New Money for Arab Scientists

A grants-making foundation for Arab scientists, modeled on the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), hopes to award its first research grants next year.

The private 2-year-old Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), which held its first international conference last week in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, is expecting a contribution of almost $20 million from a private donor in the next few months, says Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and one of the conference leaders. The foundation currently has about $1 million--a gift from Sharjah's ruler. El-Baz says the foundation needs at least $10 million before it can begin to make grants.

The 900 participants at last week's meeting combined research presentations with discussions of how to run a scientific enterprise based on open peer review rather than top-down directives. The foundation has already recruited four Arab-born, U.S.-based scientists to lead panels that will manage grants competitions in the fields of water and energy, biotechnology, new materials, and information technology. El-Baz says the foundation will be breaking new ground simply by following NSF-style procedures: "The whole concept of submitting proposals, and then being held accountable for how the money is spent, is alien to most Arab scientists, who are used to getting a budget from the government and then just spending it." The foundation would also welcome financial help from NSF, he adds.

That's unlikely to happen, says Osman Shinaishin, who oversees NSF's research programs in the Middle East. NSF "can't make that type of commitment" to a private organization, explains Shinaishin. But he says Arab scientists would do well to seek foreign collaborators, including those who apply for NSF grants.

With reporting by Adam Bostanci in Cambridge, U.K.