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Arab Scientists Discuss How to Reduce the Arab Brain Drain

In the latest Al-Fanar Media panel discussion, three Arab scientists discussed how to reduce the “Arab brain drain.”

Rana Dajani, a professor of molecular biology at Jordan’s Hashemite University; Issa Batarseh, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida; and Amal Amin, an Egyptian professor of nanotechnology and the founding chair of Women in Science Without Borders, participated in the discussion.

Mohammad El-Hawary, Al-Fanar Media’s editor-in-chief, moderated the Zoom-based conversation, which was held on 29 January and was broadcast live on Al Fanar Media’s social media platforms. You can watch a replay of the discussion (in Arabic) on Facebook.

The session,  called “Arab Brain Drain: A Crisis from Within,” came in line with efforts by the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organisation to counter the phenomenon by creating the ALECSO Network for Arab Migrant Minds in the Fields of Food Security, Water, Environment and Health. 

Reasons for Migration

A common theme in the discussion was the lack of opportunity at home, and how this drives talented Arab scientists and academics to go abroad to study and build careers.

“I cannot blame the researchers. Many have tried and failed. They were forced to give up and go back abroad. It is important for everyone to think about how to serve their country at home or from abroad, regardless of their whereabouts.”

Rana Dajani, a professor of molecular biology at Jordan’s Hashemite University

Rana Dajani, of the Hashemite University, said many Arab researchers go abroad to study for a doctorate because there aren’t enough programmes in the Arab world.

“Studying abroad is not easy. It is highly competitive,” she said. “The challenges in Arab countries vary, and they require special capabilities to address them.”

Researchers who study abroad often lack the will to return and try to improve things at home because of the difficulties they encounter, Dajani said.

“I cannot blame the researchers,” she said. “Many have tried and failed. They were forced to give up and go back abroad. It is important for everyone to think about how to serve their country at home or from abroad, regardless of their whereabouts.” 

Dajani also criticised the way in which positions tend to be assigned in the Arab world. “In our countries’ institutions, positions are not for the competent, but for relatives,” she said. “This is a big problem.”

نزيف عقول العلماء العرب.. أكاديميون يقترحون حلولًا من الداخل
Rana Dajani, a professor of molecular biology at Jordan’s Hashemite University

“When you assign the position of college dean or university president to an unqualified person, who cannot take a research risk, and perhaps has never applied for a research grant in their life, they will prevent others from working on a subject to avoid exposing their own weakness. This applies to all our institutions, not just universities. Change is not difficult. It can be done in a way that benefits everyone.”

Issa Batarseh, of the University of Central Florida, noted that in the latter half of the 20th century, wars and instability in the Arab region pushed many students, mostly from Egypt and Lebanon, to emigrate to the West. More recently, he thinks that advances in technology in wealthier countries have also prompted many Arab students to emigrate.

Arab Scientists Discuss How to Reduce the Arab Brain Drain
Issa Batarseh, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida

“In the last twenty years, we have lost many Arab minds due to the availability of real programming opportunities in the West and the Gulf as well,” Batarseh said.

He suggested several ways that Arab countries could encourage Arab researchers to return to their home countries. He called for providing real job opportunities and strong research laboratories locally, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing; appealing to expatriates’ sense of belonging to their homeland and family, as Egypt and Jordan have been doing; and providing sustainable financing.

‘Brain Transfer’

Amal Amin, of Women in Science Without Borders, said that instead of “brain drain,” she thought of it more as “brain transfer.”

Researchers will search for an opportunity wherever it may be, she said. “Science is a commodity that should benefit all of humanity.”

She listed a number of factors that make Arab researchers seek opportunities elsewhere. Among them were “the lack of academic freedom in the Arab world, the lack of research funding and regulative laws, the lack of appropriate research environments, the lack of public awareness of the importance of research, and the lack of cooperation between researchers, decision-makers, and society.”

Arab societies must “activate the role of scientists abroad and at home. Solutions to these problems will only come from within.” 

Amal Amin, an Egyptian professor of nanotechnology and the founding chair of Women in Science Without Borders

To reduce the phenomenon, Amin called for forming networks for scientific researchers in their home countries that give them the chance to form partnerships and obtain grants and funding. She thinks such partnerships would encourage more researchers to stay at home, especially since being in “exile” has consequences, too. It is not a paradise and is not suitable for all researchers, she said, because the competition is very intense.

Dajani said publishing success stories about individual initiatives, along with partnerships at the local, regional, and international levels, could be part of the solution.

Speaking of her own experience, Dajani said that after returning from doctoral and postdoctoral studies in the United States, she decided to work on research experiments collectively, at the global level and in the Jordanian environment.

“It is important to investigate the right question that no one else can answer. This will bring the world’s scientists to cooperate with you,” she said. “I now have a large research lab network across the globe. What is important is how to think about new models that can promote our universities. Once we create a successful example, it will become an ideal for everyone.”

ALECSO Initiative

Referring to the ALECSO initiative, El-Hawary asked the panel members if having Arab scholars abroad benefited their homelands, or if countries needed them back to contribute to national development.

 Batarseh replied: “All our discussions with our colleagues show their strong readiness to give back. This is primarily due to a sense of belonging and feeling that we owe our country a debt.” 

“In the last twenty years, we have lost many Arab minds due to the availability of real programming opportunities in the West and the Gulf as well.”

Issa Batarseh, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Central Florida

He added that “there must be a real political decision, and our institutions must develop strategies   that attract Arab scientists to cooperate with their own country’s institutions. This should not rely on individual efforts only, but on efforts at a national level.”

Dajani agreed, stressing the need for scientists to participate in decision-making. She called for strengthening science councils and academies in the Arab world, and encouraging the establishment of formal and informal research ties, especially interdisciplinary networks.

نزيف عقول العلماء العرب.. أكاديميون يقترحون حلولًا من الداخل
Amal Amin, an Egyptian professor of nanotechnology and the founding chair of Women in Science Without Borders

“We must begin from the bottom, with a focus on building a distinctive people and nation in a sustainable way,” Dajani said. “That begins with changing individual mind-sets, raising public awareness of science, and encouraging every person to be responsible. … What matters is that we do something and have confidence that nothing is impossible.”

Amin also called for local and international decision-makers to have scientific advisors and and for creating programmes to raise scientific awareness. Arab societies must “activate the role of scientists abroad and at home,” she said. “Solutions to these problems will only come from within.” 

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