The R&D problem by Majid Al Qassimi

When i was growing up, i had a dream where all i wanted to be, was an inventor. That thought comes and goes to this day, disguising itself in the form of the "Maker" moniker. As i started senior school and was taking the major sciences, i realised there was also the world of research, where you "discovered" new things and in my mind that was the new "inventor" of our time. So as i left school, joined university, i thought i would go into research. Veterinary Medicine has the opportunity to open all the doors for research in biology, chemistry, genetics and many more sciences. While at university, in our first month of lectures, a professor walked in to give us a brief on why we should go into research. He said only about 18% of Veterinary practitioners stay in clinical practice, as they find it can become a bit stale and boring, and thats when they turn to research. "Veterinary practice is limited to what we know, and without research we cannot push the boundaries of our knowledge base and profession". That thought stuck with me, and throughout my long years at vet school, it continued to whisper into my ear. 

"Veterinary practice is limited to that which we know, and without research we cannot push the boundaries of our knowledge base and profession"

Now, having returned in 2010 and working here in my home country, the UAE,  i see a very grim picture in the light of research. Again and again you find proud arabs talking about the arab contribution to science in the "Golden Ages" of Islam, or the arab world. A stroll in many museums in the region showcase the polymaths and astrologers of our great history, and their contributions to modern day life (details for another time). One simple example is something almost every child tackles today at school. Algebra. Developed from early persian mathmatician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī عبدالله محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی book Kitāb al-muḫtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala الكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة modern mathmeticians established the dicipline of Algebra and today is a conerstone of the sciences.

Looking at the Arab world today, we are standing in an embarrassingly pale shadow of that great era.  And like the old man that will repeat a story ad infinitum while all others roll their eyes, we seem to be telling everyone of this bygone glory and not addressing the "now". Typical of the arab world, we are master story tellers, but if all we do is tell the story we will be left behind. 

Across the Middle East and North Africa, countries are in different stages of "development". Amongst them we have some powerhouses that hold resources driving their development. And indeed there are countries who are trying to put themselves on the chart amongst the big research hubs. The picture below taken from the 2014 Global R&D funding forecast shows how much funding countries are pushing into the R&D fields via industry, academia and other initiatives.

Source: Battelle 2014 global R&D funding forecast (link in text)

As is clearly shown in green, none of the countries of the Middle east and Africa break the 2000 scientists and engineers per million mark.   Dwarfed by the heavy hitters like the USA, China, and Japan, it is clear that Israel is out in front for the region. Considering their political situation, i am not surprised. However, Qatar seems to be making good ground with their population size. The big take away is that Egypt does not have a place on this map despite their long history in academia, while Saudi Arabia is in its early days. So what do we need to do to bring the rest of the MENA region into a stronger presence here? What will it take to drive R&D in the region?

I dont expect to get to the root of the problem in one sitting, although i have a strong feeling my assumptions are pointing in the right direction, i will make those clear in the future. I will be digging into this further to see what i can uncover and will write on this topic regularly. Until then, where do you think the right questions need to be asked, and where are the gaps we need to fill to return our reputation in science, to its former glory?

Forests and 2 TED talks that blew me away! by Majid Al Qassimi

When i was maybe 4 or 5 (maybe older) and in school the teacher asked us to draw what we did last summer. Once we got through our drawings my teacher noticed my picture did not have the usual suspects, beach balls, sand and sun as so many other kids. I drew trees as tall as the page, lots of them. And when asked where i had gone for my summer vacation, i had said "The JUNGLE!!" Upon speaking with my mother about this, my teacher was informed that i spend every summer in Germany with my Mother's family, and since i was able to walk, my grandfather has put me on the tractor and driven out with me to chop wood for the coming winter. I had yet to learn the word "forest", but today it is one of my favourite words and favourite places. 

I recently stumbled upon 2 TED talks that have really awoken the term "forest" in my mind. The first talking about growing your own tiny forest using the Miyawaki Technique. The speaker talks about growing forests in India but further more, trying to develop an "open source" forest platform with remote soil testing and a library to show you all the plants that can be used locally. Moved deeply by the possibilities (and the recent birth of my son) i actually contacted Shubhendu and offered to help with testing in the UAE. After sharing the video with one of my closest friends, he too realised he wanted to try to make it happen, and so we are planning. 

The second video i watched is from 2013, by Allan Savory and almost brought me to tears. Mr Savory made no small admission on stage, describing the biggest mistake of his life (proving the need to cull 40,000 elephants to stop desertification), but he goes on to describe how that drove him to figure out a solution for desertification. Identifying the biological system that existed before man, and creating a proxy for this system using large herds sheep or cows is genius. You manage to reverse a major climate crisis using a modern day analogue of pre human biological relationships. 

What excites me about these 2 talks is that both present possibilities for the MENA region. If we can develop these concepts further and adapt them to the climates here, we may end up with systems that are sustainable all year round and create a foundation for a "greening" of the desert, something the leadership of the UAE have always wanted.