Short-term research grants to fund trips between UK and Middle East

Published online 12 August 2010

Ralf Strobel

A British trust fund aims to improve scientific collaboration between the Middle East and the United Kingdom with novel short-term exchange scholarships. Medical researchers can travel between the regions to train in a new technique, further research experience, and, it is hoped, develop personal contacts for further scientific collaborations

Starting 18 October 2010, the Daniel Turnberg Travel Fellowship Scheme will begin its third round of applications. Approximately 20 medical post-docs will receive financial support of £4,000 each for a 4-week trip to and from the UK and either Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or the Palestinian territories.

International travel fellowships typically offer researchers grants for longer-term research projects. The Turnberg scheme is the first to offer support for shorter exchange opportunities lasting less than one month.

"We felt there was a gap," explains Leslie Turnberg, former president of the Royal College of Physicians and founder of the program. "We had heard of many young post-docs, desperately seeking ways for knowledge transfer with a Western department. But often they were too engaged in their clinical work or research to leave for several months, or they had families they could not abandon."

More than enough time

Despite the short duration, the trips should not be mistaken for a purely cultural exchange, contends Turnberg. Applicants must write a detailed proposal including a recommendation from their home and host institution, detailing the research planned during the exchange and how this would foster future collaborations.

One such fruitful exchange involved Sharon Anavi-Goffer, a young pharmacology scientist from the University of Aberdeen in the UK. In 2009, Anavi-Goffer visited the Ariel University Center in Israel to train how to conduct behavioural tests for schizophrenia. In return, she taught her Israeli counterparts how to sample blood and brain tissue to study the response of neurons. Putting their heads together, the team identified a cellular process that could lead to the development of a potential treatment for schizophrenia.

"Doing all the lab work and training in just three weeks was really intense," Anavi-Goffer recalls. "But if you plan your activities ahead, there is more than enough time. Had I gone over there for longer, on the other hand, my own projects back at home would have come to a halt. This way, we kept the workflow going on both sides."

Anavi-Goffer is among the 15% of participants that used the fund to travel to the Middle East. Most of the grants are still awarded to researchers looking to go the opposite way; about half visit the UK from Arab countries.

Ayam Hussein travelled from the West Bank to London in July 2010 for a stint at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he learned to use a flow cytometer, a device that examines and counts cell types in blood samples and can be used to diagnose leukaemia.

His home department at the An-Najah National University, Nablus, is the first location in the Palestinian territories to own a flow cytometer. Hussein's trip was an opportunity to gain experience using the device. "For scientists in developing countries, this scholarship is a great way to get in touch with new ideas they may want to pursue in their home laboratories," says Hussein.

Like him, many of the researchers who apply to this scheme, especially from the Arab world, intend to learn a new technique. But many forge new connections with their fellow scientists. Several of these acquaintances resulted in further collaboration. In the case of Anavi-Goffer, the Turnberg fellowship has already issued two further grants – one to her and one to a colleague in Israel – to continue their research.

Science collaboration for peace

Leslie Turnberg and his wife started the fellowship in memory of their son Daniel, a lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital in London, who died in a plane crash at 37-years old. The program aims to honour two of his dearest interests: medical research and relationships between Israel and its neighbours.

The Turnbergs raised about £700,000 from their savings, family, friends and several philanthropic groups, to create a fund that now finances one third of grants. Two more UK organizations, the Royal College of Physicians and the Wellcome Trust, decided to match funding. The scheme is administered by the UK's Academy of Medical Sciences, which also provides the panel that reviews applications.

"Hopefully our efforts will not only encourage better scientific collaboration between the UK and the Middle East, but eventually also more peaceful interactions between the countries themselves," says Turnberg. "That is what Daniel had always hoped for. The political situation does not permit direct exchanges between scientists in the conflict areas so far. But there is still a good chance that some of them will end up working together, when UK institutions engage in more joint projects with their countries."

With this political element in mind, the Turnbergs initially limited the partnering countries to Israel and its Arab neighbours. They plan to extend it to other Middle Eastern countries as soon as more money becomes available. Talks with sponsors from Saudi Arabia are underway.