Aware of the German reputation for punctuality and stereotypes about Arab lateness, I showed up in the hotel lobby exactly at 8:30 am as requested. I was part of a group of 16 journalists invited by the German Academic Research Service (DAAD) for a press tour to promote eastern Germany as a research and innovation hub.
For organizers, the tour was a way of cementing Germany’s reputation as a leading innovator. For me it was a chance to see the transformation of a formerly socialist and highly inefficient research bureaucracy into a more streamlined scientific enterprise—something like the transformation some hope might take place in Arab science. The first day of the tour included a visit to STIMULATE, a center in the city of Magdeburg that seeks to develop new devices and methods for minimally invasive image-guided diagnosis and treatment for cancer and cardiovascular and neurological diseases.
After overcoming my initial amazement with the technological advances and state-of-the-art facilities, what was really impressive was the collaboration between industry and researchers and the willingness to mix scientists from a variety of disciplines and countries together on one team.
In order to develop a new generation of medical diagnoses and treatments, STIMULATE had to collaborate with Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg and Siemens Healthcare GmbH, a division of Siemens that makes medical diagnostic equipment. The university provides expertise in engineering, natural sciences and medicine, while Siemens provides access to leading technical expertise in research and development.
Interdisciplinary research and a belief in the international nature of science and industry-research collaborations were elements that defined my week-long trip. They caught my attention mainly because they don’t exist as much in the Arab research environment.
An example of interdisciplinary research was introduced to us in the city of Jena by Martine Robbeets, a professor and research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Robbeets is leading an interdisciplinary research project about the roots of people, languages and cultures in north and east Asia. Her work integrates genetics, linguists and archaeology, something she could only find under one roof at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Dipjyoti Deb, an associate research fellow at the Center for Advancing Electronics Dresden, thinks there are several factors that make it easier for researchers to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects in Germany than in other countries.
“German researchers have a goal-oriented behavior rather than a person-oriented behavior,” he said. “When you think from a person-oriented behavior, you take a stand. Either I collaborate or I don’t. But when you take a goal-oriented behavior, you just think of how to achieve your end result.”
German funding encourages interdisciplinary research. But Germany has also created centers with a high degree of expertise in specific fields and technologies, so when researchers are working on other more general research projects, they can count on these specialized centers to build certain tools or carry out specific experiments. “One single center cannot have everything you need to do science,” Deb said. “It’s always easier to go to individual centers that have a lot of expertise in specific fields rather than attempting to do it yourself, which is time- and money-consuming.”
In Doha, the city where I live now, Philippe Freyssinet, the director of energy and the environment at the Qatar National Research Fund, acknowledges the shortage of interdisciplinary research in most Arab universities. But he says the research fund hopes to change that in the future.
“We fund projects based on a competition. The ones we opt to fund are mostly collaborative research that involve three to five different research teams coming from different environments,” he said.
Part of the grant can be spent outside Qatar, so local researchers can involve international teams as well.
“This brings a lot of multi-disciplinary spirit to the projects”, he said.
Still, efforts by QNRF and similar organizations remain an exception to the general rule at Arab universities.