Thursday, 18 July 2013 11:48

Science in the Arab world, a personal perspective

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The Middle EastThe Arab world. Let's face it, when you hear that term, most of you don't really think about science. In the best case scenario you think about the "Arab Spring" that has gripped that part of the world recently... but that's the best case scenario, let's be honest.

I am Lebanese. I grew up there and did my undergraduate and master's studies there. I had the opportunity to work in two labs, under the supervision of four brilliant PIs who taught me a lot about scientific thinking, but more importantly about how to conduct science in a financially crippled research environment. The political unrest that constantly troubles that portion of the world doesn't help. In 2008, I went to finish an experiment in the lab while Beirut was in the midst of a "mini-uprising," and tried not to cross paths with any gunmen. But the unstable political situation aside, research scientists must maneuver around many other roadblocks.

Historically, Arab scientists were among the forerunners in science, pioneering and developing fields ranging from astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and others, but those are bygone days. The problem with Arab countries nowadays is that science is not a priority. For oil-rich countries bursting with money, the thinking is generally short term, with extreme spending on accessories and a lack of incentives to develop research. Sure, some schools have opened campuses in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, including NYU, Cornell, and even Paris-Sorbonne, to name a few. But the level of research funding is still incredibly low compared with that in most other countries with a much lower GDP. I cannot even begin to describe the "grant" money my old lab had. It is so miniscule that anyone reading this would not believe me. Most faculty depend upon funding from the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research and receive only $10-15K per year. At the American University of Beirut (AUB), where I worked, most labs are supplemented with a university research board stipend of $10K per year at maximum. Compare that with the money any U.S. or European labs spend on research per month, and you can easily understand why science does not develop much in Arab countries.

There are brilliant minds with lots of potential in the Arab world; yet every one of the students in my master's class is pursuing his/her PhD in the U. S. or Europe. These students could benefit from an Arab government-backed push for scientific research, which in turn would benefit the countries and the region as a whole. With the current funding situation as it is, it is a miracle functional science labs actually exist in the area. Even more impressive is that those few labs are actually pursuing and publishing good research. The scientists there are doing an outstanding job. As such, the problem is not a lack of capable and dedicated researchers. The problem is that governments in the Middle East do not see science as being important, and overlook the cultural and educational significance of scientific development in their countries.

What is the future of science in the Arab world? Without more funding, not only to help scientists to continue their scientific endeavors, but also to encourage scientists trained in the U.S. and Europe to return to their native countries, the future is bleak. There is a need to drive scientific research in the Arab world. As much as the political, religious, and belief systems may differ, scientific laws remain faithful, true, and unifying, and can provide hope for the future in light of the current political movements.

Hashem Dbouk

Hashem is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Melanie Cobb's lab at UT Southwestern, in Dallas, Texas. His long-term research interests focus on identifying protein-protein interactions and the mechanisms by which they regulate functions of kinases, with research spanning WNKs and PI3-Kinases.

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