Interview with Dr Hsairi on Research Status in Tunisia

The following is an interview conducted by Isabelle Nakhlah with Dr. Mohamed Hsairi regarding the status of research and research ethics and potential effects of the recent revolution on these important areas.

Dr Isabelle: What is the main domain of your research interest?

Dr. Hsairi : my areas of interest is Public Health, particularly cancer epidemiology.

Dr Isabelle: How would you describe research and research ethics in Tunisia?

Dr Hsairi: Research in Tunisia is principally managed by the public sector; it is under the auspices of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. It is organized in the form of units and research laboratories (larger teams around more consistent projects). These units and research labs don’t have a physical concept; they consist of a group of researchers focusing around a research topic. The current trend and tendency is to focus on research laboratories.

Regarding finances, the government devotes 1% of GDP for research. Finances also are provided by Wwestern countries in cases of bilateral cooperation.

Research ethics is often respected: research ethics committees exist across the country, and research projects are almost systematically submitted to these committees for review.

The research problems in Tunisia are:

  • Absence of research staff
  • Bureaucratic difficulties for the utilization of the research funds. It is really tedious to acquire the required equipment for research, even something as simple as buying a computer. This is really de-motivating for the researchers.
  • Insufficient resources
  • Additionally, in the health sector, there is no encouragement for students to pursue their doctoral (PhD) studies.

Dr Isabelle: What are the quality and type of research done in Tunisia?

Dr Hsairi: The quality of research in the health domain is generally satisfactory if compared to other countries with similar economic status: the main types of research are clinical studies, (particularly case studies and patients series) epidemiologic descriptive studies and some basic research.

Dr Isabelle: What are the existing regulations for research and research ethics in Tunisia?

Dr Hsairi: There is always respect to these aspects. There are Research Ethics Committees across the country, and as mentioned before, research projects are almost systematically submitted to these committees.

Dr Isabelle: What has changed after the revolution?

Dr Hsairi: In the short term the situation is unfavorable to research for the following reasons:

  • Tunisia is currently experiencing an economic crisis, that does not help research at all, which is not considered a priority for the time being.
  • There is some degree of insecurity,  that does not help work in the field sites.
  • There is often tension between the professionals, like physicians and paramedics nave many claims and accusations towards each other.

Dr Isabelle: How do you see the future?

Dr Hsairi: The future is promising if the country achieves a certain political stability and economic development.

Dr Isabelle: How do you see the probability and the possibility for future collaboration with Arab countries?

Dr Hsairi: I am not very optimistic because of the problems in research funding encountered in all Arab countries. However, collaboration with Arab countries could be possible under projects with countries of the North shore (projects of the Euro-Mediterranean type)

Dr Isabelle: Would there be a greater regard for research ethics and a greater sensitivity for the protection of human subjects and respecting their rights after the revolution?

Dr Hsairi: Absolutely, because there is more freedom of expression and no single subject is a taboo now. The discourse of political parties that were previously oppressed is focused on respect for human rights. Currently, any human rights violation is strongly contested.

Dr Isabelle: You said that ethics is generally respected , but if the respect for human subjects in research is to be more formalized in Tunisia, are there regulations or laws to hold researchers responsible?

Dr Hsairi: When I said that the ethical aspect is generally respected, I forgot to mention that the researchers themselves maintain the respect of ethics in research. It was not an assertion by the population or civil society. Actually there are no laws governing this aspect of research; but there are regulations for   conducting of clinical trials. Nevertheless, I agree that these regulations need to be legislated.

Dr Isabelle: How many researchers in your opinion know the international regulations of research ethics, like the “Belmont report”, or “Declaration of Helsinki” or “CIOMS”?

Dr Hsairi: I do not know the exact figure, but very few researchers are aware of international regulations.

Dr Isabelle: if funding is available would Tunisian researchers consider collaborating with which countries worldwide and in the Arab countries?

Dr Hsairi: If funding is available, the collaboration will be easier. There will be a preference with the Francophone countries, especially the Maghreb (Algeria and Morocco) countries. Collaboration with other non-French speaking is also plausible, especially Egypt, Syria and the Gulf countries because they have achieved satisfactory level of research.

Dr MOHAMED HSAIRI is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at the National Institute of Public Health (Ministry of Health) in Tunis. He teaches public health and epidemiology at the Faculty of Medicine of Tunis. For 15 years, Dr Hsairi has carried out research in cancer epidemiology and HIV/AIDS. He has collaborated with Harvard Center for Population and Development and Global Funds for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

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