UAE could be region’s science crossroads

With a concerted government strategy, the UAE could be the Middle East's centre for medical research

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In an opinion piece yesterday, based on a lecture he gave at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, the MIT lecturer Mark Murcko talked about the future of medicine and how the real revolution in biomedical research has only just begun. "What role might Abu Dhabi play in the coming decades," he asked, "if you decide to make this a priority?" It is an intriguing possibility.

As has been said many times, the Arab world was for centuries the centre of worldwide scientific endeavour. And as has been said equally often, it has since fallen tragically ­behind. While there is significant opportunity for all the countries of the region to increase their spending and training on science, there is a particular opportunity for the UAE to be at the forefront of biomedical research.

Consider that medical research requires relevant, interlinked institutions: universities to train future scientists and linkages to industry to develop that research into market-ready drugs. Consider, too, that research on drugs takes years and usually – 90 per cent of time, said Mr Murcko – fails. And lastly, that those universities require bright students.

The UAE has all of those prerequisites: the wealth to make it happen, the human ingenuity, and the time and investment required to allow scientists to try, try and try again. It lacks only the final and necessary push to bring them together. Creating research institutions ought to be a priority, as well as fast-tracking bright Emirati students into training programmes abroad. Indeed, we would urge for a special programme to identify, train and mentor bright Emirati students for scientific professions.

Apart from the economic benefits of becoming a regionable hub for research and development, there’s also the possibility of working on drugs for illnesses that may only affect the Gulf population.

The final part of the mix is creating a scientific culture, one open to inquiry, to experimentation and, crucially, to the risk of failure. Science for its own sake is crucial for science that yields results.

We might, also, learn from the successes and failures of the West and Asia, and devise more workable partnerships between government and the private sector in the conduct of research, the testing of drugs and the marketing and pricing of essential cures.

Taken together, these elements could go a long way towards making the UAE the centre of scientific research in the region and, given the country’s links with South Korea, India and Japan, also extend the reach into Asia.

The UAE is now a hub for energy, tourism and business. With the right push, it could rapidly become a centre for science, too.