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Kuwait reviving the Arab scientific ethos
February 24, 2016, 5:19 pm
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The scientific heritage of the Arab world traces its origins to the eighth-century when Arab scholars began to draw inspiration from scientific knowledge accumulated by earlier civilizations. Translating, preserving and building upon concepts derived from Greek texts, as well as from Persian and Indian sources, these scholars soon developed and expanded their own corpus of knowledge in various subjects, including in fields of mathematics, astronomy and medicine.

For the next four centuries, Arab scholars were at the forefront of scientific advances making phenomenal breakthroughs in many fields of science. For instance, the brilliant ninth-century Baghdad mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi invented algebra. He also solved linear and quadratic equations using algorithms — a term that is derived from his surname and is a fitting tribute to al-Khwarizmi's contribution to mathematics.

Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, a 10th-century surgeon in Córdoba, composed Al-Tasrif, a 30-chapter medical encyclopedia describing dozens of operations, complete with graphic illustrations of surgical instruments, including scalpels, cauterizing tools, feeding tubes and cupping glasses.

In the 11th-century physicist Alhasan ibn al-Haitham, or Alhazen as he was known in the West, reversed the false Greek notion that light emitted from the eye. He correctly asserted that light rays travel in the opposite direction, reflecting off the surface of objects to enter the eye.

These and other discoveries amassed by Arab scholars during that period formed a vast trove of knowledge that was over time used as reference by researchers in other countries. In fact, Arabic manuscripts and scientific learning had a significant impact in creating greater scientific awareness and in promoting intellectual thought across Europe, as the continent transitioned from the generally regressive Medieval Era to a more progressive Renaissance period.

Kuwait’s scientific ethos: With such a rich scientific heritage among Arabs it is no surprise that, since its independence in 1961, Kuwait too placed great emphasis on education and scientific learning. In the seventies and eighties, Kuwait was recognized regionally and internationally as a center for scientific studies and research. The country was among the first to launch a range of renewable projects, including a one-megawatt solar power station and a solar-powered desalination plant.  

While the country’s early pursuit of knowledge and promotion of science were commendable, like most other things it too suffered as a consequence of the invasion in 1990, and never fully recovered until quite recently.  The number of scholars in Kuwait undertaking basic research, applied research and experimental development, as well as their publications in scientific journals decreased significantly from their highs in the eighties.

According to statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 2011, Kuwait’s current and capital expenditures on research and development was  a mere 0.09 percent of GDP. This included all the creative work undertaken systematically to increase knowledge of humanity, culture, science and society. This meager spending earned Kuwait the 112th rank among 131 nations listed by UNESCO; just below the small African nation of Burundi, which used 0.11 percent of its GDP on research and development.

However, in recent years, the desire to promote scientific learning and participate in more research and development has gained prominence. It is in this context that we look at the role of some of the major scientific institutions in the country.

Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Sciences:

The Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) was established in 1976 through an Amiri degree promulgated by the late Amir Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. The Foundation was set up as a private, non-profit organization to support the late Amir’s long-term vision of advancing the state of science, technology and innovation (STI) in the country.

The organization is fully funded from one-percent of the net profit of Kuwaiti Shareholding Companies and from its own long-term investment strategy. The Foundation is basically a funding agency whose main focus is to promote STI in Kuwait and the Arab world through encouraging scientific activities from kindergarten to universities; by translating and publishing technical books and awarding several annual prizes in acknowledgement of scientific achievements. KFAS also funds research grants for local research institutions primarily Kuwait University and the country’s leading research center, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR).  

Over the years, the organization has also successfully established four distinguished research and educational centers that serve as important and visible achievements of KFAS, namely The Scientific Center Kuwait (TSCK), the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI), Sabah Al-Ahmad Center for Giftedness and Creativity and the Jaber Al-Ahmad Center for Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.

Further achievements include collaboration with renowned international research and academic institutions, including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford University, Sciences Po and the London School of Economics and Political Science, as well as, most recently, with the internationally renowned American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals. 

These academic collaborations form part of the strategic approach by the Foundation to enrich its expertise, scientific innovations and education for the service of the Kuwaiti community and humanity, as well as to engage national human resources in building a strong research culture, knowledge-based economy and sustainable future for the State of Kuwait.

“KFAS has done a lot but there was a general perception that it has not done enough,” says the current Director-General of KFAS, Dr. Adnan A. Shihab-Eldin. As part of its new strategy that was implemented in 2012, the Foundation has now placed greater focus on human capital development, through training grants as well as advanced executive programs.

In this regard, KFAS held in January 2016 a follow on workshop in collaboration with Harvard University on ‘Decision-making strategies under risk and uncertainty’. The event was part of a series of executive training workshops in partnership with Harvard, a collaboration that has started 15 years ago. The overall number of participants since the launch of this international program is 515 participants from both the private and public sectors.

Dasman Diabetes Institute:  Inaugurated in 2006 by the Amir His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Dasman Daibetes Institute (DDI) was set up with the goal of preventing, controlling and mitigating the impact of diabetes and related conditions in Kuwait. Since its establishment, the DDI has through its effective programs of research, training, education and health promotion, helped improve the quality of life among the population.

As one of the leading comprehensive research and treatment facilities for diabetes the DDI contributes to the improvement of health of future generations. Research conducted at the institute helps find better treatment modalities and possible solutions to slow down the spread of diabetes in Kuwait and the region. In addition, by spreading awareness about diabetes within the community, the institute encourages early diagnosis or prevention of the disease and imparts specialized training to health professionals treating people with diabetes.

The Institute partners and collaborates with prestigious international organizations in the health field, including with Harvard Medical School affiliates, the Forsyth Institute, the International Center for Migration and Health, Cambridge University, as well as locally through open, interactive collaboration with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, the Ministry of Health and the Faculties of Health Sciences at Kuwait University.

The DDI provides a wide range of clinical expertise, providing patients with a holistic approach to their medical condition. Between 4000-5000 patients are registered at the Institute, and approximately 30 specialties are currently offered at the institute. Researchers and physicians at DDI are engaged in over 50 research projects in various disciplines.

The Educational activities of DDI focus on patient education, as well as initiatives for healthcare professionals, medical students and an outreach program that targets youth. Meanwhile, the Department of Nutrition at DDI is involved in several clinical activities, including establishing a pediatric obesity clinic to support the new demand in training adult and pediatric insulin pump patients, as well as being an active partner in new adult clinical programs. Additionally, the department continues to provide nutrition education and training to school teachers from the Ministry of Education

Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Center for Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging: The Center was founded as a scientifically distinct institution with highly advanced clinical and academic credentials. The Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), Ministry of Health, and Kuwait University are all institutions that cooperate to operate the Center. The Director of the Center operates under the Board of Trustees, chaired by the Director General of KFAS.

The mission of the Center is to provide a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) clinical imaging services to the patients and to provide academic infrastructure for academic research. The Center also contains the largest medical cyclotron in Kuwait for radioisotope production, allowing it to produce unique radioisotopes that are not currently available in the country. In addition, the Center includes a laboratory for animal research and a micro-PET camera for animal imaging, which makes it the only center in the region that is capable of conducting a basic scientific research in the field of molecular medicine.

The Center coordinates with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to facilitate mutual scientific and academic activities. In addition, the center hosts periodical visits by IAEA experts to evaluate the center’s readiness for international accreditation. In addition, the center has also made initial coordination with Geneva University to establish joint re-search projects and academic activities.

Sabah Al-Ahmad Center for Giftedness and Creativity: The center was established in 2010 as an initiative of the Amir His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al- Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to support and nurture gifted and talented Kuwaitis. The Center is committed to providing an appropriate environment that allows individuals to highlight their distinctive talents and presents opportunities for them to transform their innovative ideas into reality.

The Innovation Sector at the Center supports and promotes individuals with ideas and helps them to transform their concept into innovation and invention. The sector is dedicated to encouraging excellence and creativity by offering various services and means of support, and by addressing any potential shortcomings through training and education. The sector also attempts to promote a culture of creativity in the wider community and helps turn submitted ideas and inventions into reality with patent registrations. It also provides local and regional assistance at every level to deal with specialized law firms to register these kinds of innovations.

With a technical plan drawing and 3D department the Fab Lab at the Center helps creative people in completing their designs and prototypes. In 2013, around 60 work designs were successfully implemented at the Fab Lab workshop

 

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