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Bringing competitive biomedical research to emerging and developing economies

Published online 12 December 2018

Biomedical research must start with solid infrastructure. But much more is needed to put research centres on the international map, writes Mohamed Boudjelal1 .

Mohamed Boudjelal

Countries with emerging and developing markets are racing to transform their economies. Scientific research plays an important role in fuelling the creativity and innovation needed to ensure long-term stability. Huge investments are made in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Singapore and Malaysia for building state-of-the-art facilities for conducting biomedical research. But it’s not only infrastructure that is needed. Five specific actions can transform sophisticated equipment and talented junior and senior scientists into a resource for improving the population’s health, the environment and the economy. 

Appointing competent personnel in the right positions

Rigorous interview and selection processes are standard for faculty appointments at all levels in any accomplished, competitive research centre. Research aids, technologists, research assistants and associates are assessed for their academic achievements and work ethic. Postdocs and scientists are evaluated for their skillsets, abilities to manage small teams and to build innovative research projects or programmes, interest in working in a lab, willingness to work extra hours, and ability to handle the pressure of competition. 

All appointments are important at any research institute, but hiring personnel at the managerial and executive positions can be the key to success or failure. Mistakes, favouritism or influence of any kind cannot be tolerated for these positions. The vision, mission and objectives of the institute should drive selection decisions, and extensive interviews should be conducted. This needs to be carried out by a panel of internal and external members to avoid bias. Research institutes at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Cambridge, Oxford and Pasteur Institut, for example, have rigorous selection processes. There are many competent personnel in nations with emerging and developing economies who can take up leadership positions at the managerial and executive levels. They can be easily identified if processes are properly implemented. 

King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia only accepts prominent world-class researchers, and has a very thorough and objective hiring process. The university is becoming a leading institute in the region. Other examples of research centres in Latin America and Africa that apply such standards include the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research in Argentina, and the South African Council For Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Finding a competitive edge 

Preclinical and clinical biomedical research is increasingly competitive and expensive. Established institutes in the developed world have acquired expertise in very specific research areas, keeping them competitive. They also address research questions that are important for their countries and populations. 

Newly established research institutes in countries with emerging and developing economies need to identify areas that can make them competitive and unique. Most centres around the world are working on common diseases. If scientists in countries with emerging and developing economies want an institute to focus on any of these same diseases, they must ask:

  1. What makes our research competitive and useful for our society?
  2. Do we have access to unique knowhow, data and biological samples that make us different?
  3. Do we want to follow others, or do we want to be break new ground?

Countries with emerging and developing economies harbour skilled research personnel, resources, unique patient populations, and biological samples that could give them competitive edges in specific research areas. These include rare diseases, infections, medicinal plants, ethnicity based therapies, and personalized medicine. Considering these unique elements could give biomedical research institutes a competitive advantage and make them attractive collaboration partners. Targeted research will also benefit the local population while contributing to the understanding of disease. 

It is also important to ensure women and people from ethnic minorities are well represented in the recruitment process to enrich innovation and creativity.

IBM Research has established computing and networking research institutes in Kenya and South Africa to support biomedical research employing artificial intelligence. It also links the IBM institutes in Africa with their counterparts in the US, Europe, Brazil and Japan to work as a hub. The South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative was set up to coordinate the research and development of HIV vaccines. The Brain Research Institute at Monash Sunway (BRIMS) in Malaysia has contributed significantly to the field since its establishment in 2006. The Protein Kinase Chemical Biology Centre at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo, Brazil focuses on molecular probes for protein kinases regulating RNA splicing and chromatin, in collaboration with the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) in Oxford, UK. The specialism of these institutes gives them the competitive edge for international authority.

Regeneration and diversity 

Accomplished biomedical research centres provide opportunities for young talent to excel and become independent leaders, while investing in their accomplished, and committed senior scientists. These systems are well maintained even within the private sector in the developed world. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, try to attract the best scientists from academia. They also guarantee funds for their top senior scientists, whose research areas are not prioritised, encouraging them to continue their investigations within academia until they secure their own funding. It is also important to ensure women and people from ethnic minorities are well represented in the recruitment process to enrich innovation and creativity. Research centres in countries with emerging and developing economies must consider these elements if they want to excel. 

Securing sources of competitive knowledge

Competitive research requires consistent access to information and expertise. Research institutes in countries with emerging and developing economies must secure access to scientific literature and journals. Institutes in China and India have been effective in luring established expat Chinese and Indian scientists home to set up research programmes. 

Algeria set up a network through the Algerian Competences Association (ACA) to encourage Algerian expat scientists and professionals to collaborate with their counterparts inside the country. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah International Medical Research Center (KAIMRC) is recruiting Saudi scholars returning from abroad. KAUST took this approach one step further by inviting prominent scientists from around the world to establish their research labs at the university. 

If these ideas are not possible, collaborations and partnerships can be established with research groups in developed countries. Many well established scientists in developed countries could also be enticed to collaborate by offers to fund joint projects. 

Securing continuous resources 

Biomedical research is a long-term enterprise and needs continuous support. An innovative idea for research could take 20 years from the inception of concept to its realization through testing, evaluation and development into a product for the market. Committed financial support will guarantee adequate funds, even in economic lulls. Funding should be carefully planned when establishing new research centres. Funds could come from a combination of resources, divided between government and private sources, in addition to endowments. These rarely arise in countries with emerging and developing economies, where research funds come only from public spending. However, there are a few successful examples in which all three types of funds are being used, including institutes affiliated with Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).  At KAIMRC, we consider launching spin-off companies based on our research and discoveries to secure extra income, a model successfully implemented in the U.S. and Europe.

Countries with emerging and developing economies are making their mark on the scene of biomedical research, with huge potential to contribute to tackling all types of disease. For these investments to yield results, however, key factors like the right personnel, focused research areas and collaboration must be considered. 


  1. Dr. Mohamed Boudjelal is the chair of the Medical Research Core Facility and Platforms at KAIMRC in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is a prominent biomedical researcher, with many years of experience in the US, Europe and the Middle East. He is also the founder of the Algerian Competences Association and of Science Edit for the Developing World, www.sciencedit-dw.org. E-mail: boudjelalmo@ngha.med.sa