How Policy Makers and Universities Can Help Arab Scientists

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

As a scientist who has struggled to conduct world-class science in Jordan over the past two decades, I have been able retrospectively to identify key challenges in the system in Jordan that are similar across many developing countries. I have also seen, as president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World, what my fellow scientists have faced in their respective countries. What surprised me during the Covid-19 crisis is that many of these challenges exist in developed countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States as well. With high pressure, the cracks start to appear.

For example, Walid Al-Zyoud, head of the biomedical engineering department at the German Jordanian University, in Amman, was principal investigator on a team that developed a novel method to isolate and identify the virus that causes Covid-19. (See a related article, “Jordanian Researchers Create a Cheaper, Faster Coronavirus Test.”)

Al-Zyoud faced multiple obstacles in taking this discovery to the stage of production of a coronavirus test.

The first obstacle was registering an intellectual property. First of all, in Jordan one can only register an intellectual property in the name of an organization, not as an individual. Jordan is updating this system, but the process is still in its infancy because many rules and regulations must be created to support intellectual property rights. Most universities do not have an office for such issues, even though faculty discoveries are not only a source of pride but also of money for the university. I put Al-Zyoud in touch with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which recently signed an agreement with the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation to support collaborations between faculty and research scientists at MIT and their counterparts in Jordan.

The next obstacle is the lengthy process for obtaining approval of a new pharmaceutical device from the Jordan Food and Drug Administration. Because of the emergency laws that were introduced for Covid-19 in Jordan, the registration process has been expedited so that the Ministry of Health can give a green light to the Food and Drug Administration to move forward.

“Every policy-making body should have a team of expert scientists to advise and evaluate. These should be scientists with track records of doing expert science, in order to avoid making decisions out of fear and preventing creativity and innovation.”

Rana Dajani

That brings us to the third obstacle, which is that the committees at the Ministry of Health sometimes lack the scientific expertise to evaluate new test kits. Committee members are fantastic physicians but not hard-core scientists and therefore are hesitant to approve a new kit. Therefore, the need for an independent committee of subject expert scientists to make such assessments is very important. There is also a general lack of trust, with legitimate concerns about the prevalence of misinformation and pseudo-science regarding the coronavirus.

The fourth obstacle is that universities and research institutions are shut down because of the coronavirus. Therefore, there is no place where scientists can pursue these endeavors. University officials should have the vision to advocate policies to allow these labs to open, taking into consideration safety measures, so that scientists can continue developing new methods of detection, therapy and vaccination. Or at least authorities could assign certain main labs where such activities could be performed. The majority of universities see themselves mainly as teaching universities, although they have world-class scientists.

The fifth obstacle is that local manufacturing companies did not have the foresight to propose adopting Al-Zyoud’s team’s discovery and manufacturing the kits to be used in the country and eventually worldwide. For Al-Zyoud, a Finnish company has offered to assist in registering and validating the test and mass producing it for Jordan and the world.

Therefore, I recommend the following:

  • University administrators should set up offices for intellectual property registration, and training for intellectual property issues. Policy makers should create intellectual property regulations and policies to include individuals. This will help creativity and innovation because people will know that their inventions are protected. This will create revenue for universities, too.
  • Every policy-making body should have a team of expert scientists to advise and evaluate. These should be scientists with track records of doing expert science, in order to avoid making decisions out of fear and preventing creativity and innovation.
  • University administrators should see their institutions not only as teaching universities, but as producers of solutions for their country, the world and humanity. The university’s vision and all policies should reflect this goal, so that in emergency situations they could set in place a mechanism to focus on keeping scientists at work.
  • Universities should have collaborations with industry to establish a fast track for manufacturing. Industry owners should be thinking of how local expertise can give them a jumpstart, instead of depending on intellectual property from bigger manufacturers. This is about thinking locally and globally at the same time.

Such actions would boost confidence and identity locally, which leads to innovation and creativity. Sometimes it takes a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic to see where we are in the bigger picture. The whole world is suffering from the same challenges, and we can have a shot at solving the problems, similar to anyone around the world—even those in more advanced countries. The situation calls for everyone to be on board all over the world. Each and every scientist is important, and policy makers and administrators should collectively provide the environment and framework to enable them to flourish.

If Jordan adopts such polices, it can become a role model for the Arab region to help organize coordinated efforts to face the coronavirus crisis, because many of the challenges and therefore solutions are similar. The coronavirus has created a level playing field for all.

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University, in Jordan, and is currently a visiting professor at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond and a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, at Harvard University. She is also president of the Jordan Chapter of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, and president of Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World.


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