Middle East – Europe Forum Themes Middle East – Europe Forum Themes

MIDDLE EAST – EUROPE FORUM Themes

October 19-21, 2018

Collaboration in Translational Research for a Sustainable Future:

Selected substantive themes: Urban Issues and Solutions, Water, Renewable Energy and Non-Communicable Disease

 

  1. Introduction

The Middle East – Europe Forum is set to launch an agenda of cross-border collaboration in research in support of a sustainable future. 

The events links two major regions, which share many common challenges while also marked by stark differences. Historically a bedrock for science and education but presently fragmented, the Middle East has a lot to gain from realizing genuine opportunities for mutually rewarding cross-border cooperation, within the region as well as with the European Union.

The structure of the event further reflects the complex nature of the challenges undercutting sustainability in today's world. The approach is interdisciplinary, encompassing natural processes and conditions as well as institutional and societal issues. Further, the emphasis is on translational research, i.e. what enables progressing in research on terms that impact on real-world issues. On this basis, the event represents a unique opportunity for universities, researchers and key stakeholders in the two regions within a framework that is conducive to working out new initiatives and mechanisms for research collaboration in response to key challenges. Addressing sustainability in the years ahead will require a comprehensive approach spanning climate change, the management and restoration of ecosystems, resilient and dynamic cities, energy systems, securing food and water supplies, sound governance and the engagement of people in support of sustainable life-style and a circular economy.

The strategic discussions at the Forum are prepared in the light of this overriding context, while a select set of specific research agendas will be subject to in-depth considerations in parallel and breakout sessions. In those, researchers will present ongoing projects as well as outstanding needs along with plans for new lines of research on substantive issues, with a particular view to openings for advancing cross-border collaboration. Here, four areas will be in focus; urban issues and solutions, renewable energy, water, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

 

  1. Forum activities

The forum activities are arranged so as to be conducive to collaboration transcending borders and facilitate linking of diverse competencies and interests around relevant and potentially path breaking research projects.

Three main kinds of activities will feature at the Forum:

Strategic considerations how to remove hurdles and facilitate cross-border collaboration on translational research.  This will include identifying opportunities of joint interest, relating to research, innovation and education, sharing of ideas how to develop a strategy for effective collaboration, realizing untapped opportunities from engaging in joint projects, pursuing desired institutional initiatives, etc. An important aspect has to do with the impetus on cross-border cooperation on the engagement of stakeholders at multiple levels, extending from nation states to wider regions, on the one hand, and to sub-national level, urban areas and villages, on the other. A possible outcome of this part might be a Roadmap, which can partly entail individual actors, and partly take the form of wider bi-regional collaboration.

Panels and sessions presenting ongoing, planned and prospective new research activities addressing issues within four selected research areas, on topics identified as being of joint interest and high mutual priority to the participating countries, organizations and researchers.

Specific panels/roundtables/breakout sessions offer opportunities for in-depth consideration of cross-sectorial themes. An example is that of nature-based solutions and also the application of smart city tools as means to overcome the problems with sustainability confronting urban areas. With Horizon 2020, a number of European-wide research and innovation projects were introduced in recent years, with examples of valuable collaboration from Iran and other countries in the Middle East, which can be further built on in future activities. An important dimension in this context is the role of culture and heritage, which represent price-less assets and sources of value-generation at local level, while also exerting a strong impact on the ability of people to reconcile opposing interests and work together for a common good. Another example is a special session devoted to innovation, entrepreneurship and scaling of new business opportunities. In these various cases, along with relevant research projects, networks of companies, cities, science parks, venture capital associations, and so forth, are invited to explore avenues for identifying opportunities and mechanisms for cooperation. Meanwhile, smaller side-meetings will offer opportunities for matchmaking between individual institutions as well as individual researchers, innovators, and practitioners.

 

  1. Framing collaborative processes

The Forum has been preceded by preparations and networking to gather information on joint interests and concerns among relevant parties, and to identify the ways and means through which participants can contribute effectively as well as use the event constructively to achieve desired end-results.

Further, it should be stressed that the preparatory process will keep welcoming ideas and initiatives that can help place focus on major outstanding needs and opportunities and help speed up the establishment of collaborative activities.

Given past challenges in advancing from general dialogue to concrete collaboration, the Middle East – Europe forum brings on board a combination of active researchers on the one hand, with decision makers, representatives of universities and research institutions, and other stakeholders, on the other hand. Ambitions are high to bring onboard participants covering a broad range of relevant competencies and perspectives.

Each of the fields addressed feature a strong existing research capacity in the two regions. Besides the outlook of achieving scientific collaboration along with enhanced or new research results, the purpose is to consider opportunities for enhanced practical applications of research, with the goal to tackling issues of high common relevance.

As indicated above, the European Union already benefits from an advanced framework for regional collaboration in research and innovation, Horizon 2020. In recent years, this framework has become more open to the participation of partners in other parts of the world. Representatives of some existing projects involving partners in the Middle East have been invited to share their experiences at the Forum and discuss how lessons learned can be further leveraged. Examples of such projects include the Middle East Research and Innovation Dialogue – the MERID project, and URBiNAT, a project promoting nature-based solutions in city-development[1].

The Middle East lacks a corresponding regional collaboration platform. If anything, it is marked by an outright fragmentation and compartmentalization; universities struggle to build institutional linkages and constructive collaboration within the region.  On this basis, the event prepared for Kish Island aims to stake out and nurture a new dynamic for underpinning cross-regional research collaboration.

 

  1. Substantive themes addressed

In this section, we outline the main substantive themes addressed in the conference. The strategic part spans the spectrum of key issues confronting us all in regard to sustainable development.  The question is how to bridge the gap in perspectives and to overcome the influence of narrow interest and lack of awareness and information on the part of people in general, resulting in short-termism, poor governance and the "tragedy of the commons". The presence of problems and opportunities varies. Europe and the Middle East often adopt a different stance on, e.g., issues of climate change, biological diversity, restoring ecosystems, waste management, or how to achieve a circular economy. In other areas, such as the need of addressing issues confronting transport systems and associated problems with pollution and congestion, achieving resilient and dynamic cities, building sound governance and engaging people in support of sustainable life-style, many people across both region assume a similar perspective although actual counteractions and performances differ widely. Irrespective of the situation, however, research, and cross-border research realization, can sharpen perspectives, and help identify solutions of relevance for all.

As noted, four substantive areas to be given particular attention at the Forum; Urban Issues and Solutions, water, renewable energy, and non-communicate disease. Preparations are under way so as to provide a basis for practical results by specifying issues and themes to be addressed, bringing on board relevant and constructive participants, and gathering ideas and proposals for how to put in motion viable means of enabling successful collaboration.

Each of the fields to be addressed feature a strong existing research capacity in the two regions. Besides the outlook of achieving scientific collaboration along with enhanced or new research results, the purpose is to consider opportunities for enhanced practical applications of research, for the purpose of tackling issues of high common relevance to all. This in turn opens for the importance of addressing the interface between science and society, spanning issues of innovation, education & training, the role of people in resolving outstanding issues, and how culture and institutional issues need to be taken into account.

The preparatory process will attempt to identify and build upon institutional mechanisms for linking research agendas, such as joint institutes, events or similar client relations.  In some cases, local NGOs could be connected with to strengthen the implementation wing of trilateral relationships. Such organisations may have a high propensity to put forth real life problems and be more aware than pure researchers or public bodies of potential obstacles for succeeding with innovation or implementing research results in other ways.

The focus of the Forum on translational research calls for a need of identifying which factors have a bearing on real-world impact. Apart from their high societal importance, progress in all these four fields call for more effective cross-disciplinary research along with an inclusive approach, which puts the advance of natural sciences, technology and medicine in sync with improved understanding and engagement of people and communities. 

Various aspects of relevance in connection with each of the four substantive areas are outlined below:

 

  1. Water and related food security issues

While representing a critical basis for everyday water and food intake, as well as being of fundamental importance for the biosphere, ecosystems and a range of other human needs, water resources are currently managed in an unsustainable manner. Their rapid depletion is associated with social strains, high economic costs and political risks. Examples of ongoing threats include:

  • Limited natural freshwater resources coupled with wasteful water use, resulting in rapidly declining groundwater
  • Industrial effluents seeping into water tables, aquifers and coastal waters; and desertification due to high evaporation and winds driving desert sand into arable lands (causing erosion and loss of top soil, along with adverse health impacts through increased pulmonary difficulties for people)
  • Destruction of indigenous ecosystems including deforestation and desertification, the degradation of coastal shallow water ecosystems such as seagrass beds and coral reefs, and the extinction of wild-life and loss of genetic diversity
  • Increasing levels of soil and water salinity in coastal plains and beach pollution from oil spills plastics and other litter, as well as damage to the sea from land filling.

 

Such issues are of high concern to Iran and the Middle East, where traditional tools and models for societal management of water held up for thousands of years but have now become overrun and largely deserted. In their place, an impressive research agenda has been embarked upon to develop new technologies, tools and services and societal organisation in support of new sustainable solutions. Despite the progress, however, implementation is weak and problems keep mounting. Further, issues of water management commonly transcend borders, between communities, regions, or nation states. Viable solutions thus require coordination and ways of engaging multiple institutions as well as large number of people in support of sustainable practices.

Specific opportunities for collaboration in research and innovation linking the Middle East and Europe, may be found in environmental monitoring and remediation for pollution control and resource optimization, and the development of tools for risk analysis. In addition, there is work to identify the economic and scientific potential of aquatic environments. Extreme or specific environmental conditions (e.g. in temperature and salt content) and the enormous biodiversity of marine ecosystems offer opportunities for bio-prospecting, exploitation and the use of microbes (e.g. cyanobacteria and fungi), plants (micro- and macro-algae) and animals (e.g. fish, mollusks and sponges) and their physiological characteristics and genes. There is further big potential for advancing and diffusing new products and industrial applications (e.g. in bio-processing, biomass, bio-energy, bio-materials, pharmaceuticals) and in aquaculture and beyond.

On this basis, the following examples of research sub-areas may be listed:

  • Fresh water/drinking water management
  • Water-minimising planting technologies
  • Desert progress and fine dust air pollution
  • Marine environment: countering over-fishing and invasive species, and preserving ecosystems
  • Coastal management including ecosystem rehabilitation
  • Pollution including eutrophication, oil, litter etc. and risk assessment tools
  • Marine culture and marine agriculture
  • Fishery genetics/biotechnology

The infrastructure for collaborative efforts may include:

Establishing a Europ-Middle East collaborative network for development of research and technology in Water

Establishing a regional network for DSS (dust and sandstorm) monitoring and early warning

Determining the strategy to combat DSS in the region

 

  1. Renewable energy

Most research in the field of energy, entailing multinational companies as well as research institutes, explore ways of raising the effectiveness of energy exploration, production and diffusion. Enhanced oil recovery, overall production and diffusion efficiency, and energy use for water desalination feature among the main strategic issues addressed in the Middle East today. At the same time, hydrocarbons are under pressure both because of supply issues and environmental concerns, including global warming and air pollution. Renewable energy, including solar, is becoming increasingly competitive. Despite naturally favorable conditions in this respect, however, progress in deployment is slow, in part due to subsidies focusing on energy consumption rather than reorientation of energy systems, and other failed policies, as well as by lack of awareness among the general public. Countries in the Middle East have recently upgraded their research effort when it comes to renewables but the area is still of less priority than hydrocarbon and suffers from weak international linkages.

Related research issues include the potential for cost reductions due to active and passive heating and cooling, along with improvements in battery performances, energy efficiency, distributed usage of solar cells connected via smart grids, and so forth. Local community engagement combined with the availability of new means for reducing energy demand as well as access to affordable and sustainable supply solutions are high on the agenda.

Examples of relevant research sub-areas:

  • Solar, thermal, photovoltaic, geothermal
  • Biomass and Biofuel
  • Fuel cells (solid oxide)
  • Distributed panels in cities, smart grids and electricity networks for future
  • Green buildings and efficient energy use in buildings
  • Intelligent energy systems
  • Policy and business models for shifting focus from consumption to new investment
  • Behavioral and motivational aspects to build awareness
  • New financial models for diffusing renewable solutions

The infrastructure for collaborative efforts may include:

Establishing a joint Middle East-Europe association for renewable Energies

  1. Non-communicable disease

The third area is that of Non-Communicable Disease (NCDs), which represents a major challenge for the population residing across much of the Middle East, while also spreading fast internationally. Priority is placed on public health and personal medicine, including behavioral issues. An important aspect has to do with the opportunity of overcoming hurdles to the development of new methodologies and actions supporting the development and validation of new therapies. This includes the potential for much enhanced mechanisms in the digital era for health promotion and prevention, diagnostic tools and medical technologies, and sustainable and efficient health-care systems.

This is particularly relevant since, to date, disproportionally scanty attention has been given to determining what measures can be taken to halt the increase in NCDs. This is of extremely high importance to the region, and also to the world. Important elements include prevention, prediction and individualized treatment.  These components will play a significant role in future medicine. New technical developments facilitate biomedical discoveries and research findings can more rapidly be translated into medical practice. One can predict that future treatment will be individualized to a much greater extent.  Advanced research technologies represent only one side of the coin to counter NCDs. Nutrition, well-being, education, exercise and psychological factors are also highly relevant. There is an obvious need to integrate several research areas to advance treatment of NCDs including diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, metabolic disorders, diabetes and cancer. Here, opportunities are at hand for researchers in the Middle East and in Europe to link up around on new innovative projects. New institutional linkages and ways of collaboration have been initiated as part of the preparations for the Forum, to be further advanced at the event.

The possible research themes to be addressed thus include:

  • Diabetes, notably type II diabetes and gestational diabetes, obesity, liver disorders, rare genetic disorders relevant to the Middle East, neuropsychiatric and immune related disorders and cancer
  • Obesity and relations to Diabetes
  • Liver diseases and relations to Diabetes
  • The role of genetic factors in Diabetes
  • Bio-markers, and medical biotechnology
  • Stem cells
  • Nanomedicine for diagnosis
  • Nano-delivery systems providing a significant therapeutic payload
  • Prevention, shifting from directive to inspirational
  • Digital tools, e-health and m-health, big data and interactive messaging
  • New innovative treatments
  • New types of treatments, e.g. cell treatments, where the proximity

 between scientists and medical clinics is essential

  • The rise of personalized medicine 

The infrastructure for collaborative efforts may include:

  • Joint bio-banks
  • Shared research facilities
  • Shared data exchange
  • Shared entrepreneurial channels

 

  1. Urban Issues and Solutions

As a special fourth theme, the Forum includes a panel and associated special break-out sessions that addresses "urban issues and solutions". More than half of humanity now lives in cities, which have become the epi-centre of the ongoing struggle to achieve sustainability. On the one hand, we face the intensifying problems of the megacities, under the burden of massive over-population, breakdown of public service and environmental decay. On the other hand, there is a "new" kind of effort around, which we associate with "smart" cities and also the introduction of Nature-Based-Solutions (NBS), as well as with the strengthening of governance capabilities at local and regional level. Managing the opportunities associated with the latter, however, hinges on a strengthening of governance capabilities at regional and local level, while also adequately promoted by policymakers at national level.

The rise of smart city tools and initiatives is intimately interwoven with advances in research and innovation capabilities.  Progression with regard to the Internet of Things, cloud computing, distributed sensor networks and smart brains along with data management in real time handling issues of security, privacy, authentication, and authorization, etc., sets up formidable technical and organisational challenges. At the same time, an equally critical dimension has to do with the way that new technologies are put to use, through innovative content and the way that citizens are engaged in pulling and pushing for new applications, allowing for usage of information on terms that are less "data-centric" and more "people-centric". This requires full-fledged consideration of societal and behavioral aspects, taking into account the role of culture in the widest sense.

As a related development, so-called "Eco-cities" are launched in many parts of the world. These include the introduction of green and blue attractive facets of the city, and new forms of sustainable working and living.  A special source of revitalized urban planning stems from the introduction of NBS, which may incorporate green areas, water, fish, birds, bees and other living things, eco-friendly materials but also sociological and organizational models that mimic the workings of nature.  Such solutions are partly put to use to help identify, address and overcome problems of destructive fragmentation and polarisation in cities, involving virtuous circles for more developed areas which attract talent and investment while, at the other end, vicious circles lead to deterioration infrastructure and amenities for the less fortunate.

While the presentations and discussions on the above will be connected with the four previous substantive themes of the Kish Forum, urban issues and solutions, water, renewable energy and non-communicable disease, other issues and perspectives will be addressed as well. An important aspect has to do with cultural heritage and environmental amenities as sources of innovation.

Email:meef.kish@ut.ac.ir

 [1] Partners from the Middle East taking part in MERID represent Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. In URBiNAT, institutions from Iran and Oman are represented.