Expert Report

Developing Capacities for Teaching Responsible Science in the MENA Region: Refashioning Scientific Dialogue (2013)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Spurred on by new discoveries and rapid technological advances, the capacity for life science research is expanding across the globe—and with it comes concerns about the unintended impacts of research on the physical and biological environment, human well-being, or the deliberate misuse of knowledge, tools, and techniques to cause harm. This report describes efforts to address dual use issues by developing institutes around the world that will help life sciences faculty learn to teach about the responsible conduct of science. Based on the successful National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Biology Education and on previous NRC reports on effective methods for teaching about dual use issues, the report's authoring committee designed a general framework for the faculty institutes and chose the Middle East–North Africa (MENA) region to test a prototype faculty institute. In September 2012, the first Institute was held in Aqaba, Jordan, bringing together 28 participants from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, and Yemen to engage with effective, evidence-based teaching methods, develop curricular materials for use in their own classrooms, and become community leaders on dual use and related topics. This report offers insights from the institute that will help in the design and implementation of future programs in the MENA region, and in other parts of the world.

Key Messages

  • Active engagement of committee members and Institute leaders before, during, and after the Institute is crucial.
  • A detailed application and merit-based selection process can identify enthusiastic and committed participants.
  • Teaching about and modeling pedagogy can play a significant role in the success of an Institute.
  • The demanding pace of the Institute made it hard for some participants to comprehend the concepts and techniques fully and apply them during small group work. Future Institutes will benefit either by providing more time to integrate active learning with new content or by reducing the breadth or both.
  • The design of resources and assessments for an Institute benefits from particular attention to linguistic and cultural differences among participants and facilitators. Working with partners from the region where the Institute will take place allows organizers to take into account local customs, traditions, and cultures in ways that remove barriers and foster stronger relationships among organizers and participants.
  • The National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Biology Education (NASI) has demonstrated that a reunion of some participants following an Institute can provide new insights about participants' challenges, resources, and opportunities for networking and for sustaining programs. The Institute described in this report further confirmed that a reunion can be especially important for participants from developing countries. For example, by the end of the reunion in Jordan, the scientists who attended agreed that their ability to conduct their own work around responsible conduct and to reach other colleagues at their home institutions, across their individual countries, and in the MENA region as a whole could be expanded and sustained by establishing a network among them. They decided to use this network to share ideas, common challenges and opportunities, and to develop joint proposals for future work.
  • As with the development of NASI, new Institutes will require continuing experimentation with and evaluation of all aspects of their design. Feedback from the participants, combined with the results of their projects, can play an important role in future iterations.
  • The introduction of both new pedagogies and new content at the same time can be a significant challenge for some participants. Reviewing background materials in advance of the Institute can lessen this impact. However, materials written in English about new concepts, such as active learning and dual use, may present obstacles for non-English speakers.
  • Framing biosafety and dual use issues within the context of responsible science was meaningful to many participants. However, based on conversations during plenary discussions with the participants who attended the reunion meeting in Amman, practical realities such as the lack of basic scientific equipment, reliable internet connections, and access to scientific journals impede scientists in this region, and especially those from more impoverished nations, from undertaking research at a level where dual use issues raises concerns for them. People undertaking activities where research with dual use potential and/or misuse of technologies is to be one of the topics need to take this reality into account when planning their events or programs.
  • Some concepts that are crucial to active learning, responsible science, and dual use cannot be expressed in Arabic. In most of the countries represented at this Institute, teaching about science occurs in English but instructors sometimes provide additional explanations or contexts in Arabic (or French in Algeria). Similarly, Arabic-speaking scientists and students may interpret English words in ways that are different from what the organizers intend. For example, the facilitator team learned that there is only one Arabic word for the two English words "search" and "research," which may contribute to misunderstanding the standards for plagiarism in English-language journals among Arabic-speaking scientists and students. Several participants told the group that when they ask their students to define "research," their common response is to find the information on the internet using Google or another search engine. Hence, these students are not concerned with copying and pasting information from the internet into their own essays and research reports.
  • Scientific research in the MENA region has advanced remarkably over the last generation. Nonetheless, participants reiterated that the lack of a formal framework and infrastructure for research in their countries (e.g., the absence of comprehensive policies and oversight structures regarding authorship, peer review, research with laboratory animals and human subjects, and biosafety) makes it difficult for scientists to follow international standards and to teach best practices in responsible science to their students.
  • As the committee learned from the active learning exercise conducted on Day 1 of the Institute in which participants from each nation worked together to describe their country's system of higher education, there are similarities and differences in education philosophies, approaches to teaching and learning, facilities, and resources among nations.
  • The small grants awarded to participants were used creatively to address an array of educational needs that they identified, as noted in Box 2. In many cases these funds prompted subsequent institutional support to sustain participants' instructional activities. However, as also occurs in the United States, limited funding restricted the ability of these motivated science educators to reach larger audiences who would benefit from instruction on responsible science, biosafety, and dual use issues.
  • At the reunion, discussions following each presentation and after all presenters had described their post-Institute activities, revealed a great deal of variation in the ways in which participants in those activities were surveyed about their knowledge and the project's efficacy. Appropriate assessment and evaluation is challenging for science faculty across the world. Providing additional guidance and models of assessment instruments before educational projects are undertaken could provide much more useful and usable data for future initiatives.