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Not Just Money: Arab-Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers

Editor’s note: This article is part of a package of five articles about the obstacles that researchers in Arab countries face. Readers can access all the articles on this page.

Money alone can’t break through the barriers that researchers working in the Arab region face, barriers that appear to be so frustrating that the majority of them want to leave.

In an online survey by Al-Fanar Media that 650 researchers based in the Arab region responded to, 91 percent said they would prefer to emigrate from the country they are working in.

Poor funding was the number one obstacle cited by the respondents to the online survey, a complaint that they probably share with other researchers around the world. Indeed, 84 percent of the Arab researchers surveyed said they have had to spend their own money on their research. In addition, nearly half of researchers said they did not have a reliable Internet connection at their home institution, and 52 percent said they did not have free access to current academic journals.

But even in the oil-rich states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council and that have showered scientists with financial support, 81 percent of researchers said they would prefer to work elsewhere in search of more academic freedom and greater career opportunities.

The powerful and widespread urge to emigrate among Arab researchers does not bode well for Arab countries that want to build “knowledge economies” or to create globally competitive universities. “The region needs human capital to improve and overcome our weaknesses in terms of health, education and technology,” says Abdelhamid Nechad, an economist at the Ecole Supérieure du Commerce et des Affaires in Casablanca, who has written about brain drain in Morocco.

Not Just Money

Beyond funding, however, researchers face many logistical barriers. Social scientists, for instance, can find that it takes months or years to get surveys or field research approved by governments, if they ever get approved at all.

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In the Al-Fanar Media survey, key barriers to good research that scientists working in the Arab region stressed were difficulty in getting institutional and government permission to do research and difficulty in traveling to attend international conferences and work with international collaborators.

Nagwa El-Badri is a professor of biomedical sciences at the Center of Excellence for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine in Zewail City of Science and Technology, an independent research institute on the outskirts of Cairo founded by Egyptian-American chemist Ahmed Zewail—the first Arab and the only Egyptian to win a Nobel prize in science.

El-Badri, who researches disease models for “personalized medicine,” says that being strapped for cash does make progress slower than usual in a rapidly progressing field such as tissue engineering. But she says she is also hampered by a general lack of administrative support and by consistent delays in acquiring laboratory supplies and in dispensing available funds.

For instance, routine activities such as student exchanges can be difficult in Egypt, she said, and collaboration with international researchers is “burdened in the biomedical field [in Egypt] by the restriction on tissue exchange, especially out of Egypt. The regulations are very strict regarding sending cells abroad,” she says.

Restrictions related to the cross-border flow of samples or lab equipment seem to be a common trend across the region. Even researchers working at relatively privileged institutions with good salary scales, strong Internet access, and easy access to academic journals sometimes want to throw up their hands.

“Lebanese bureaucracy and customs sometimes make us feel stuck,” says Digambara Patra, an associate professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut. “It’s difficult to get chemicals or biological samples from collaborators abroad, [and] often the samples get damaged as proper care is not taken during storage.”

Patra says that samples may get held up for days or weeks in transit, awaiting clearance, which can make it impossible for Lebanese researchers to keep up with international collaborators.

Scientists in Lebanon, Egypt, and Algeria say high taxes and customs fees mean that research equipment can cost them two or three times more than the prices manufacturers originally charge—a strain on already modest research budgets.

Research Culture Needed

“In my opinion, funding is not the primary challenge for Arab researchers,” says Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist, associate professor at the Hashemite University, in Jordan, and a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard University. “The root cause is the environment that doesn’t support doing science.”

“Administrative work drains the academic’s time and takes him away from his research work, especially work of complex nature, amid a lack of sufficiently qualified human resources,”

Melfi Alrasheedi  
an assistant professor of business administration at King Faisal University, in Saudi Arabia

Corruption, a lack of administrative enthusiasm for research, and bureaucracy—a catchall term that encompasses everything from red tape to the toxic hierarchal tendency to favor complacency and exercise control over creative thinking—seem to plague the majority of Arab institutions, according to survey respondents and researchers interviewed separately by Al-Fanar Media.

“Hierarchy is killing research,” wrote an anonymous survey respondent who bemoaned discrimination against junior researchers. “The system should prevent professors from abusing their assistants. It should also give freedom to researchers.”

Thirty-seven percent of respondents regionally said the reason they wanted to leave the region was to escape corruption and bureaucracy. That proportion was higher in many countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.

Some researchers complain that tying reward and promotion to teaching milestones and to the number of studies published rather than the quality of research has created an atmosphere in which trailblazing research is grossly undermined.

“Many are stuck inside a loop of wanting to be promoted and getting a better salary, and that’s it. The objective becomes promotion, not doing science, so they do the bare minimum to get promoted,” says Dajani.

Women can face a particularly difficult climb in trying to be as successful as male researchers in Arab countries, 55 percent of survey respondents said.

Wifag Adnan, an assistant professor of economics at New York University Abu Dhabi, says that the concept of a research university—a model that is common in the West—is still novel in the Arab world. Adnan, who began her career in a federal university in the United Arab Emirates, says that at the public university she was concerned about the slow pace of research production, which prompted her to move to the New York University campus.

“Currently, most universities here emphasize teaching over research, which does provide a challenge for academics trying to be competitive with top universities in other countries where research is the main focus of the faculty,” says Mallory Strider Roberts, an assistant professor of practice of physics at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Although references to an Islamic “golden age” of the past are often invoked, Ghassan Antar, a professor of physics at the American University of Beirut, says the contemporary Middle East was never that oriented to research.

Yamin Boudham, an information technology researcher in Algeria, says that university officials show little interest in supporting research in his country. “There is no serious support,” he says. Good research, he says, is often archived and forgotten.

Adnan, in Abu Dhabi, says that the ubiquity of teaching universities in the Arab world “is not a surprise to anyone who knows that the purpose of most Arab universities was to provide tertiary education to its citizens.”

“Each university should have its own grants resource department to train researchers in writing grant applications and managing funds when they come,”

Rana Dajani  
a molecular biologist, associate professor at the Hashemite University in Jordan

Shifting Reality

According to Adnan, this reality is shifting, however, as regionally-based institutions modeled after U.S. universities start to adopt different policies. For example, at New York University Abu Dhabi, she says, “research is a main priority and all faculty have baseline research funds that were built into their employment contracts.”

Adnan says that this creates a research environment where there is constant pressure to publish in high quality journals and keep up with international peers.

“Officials have realized that university ranking requires research production,” says Nidhal Guessoum, a professor of astrophysics at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. “Therefore, funds have become available much more than before, and research has become not just encouraged but required.”

Some Gulf-based universities now provide support for writing grant proposals and managing grant budgets, Adnan says, a type of administrative structure that Dajani, of Jordan, thinks that every Arab university should adopt.

“Each university should have its own grants resource department to train researchers in writing grant applications and managing funds when they come,” says Dajani.

“Administrative work drains the academic’s time and takes him away from his research work, especially work of complex nature, amid a lack of sufficiently qualified human resources,” says Melfi Alrasheedi, an assistant professor of business administration at King Faisal University, in Saudi Arabia.

It’s easy to blame armed conflict, says Ghassan Antar, a physicist at the American University of Beirut, but internal corruption and embezzlement inflict more damage to research (Photo: Courtesy of Ghassan Antar).
It’s easy to blame armed conflict, says Ghassan Antar, a physicist at the American University of Beirut, but internal corruption and embezzlement inflict more damage to research (Photo: Courtesy of Ghassan Antar).

While common trends can be found, the region remains divided on how much research is being supported.

In Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the ambition to compete with European or American heavyweights has fueled hefty investment in research.

This year, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, better known by its acronym, KAUST, has been the first and only Arab research institute to be featured in the Nature Index’s Global Top 100 institutions, a yearly index which highlights the institutions that dominate research in the natural sciences. The highly prolific science hub has also forged collaborations with some of the highest-ranking universities in the United States, Europe and Asia.

In the United Arab Emirates, a similar overhaul in research infrastructure gave way to new research aspirations, such as space research that includes multi-million-dollar Mars-related projects, such as an ambitious plan to send a probe to the red planet.

“Doing research in space is relatively new in the U.A.E., thus there aren’t many who are contributing. But the government is encouraging university students to pursue a career in space,” says Lolowa Alkindy, a research assistant at NYU Abu Dhabi who researches such topics as terrestrial gamma ray flashes, bursts of high intensity electromagnetic radiation in the earth’s atmosphere.

Recruiting Emigrants Back

A few Arab institutions are also successfully luring Arab scientists who have left the region back. Tarek Abdoun, a civil engineering professor, is returning from the United States to build a state-of-the-art laboratory in Abu Dhabi, after being away from the region for more than 23 years. “I was always looking at an opportunity to come back,” says Abdoun, who insists that many Arab researchers who departed still dream of a chance to return and benefit their home countries. (See a related article, “Brain Drain Can Be Reversed, One Lebanese Physician Says.”)

Laith Jamal Abu-Raddad, a professor of health-care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, acknowledges that several countries across the region, such as Qatar and other Gulf states, have built “meaningful science operations” and have secured generous resources for research, especially in applied science.

His caveat? “This commitment needs also to be consistent over time and durable. Science cannot thrive in an ecology of uncertainty,” Abu-Raddad cautions.

Scientists working in basic science like to remind administrators that it will not be enough to make one-time purchases of expensive equipment or put out press releases announcing flashy goals. Succeeding in research is a day-in, day-out grind, they say, that takes persistence, patience, and long-term investment for travel, equipment maintenance, and support staff.

Two of the issues blocking the path for many Gulf-based researchers are visa restrictions and short-term contracts.

“We have a lot of original ideas, and a lot of diversity in research output and in the researchers’ backgrounds,” says Panče Naumov, an associate professor of chemistry and leader of a research team at New York University Abu Dhabi. The team’s  research output accounted for 67 percent of total chemistry publications in the United Arab Emirates in 2016, according to the Nature Index.

Naumov’s team researches smart materials and has raised more than $3.6 million in funding. But he says he faces challenges with visas and security clearances, a common issue in Gulf countries, and elsewhere in the Arab region. “The pool of researchers that we recruit from is affected by these restrictions,” Naumov says.

The absence of regulatory agencies that could oversee clinical trials to international standards makes it impossible to do drug development research, scientists say.

“Many countries in the world have clinical trial centers that pharmaceutical and device companies use to recruit patients. However, we can’t do this in many countries in the Arab world,”

Mohamed B. Elshazly  
a cardiologist and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, Qatar

“Many countries in the world have clinical trial centers that pharmaceutical and device companies use to recruit patients. However, we can’t do this in many countries in the Arab world,” says Mohamed B. Elshazly, a cardiologist and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, Qatar. “They don’t allow trials that study experimental drugs or devices. It’s why we can’t contribute meaningfully to real innovative drug discovery or device development.”

Research in Countries of Conflict 

In countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen, deeply embroiled in military conflicts,  or in Iraq, which is recovering from years of conflict, the situation of researchers is even more desperate. “The war in Yemen has affected badly our lives as human beings and also as researchers,” says Eqbal Dauqan, a Yemeni biochemist. “The lack of security, the shortage in funds, electricity cuts and water scarcity makes research seem impossible.” She has moved to the University of Agder, in Norway. (See a related article, “New Beginning for a Yemeni Scholar in Norway.”)

Countries such as Lebanon, once relatively stable, are also tipping into uncertainty.

“In Lebanon, we need political stability, tax breaks for research, outreach from universities funded by governments, and less cronyism and corruption. Otherwise, anyone with a good idea is going to go to the West,” says Imad Patrick Saoud, a professor of aquaculture at the American University of Beirut.

Political turmoil was almost an afterthought to other researchers. It’s easy to blame armed conflict, opines Antar, the physicist at the American University of Beirut, but internal corruption and embezzlement inflict more damage to research.

In interviews, researchers also stressed that Arab countries need to absorb knowledge generated by research.  “We need to use research to generate impact in society,” says Abu-Raddad of the research climate in the Middle East. “The public sector in the region, such as governments, are often unable to absorb the scientific output and use it effectively.”

Abdoun, in Abu Dhabi, says Arab researchers with some sort of Internet connection should not necessarily get away with complaining about the lack of access to knowledge, or the scarcity of conferences in the Arab region. He laughingly tells about developing instrumentation with a collaborator for four years without ever meeting face-to-face. “I met him for the first time in the field when we were testing the instrument,” he says. “Being in the region is not going to prevent you from knowing what’s happening in your own field, not anymore.”

Abdoun and his colleagues are developing a web-based education portal for undergraduate geotechnical engineers based at remote campuses—something that he’s trying to bring to the Arab world.

Abdoun, who is also a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, believes that the research environment is better now than it was 20 years ago when he started. He thinks Arab researchers could obtain international funding.

“Most of the funding agencies are looking to fund applied research, for instance,” says Abdoun.

“In order to do research that’s meaningful and helpful, you have to see what your industry needs,” he says, adding that good research can have a big impact on a country’s economy. “What the researcher should be going after is research that’s relevant to the field, something that the street will benefit from. Then the money, and recognition, will come.”

Benjamin Plackett and Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this article.


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