Vast majority of Arab researchers would rather emigrate

Researchers working in Arab countries face so many obstacles to success that as many as 91% of them would prefer to emigrate, a survey of 650 researchers by Al-Fanar Media has found.

Poor funding was generally regarded as the number one obstacle by the respondents to the online survey, a complaint that they may well share with other researchers around the world. But even in the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries that have showered scientists with financial support, 81% of researchers said they would prefer to work in other countries with more academic freedom and greater career opportunities.

Two other key barriers to good research that scientists working in the Arab region stressed were difficulty in getting institutional and government permission to do research, and difficulty in traveling to attend international conferences and work with international collaborators.

Thirty-seven per cent of respondents said they wanted to leave the region to escape corruption and bureaucracy. The proportion was higher in a number of countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Some 68% said they would like to go to Europe and 55% would like to go to North America.

Powerful urge to emigrate

The powerful and widespread urge to emigrate among Arab researchers does not bode well for Arab countries that want to build ‘knowledge economies’ or create globally competitive universities, according to Abdelhamid Nechad, an economist at the Ecole Supérieure du Commerce et des Affaires in Casablanca, who has written about brain drain in Morocco.

“The region needs human capital to improve and overcome our weaknesses in terms of health, education and technology,” he said.

Al-Fanar Media, which focuses on research and education in the Arab world, wanted to use the survey to find out what obstacles researchers faced in the 22 countries of the Arab League. Editors worked with 16 scientists from a variety of disciplines and Arab countries to develop and test the survey.

The link for the online survey was distributed by e-mail and social media to Al-Fanar’s contact lists and through a wide variety of informal partners who work with researchers in the Arab world.

Among the respondents, the majority were in science, engineering, mathematics and medicine; 21% were political and social scientists, and 17% were in the humanities. Respondents were highly engaged, with many submitting comments and nearly 400 respondents leaving e-mail addresses to learn the survey results.

Women can face a particularly difficult climb in trying to be successful as researchers in Arab countries, 55% of survey respondents said.

In follow-up interviews, researchers said that more abstract factors can be discouraging.

“In my opinion, funding is not the primary challenge for Arab researchers,” said Rana Dajani, a molecular biologist and associate professor at Hashemite University in Jordan and a Radcliffe fellow at Harvard University. “The root cause is the environment that doesn’t support doing science. In order to do good science and to have the patience, and passion, and persistence, you need to be inspired by other scientists.

“It's about attending conferences, exchanging ideas and listening to what’s new,” she added. “This largely doesn't exist here.”

Researchers also face logistical barriers. Abdulrahman Bamerni, a geoscientist at the University of Duhok, Iraq, told Al-Fanar Media he had to ship his rock samples to Italy for analysis because he didn’t have the proper equipment. But when he wanted to spend his own money to import the microscopes that he needed, he discovered the microscope company wouldn’t ship to Iraq.

Nearly half of researchers said they did not have a reliable internet connection at their home institution, and 52% said they did not have free access to current academic journals. Also, 84% of researchers said they have had to spend their own money on their research.

The challenges for researchers in conflict-affected countries are particularly severe. Ghania al-Naqeeb, a Yemeni nutrition researcher, said that when she returned to Yemen after studying for a masters degree and doctorate in Malaysia she had to dedicate “part of my monthly salary to buy research supplies” as the university did not have enough funds to do research at an advanced level, Al-Fanar reported.

On the positive side of the survey results, more than 60% of researchers surveyed said that they had adequate time to do their research. Roughly the same proportion of respondents said that doing good research would result in getting a promotion at their institution.

Kamal Badr, a professor of medicine at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, says that the survey and the tales of individual researchers’ problems highlight a serious issue. “We have an abundance of human resources in the Arab world, but they’re leaving because they don’t have the infrastructure they need to do a good job.”