Global Science: Public health research in Iran

Potential impacts of economic sanctions and a lack of long-term vision from the authorities hinder the work of researchers.
Interview
  • Views 94
  • Annotations

Farhad Pishgar graduated as a Master of Public Health and a Doctor of Medicine from Tehran University of Medical Sciences in June 2018. He currently divides his time between public health research into urological cancers at the research centers affiliated to the university, clinical duties at a private clinic, and studying for his residency exam.

Farhad Pishgar in the emergency ward of Imam Khomeini hospital complex during his medical training. Image supplied by Farhad Pishgar.

What’s the biggest problem that researchers in Iran face?

Most research funds in Iran come from the government itself. With the lack of a proper approach to prioritize the health challenges of the country, these funds are mostly being directed toward projects whose answers won’t solve the problems of the country itself. In this way, many of the research papers published from Iran are a repetition of previously published literature, and hence these papers aren’t published in the top-tier journals of their fields. Each year we are publishing a huge number of research articles but making little contribution to knowledge.

Could collaborations help to improve these problems?

Collaborations with groups outside Iran were really rare in the past. This was probably because of the imposed sanctions against Iran, the media-driven prejudices of authorities in other countries, and, to a much lesser extent, the cultural barriers. However, I am optimistic that this trend will change. Our research team was working on a project that aimed to estimate the burden of urological diseases in the country at subnational levels, but groups in the United States and elsewhere were tackling the same questions in a way that was more comprehensive and more powerful. Now we are collaborating with those groups and the results of this collaboration will come out in the next few months.

Are there limitations on the research you can perform?

With a few exceptions, most research funds are directed toward projects that are going to finish sooner. For example, few longitudinal studies, where you follow a group of people over a period of time, are currently being conducted in research centers at my university. Most of the clinical projects I’ve been involved in had a more or less cross-sectional design, where you collect data from a group of people on a single occasion, or were retrospective studies. It means it is hard for researchers to deduce how one phenomenon causes another. This is probably due to the budgets required to run such projects, the short-sightedness of health authorities who fund these works, and the pressure on researchers to publish articles quickly.

What drives researchers to publish quickly?

On most occasions, professors are promoted according to the number of papers that they have published. We also have a system which rewards publications with cash – it pays researchers based on the impact factor of the journals they have published their work in. Another unfortunate side effect is that this may have led to research misconduct and plagiarism.

If you were a policymaker, how would you improve the state of research in Iran?

I would change the metrics on which professors, researchers, and students are being measured. I would definitely put less emphasis on citations and the number of publications, but more on the wider impact that the work we are doing has on people’s lives.

Also, making companies establish research and development units within the universities and engaging them to collaborate with the existing research centers would be a necessary step. The funds coming from these companies would direct research projects toward real needs and challenges that emerge from industry.

What do you think the future holds for researchers in Iran?

In my opinion, we are not going to see anything improving in the near future; not just because of the economic sanctions that are being re-imposed, but due to a lack of determination from the authorities in Iran to change the malfunctioning system here.