27 October 2020
Lebanon’s researchers face tough choices
Published online 14 October 2020
Concurrent national crises have backed scientists into a corner.
Lebanese microbiologist Ziad Daoud recalls the first signs of the situation in Beirut becoming untenable. Before mass protests began in October 2019, he and his team were investigating community-acquired intestinal diseases, a project made feasible by a US$50,000 grant from local funders. The economic crisis had led to a severe US dollar shortage, with banks placing drastic restrictions on their withdrawal, and exchange rates fluctuating wildly between the official rate of around 1,500 Lebanese pounds per dollar, and a black market rate of around 7,500 per dollar. Since government and university regulations required researchers to pay for the dollar-denominated products and services according to official rates, and vendors refused to accept them, Daoud had to negotiate a rate that left him with a grant depleted by two thirds.
“Things were very, very bad,” Daoud says, on a call from Michigan, US, where he recently started a new job as director of clinical microbiology and infectious diseases at Michigan Health Clinic and professor at Michigan Central University. The decision to immigrate to the US was wrenching. Daoud had to let go of two decades of research projects and community building in Lebanon, in addition to leaving family and friends.
Even as Lebanon’s troubles mounted throughout 2019 and 2020 — economic, political, and then COVID-19 — Daoud clung to hope that the country would get back on track, and held off on taking the Michigan job offer. Then August brought the enormous chemical explosion in Beirut, a great shattering that brought Daoud to breaking point. Among the places damaged by the blast was St. George Hospital, where Daoud was head of clinical microbiology. He was also a professor at Balamand University’s faculty of medicine.
“I was devastated,” Daoud says. The long wake of ruin at St. George Hospital included the loss of about 1,900 bacterial isolates from patients; a research trove Daoud had been collecting since he resettled in Lebanon in 2000.
Weary but clear-eyed
Lebanon’s crises, each exacerbating the other, have left many Lebanese researchers weary. Those who have stayed must navigate difficult paths. For some, this means scaling back or putting projects off indefinitely. For others, it means more trips to negotiate and plead with bank managers, who have some latitude over US withdrawal amounts. And more calls to placate nervous suppliers and research grant administrators.
When a clinical chemistry analyser broke, Omar Obeid, professor of nutrition and food sciences at the American University in Beirut (AUB), found he only had two options: leave the machine dysfunctional or pay three times the amount ordinarily required to fix it. The machine provides information on, among other things, fat content in the blood. He decided to pay, which entailed negotiating the cost with the service provider.
The AUB, Obeid says, has been helpful, making billing procedures more flexible and providing hardship support for faculty. But in the end, however hard they try, “universities cannot solve the problems that governments create,” he says.
Souha Kanj Sharara, professor of internal medicine at the AUB, who specializes in infectious diseases, says she had to put new research projects on hold. She was fortunate to complete the research work of her last major project before the big lurch into political instability in the second half of 2019. But she was not spared as a clinician.
The chaotic exchange rate market spiked the prices of reagents, used not just for research but also in diagnostics. As a result, health insurance companies were increasingly reluctant to cover patients’ costs for medical tests, a desperate situation in a pandemic, Kanj Sharara says.
As a senior researcher and clinician, Kanj Sharara says a pause in new research projects won’t damage her career. But junior and mid-career researchers will have different calculations, she says.
Criticism of the Lebanese government, which defaulted on the country’s debt last March, has been nearly unanimous. The depth of the economic crisis drew comparisons with Lebanon’s civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. “Even during the civil war, economic life largely proceeded unhindered,” and that is far from the case now, Kanj Sharara says.
Indeed, the economic catastrophe has probably had the largest impact on the research enterprise in Lebanon. Daoud notes that as catastrophic as COVID-19 and the port blast have been, ameliorating their damage is a matter of time. Not so with the economic instability and its underlying political environment.
Daoud calls his decision to immigrate to the US as an “instance of irreversibility”. “We Lebanese take pride in our ability to start over,” he says, “but how many times can you start over in one lifetime?”