Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Science in Sudan after sanctions

by Salman Hameed

Sanctions have a broad impact. Even when science is not specifically targeted, it becomes harder to get scientific equipment that can support research. In the country ratings for science (it is an imperfect measure - and we should take that caveat seriously), Sudan is at no. 99, sandwiched between Senegal (surprisingly low) and Moldova. In any case, Science has a good story about the efforts to revive Sudanese science now that some of the sanctions have been lifted (you will need subscription to read the full story):
When Dia-Eldin Elnaiem flies to Sudan next month, it will be with a light heart. For the first time in 2 decades, he will be able to study disease-carrying sand flies in the nation of his birth without fear of breaking the law in his adopted country, the United States. “It will be such a relief,” says Elnaiem, a parasitologist at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. “I am finally free.” 
In October, the U.S. government, citing Sudan's humanitarian advances and its progress in fighting terrorism, lifted economic sanctions on the African nation. Applied in the 1990s to punish Sudan's government for human rights abuses, the sanctions did not explicitly target science. But by prohibiting bank transfers to Sudan and placing stringent controls on exports of materials and equipment to the country, the sanctions essentially severed Sudanese science from international partnerships and funding. They also forced scientists in the Sudanese diaspora in the United States to run an almost impossible gauntlet to get permission to conduct research in Sudan. The restrictions “became a part of our DNA,” says Mahmoud Hilali, a 34-year-old now at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel who left Sudan in 2015 to do a Ph.D. in Switzerland on mycetoma, a disease caused by a flesh-eating fungus that's rife in his homeland.

And here is a brief background of Sudanese science - starting with the British:
Modern science took root in Sudan in the early 1900s, when British colonists set up a scientific outpost in Khartoum, the capital, to study diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, smallpox, and rabies. In the 1940s a Sudanese-U.K. team made a landmark find: that sodium stibogluconate can cure visceral leishmaniasis. Sold under the name pentostam, the drug is still in use today. After independence in 1956, Sudan's small science community enjoyed a “golden age,” says Suad Sulaiman, a parasitologist with the Sudanese National Academy of Sciences in Khartoum. For 3 decades, she says, the country's universities and labs were among the best in Africa. 
In the 1980s, however, a civil war broke out between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south (what is now South Sudan), and Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup. The rest of the world largely ostracized his increasingly repressive regime. International research funding dried up. Then came the sanctions, which made it almost impossible to purchase reagents or instruments from abroad, pay publication fees, or travel overseas for conferences, Sulaiman says.

Image from Science

It is no surprise then that many of the scientists left the country, and the numbers are staggering considering Sudanese population:
According to UNESCO, more than 3000 Sudanese researchers emigrated between 2002 and 2014. By 2013, the country had a mere 19 researchers for every 100,000 citizens, or 1/30 the ratio of Egypt, according to the Sudanese National Centre for Research.
The Sudanese government has promised an increase in S&T spending to 1% of GDP. I think this is a broad number recommended by UN. However, there are two things to be cautious about. First, just because it is promised doesn't mean that it is going to happen. Second, just throwing money at a problem doesn't necessary solve the problem, and Pakistan serves as a cautionary tale.

Nevertheless, it is good to see sanctions lifted on Sudan and hope to see good science coming out of the country as well. 

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