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Wars, Partition and Lack of Funding Cannot Stop Scientific Research in Yemen and Libya

University professors in Yemen and Libya say even war, partition and lack of funding do not stop scientific research. Academic scientists are personally and professionally motivated to continue their research because they want to solve societal problems, and because it is compulsory for promotion.

In war-divided Yemen, even in the south where university salaries have continued to be paid, public universities have had no money for scientific research since 2015. “But that does not mean there is no research done,” Mohamed Baazab, deputy director of international relations at the University of Aden, told Al-Fanar Media.

“All universities still do research, from professors to postgraduate students, but they have to fund it themselves. There are factors that push a professor to do research. They think, ‘I have no funds but it is my work. I want to improve my work and help my community. I also want to upgrade.’

“All universities still do research, from professors to postgraduate students, but they have to fund it themselves. There are factors that push a professor to do research. They think, ‘I have no funds but it is my work. I want to improve my work and help my community. I also want to upgrade.’”

Mohamed Baazab, a paediatrician and deputy director of international relations at the University of Aden

“If an assistant professor wants to be an associate professor or an associate professor wants to become a professor, he or she has to do scientific research and get that research printed in reputable scientific journals. But they might have to pay out of their own salary.”

No Government Funds for Research

Baazab, who is also a paediatrician in the University of Aden’s Faculty of Medicine, said he was only speaking about government universities. “Private universities still have a budget for research. South Yemen has 22 governorates and there is almost a government university for each governorate. Aden’s population was only 500,000 before the war, but with the separatist government being based here, it is now two million. There is still only one government university but there are seven private universities in Aden alone.”

Yemen has been split by civil war for a decade, after the Houthi rebels gained control of northern Yemen in 2014 and the official government fled to Aden, in the south, the following year. The eight-member Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) that governs now includes a separatist faction that wants to restore an independent South Yemen.

Baazab said he has colleagues in northern Yemen and has heard that they have to take fees from their students to survive, but studies and life continue. “The Ministry of Education is very weak in the north, but the private system is also very strong there. Yemenis in general do not rely on government wages. People who work for the government can do another job. They work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., so they can work in the afternoon.”

Wars, Partition and Lack of Funding Cannot Stop Scientific Research in Yemen and Libya
Mohamed Baazab, deputy director of international relations at the University of Aden

At the University of Aden, Baazab said authorities routinely approve academic staff members’ requests to do a second job. “They say, ‘Yes. Do this job then you can improve your situation, so long as you are present for your official hours in the faculty lectures and seminars.’”

Loss of International Exchanges

The University of Aden has 24 colleges and more than 30,000 students, Baazab said. “We used to have a yearly conference for each college with visiting professors, so it was international. This is important for training, as are foreign students.”

But the university has no foreign professors or students now, he said. “We used to have cooperation with other universities in Cuba, Italy, Germany and Saudi Arabia, but now no one will come to Yemen.”

“If I am a master’s or Ph.D. student, the university tells me, ‘You have to publish your research in a high quality journal.’ Some journals give discounts, but you can’t always get them. So it is difficult to publish the same amount of scientific research as before.”

Mohamed Baazab, of Yemen’s University of Aden

As for sending its own students abroad, “there are only two countries Yemenis can enter without a visa, Egypt and Sudan, and who would want to go to Sudan nowadays?”

“Cuban professors established our medical faculty in 1975 and for the first ten years nearly 90 percent of the teaching staff were Cuban. They also set up the master’s programme, but now they have all left. For the master’s and undergraduate programmes that is not a problem, we have staffBut for postgraduates we only have staff for the master’s, no staff for the doctorates.

“I mention this because it is related to scientific research. Undergraduates do simple research supervised by our teaching staff, but for the master’s degree each student has to do at least two pieces of scientific research. They have to have two supervisors, but we do not have them. This applies to scientific faculties like medicine, engineering, pharmacy and dentistry where it is difficult to do Ph.D. work. For adult education colleges, history and cultural heritage departments, it is easy because they are not short of experienced staff.”

The cost of publishing is also a concern. “If I am a master’s or Ph.D. student, the university tells me, ‘You have to publish your research in a high quality journal.’ Some journals give discounts, but you can’t always get them. So it is difficult to publish the same amount of scientific research as before.”

Avoiding Making Things Worse

Baazab said higher education authorities had promised to improve the situation after professors threatened to strike. “We reached the minister of higher education, the rector of the university and the local authorities, but they said, ‘Please. We are at war. Don’t stop teaching students, it will just make the situation worse.’”

But even if funding for scientific research returned to pre-war levels, the amount would no longer be sufficient, he said. “Before the war, one U.S. dollar was worth 200 Yemeni rials, now it is worth 1,500 Yemeni rials.”

“It is not usual to find a fund for research given by the government or private companies. Scientific research just stays in universities and research centres to give scientists knowledge about their subject. “It is not used to serve the community. This is not a recent problem.”

Jamal Abubaker, director of the scientific research and consulting centre at Sebha University, in Libya

Baazab said media reports about a possible peace agreement were encouraging. “We are hoping then that many students can get help from neighbouring countries. But, with Gaza, today’s situation may be even better than in the future. We need at least to stay at this level.”

In Libya, Obstacles to Research

Libya is also divided by war, with rival governments in the east and the west.

A professor there, Jamal Abubaker, director of the scientific research and consulting centre at Sebha University, told Al-Fanar Media that there were many obstacles to scientific research in Libya.

“It is not usual to find a fund for research given by the government or private companies,” he said.

Abubaker said scientists have been trying to persuade government officials that supporting research will benefit communities. “Scientific research just stays in universities and research centres to give scientists knowledge about their subject,” he said. “It is not used to serve the community. This is not a recent problem.

“If we can convince society that scientific research can be very important to solve problems, that can be the first step towards a solution. You must announce your research priorities so you don’t consume limited resources for something that is not serving the community. That is the first step so communities can see very clearly that scientific research is important for them.”

One piece of Libyan scientific research that was famously ignored was hydrologist Abdelwanees Ashoor’s November 2022 report on the Wadi Derna basin. Ashoor, a professor at Omar Al-Mukhtar University journal in Bayda city, published his study in Sebha University’s Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences. It concluded that the study area “has a high potential for flood risk. Therefore the dams of the Wadi Derna basin need periodic maintenance. Increasing vegetation cover is also required to reduce the phenomenon of desertification.”

Nothing was done and ten months later, two dams failed during heavy rain, resulting in a flash flood that devastated the downstream city of Derna. Health authorities with the government in eastern Libya estimated that 6,000 people were missing from Derna alone. Some of the bodies are believed to have been washed out to sea so the exact number of dead will never be known. The deputy mayor of Derna acknowledged that the dams had not been maintained since 2002.

Tackling Local Problems

Sebha University is one of about 30 universities in Libya. They are nearly all public universities, as there are strict regulations for private universities, which usually have to be non-profit organisations.

Sebha city is in the desert in southwestern Libya, 640 kilometres south of Tripoli, a region plagued by gang violence.

Abubaker said conditions in the city were improving. “Last year people were dying every day in fighting and crime, stealing cars and hostage taking to get money. You wouldn’t want to walk in the street with a cellphone, you would be mugged immediately. But it has become much safer compared to two or three years ago. The government in the west (based in Tripoli) came in the summer with police and army and started to take control of the main roads, looking for guns and arresting criminals.”

A soil microbiologist, Abubaker is also optimistic about the future of scientific research in his country. In Sebha he believes his university can provide the answer to a major environmental problem.

“Cuban professors established our medical faculty in 1975 and for the first ten years nearly 90 percent of the teaching staff were Cuban. They also set up the master’s programme, but now they have all left.”

Jamal Abubaker, of Libya’s Sebha University

“Sewage water is leaking into groundwater, causing big contamination. We have analysed samples from 12 wells inside the city to show they are contaminated by heavy metals and bacteria. There is a problem with the sewage water. We have a lot of diseases which are increasing in the city and that is the reason.

“We showed the local authorities and they started to react but then nothing happened. That was eight months ago but we will see no improvements until we can get the general public and government decision makers on our side by proving to them that we can do better.

“I am optimistic that when they see what science can do and that we can provide a solution, they will listen. Everyone wants solutions and I believe we can get Sebha University involved in the city’s sewage water problem.”

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