (non-Political) to look into the Fundamental Research and its funding and Research Activities. \n\nDue recognition should be given to QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED, scientists so that they can guide the future young budding reserachers.There are quite a few qualified and trained Scientists like Dr. Al Mulla who are frustrated as they have been let down due to non-recognition of their expertise and knowledge reasons best know to the policy makers.\n\nHope your article will send a clear message to the policy makers in SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY in the Middle East region. \n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 8, 2011

Please promote research and development anytime anywhere. MENA has oil, it is buying everything else, and like any resource it is dwindling! what after it?
Avatar of: Mehrez Jadaon

Mehrez Jadaon

Posts: 1

March 11, 2011

Congratulations Dr. Fahd on this excellent article. You speak for all Arab scientists indeed. But I hope Arab non-scientists also read this and understand and believe in it, especially those in power to make changes. Thanks indeed for this wonderful article.

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