Ask researchers from across the Arab world what holds them back, and most will lament the rarity of steady funding.
It may be easier in parts of the Gulf than elsewhere in the region to build impressive and costly research facilities, but it remains a common complaint that researcher administrators find it challenging to get the cash needed to operate those laboratories and pay the people who want to work in them. The same goes for social scientists who work in the field—long-term funding is difficult to come by.
The Arab world is not alone. Even in the United States, where support for research and development leads the rest of the world, academics say financing their research is not easy—especially when they are young.
A new study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found the rate of success for researchers under the age of 35 applying for grants from the National Institutes of Health plummeted from 46.1 percent in 1980 to 19.2 percent in 2014. While older researchers have also seen their success rates fall, it’s the younger ones who appear to be more discouraged—so much so that they aren’t bothering to apply for grants.
“Younger folks aren’t applying as much as they used to,” says the study author and an economist for the U.S. Census Bureau, Misty Heggeness.
She says there are lessons for the Arab world in her study.
“We have this vicious cycle of funding peaks and troughs,” explained Heggeness.
The National Institutes of Health’s budget more than doubled between 1998 and 2005. But funding has since decreased—by as much as 12.1 percent between 2010 and 2013.
There’s now an oversupply of young researchers in the United States, and this is likely caused by the increase of funding ten years ago, argues Heggeness. The abundance of support for biomedical research encouraged university students to study science.
But by the time many of those students had finished their Ph.D.’s and postdoctoral training, the funding had fallen. Instead of continuing in academe, some of those young researchers transitioned into private industry, while others lingered in postdocs hoping that a tenured position would eventually open up, she says.
Essentially, fewer young researchers are applying for grants because they know they will face more competition from their peers.
“You can argue that what you need is slow incremental funding,” says Heggeness. “The best way for science to happen in a responsible fashion is to have steady funding rather than swings. That would be one lesson the Arab world could take from the U.S.”
But experts in the region don’t wholly agree. They argue that funding in the region is so low and the need for it is so critical that they can’t afford worry about the peak-and-trough problem that America has.
“Our support for research is nothing compared to the United States,” says the American University of Beirut’s Provost Mohamed Harajli. “It doesn’t matter so much if it’s going up and down because there’s nearly nothing here in the Arab world to start with.”
Pierre Zalloua, the dean of graduate studies and research at the Lebanese American University, says incremental adjustments would be too slow. “I really think we should increase the amount seriously, but yes we shouldn’t go up and down.”
If money is tough to come by for scientific research, it’s even more of a challenge for the social sciences and humanities.
“Funding for research like engineering or sciences is easier than getting it for social sciences and the humanities,” says Harajli.
“Even at AUB it’s like that,” he admits. But he adds that the university is trying to reverse past prejudices toward research in the humanities and social sciences. Harajli says that if he has to decide between two equally impressive grant applications and one is from the humanities and the other is from the sciences, he’ll likely opt for the humanities proposal because he knows it will be harder for that researcher to find external funding.
Since the mid-1980s, the American University of Beirut has been trying to strategically shift its focus from teaching toward research, despite the difficulty of accessing international support for that research. “Today we consider ourselves 45 percent research and 55 percent teaching, and we still want to go beyond that,” he adds.
One of the university’s methods to deal with the lightweight coffers for research has been to reinstate tenure, which was halted during Lebanon’s civil war. He hopes this will motivate more university professors to conduct research. “Tenure offers job security, and faculty have to do research to become tenured,” he says. “Our faculty members either publish or perish.”
The university is also spending more of its internal budget on research. Harajli says that last year the university spent $1.2 million on research—a rise of 20 percent from the year before. He hopes to see another 20 percent bump by this time next year.
Some of this money was spent on a new program that awards grants of $40,000 to researchers from different fields who want to work with researchers from other disciplines. “The preference for this goes to junior faculty,” explains Harjli. “Younger researchers are also more likely to be engaged with interdisciplinary research.”
Meanwhile, the Lebanese American University has a similar program that preferentially awards its internal research budget to researchers in the early stages of their careers. Zalloua awards ten grants of $20,000 each year to research projects at the university—all of them to either associate or assistant professors. “We’re doing our part,” he says. “I’ve always said we need to get more external funding. Until we establish a philanthropic culture, we can’t compete.”
Zalloua wants to see a pan-Arab version of the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation in the United States, with many Arab governments contributing to an agency that finances research projects throughout the region. He confesses it’s unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon, but says: “We need to start somewhere and get a steady source of income.”