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.