The deferred promise of Islamic-world science

Ten years ago, there was excitement about the prospects for science and innovation across the Islamic world. Was this optimism misplaced?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The deferred promise of Islamic-world science” was written by Ehsan Masood and James Wilsdon, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th November 2017 07.00 UTC

Last week, almost 3,000 scientists and policymakers from 120 countries gathered on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan for the 2017 World Science Forum. It was a landmark moment for Jordanian science, and a tribute to the vision of Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, who is in the vanguard of a new generation of leaders championing science and innovation in the region. Jordan is also home to the Middle East’s first advanced light source facility – the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications, or Sesame – which was inaugurated earlier this year as a shared resource for researchers from Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

In its final declaration, the World Science Forum called for more scientific cooperation to promote peace and address regional challenges. But the meeting also provided an opportunity to take stock of the state of science across the Middle East and wider Islamic world. And while the symbolism of the Sesame project was rightly celebrated, there was little of the outright optimism that characterised these debates ten or fifteen years ago.

In the early 2000s, several member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) embarked on a concerted drive to improve their science and innovation performance: primarily the oil and gas-rich Gulf economies, but also Egypt, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. This gave rise to expectations of an overall strengthening of science and innovation across the Islamic world.

To complement efforts at a national level, in 2003, the OIC adopted a new policy framework – Vision 1441 – for the contribution of science and innovation to economic and social progress across its fifty-seven member states. The year 1441 in the Islamic (Hijri) calendar equates to 2020 in the Gregorian calendar, and Vision 1441 includes several targets for OIC countries by this date: to produce 14% of the world’s scientific output; to train 1441 scientists or engineers per million of population; and to invest at least 1.4% of GDP in research and development (R&D).

Combined with the opening of new universities and marked increases in R&D spending in several OIC countries, Vision 1441 generated a sense of optimism among science and innovation policymakers, which was well captured by a 2006 special issue of the journal Nature on Islam and Science.

Shortly afterwards, Nature entered into a partnership with the OIC, Qatar Foundation, the UK’s Royal Society, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the British Council to research these issues in more depth, through an Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation. This was an ambitious series of reports aimed at mapping the research and innovation systems of a selection of OIC countries, in order to better understand strengths, weaknesses and future potential across the Islamic world.

The Atlas project, which we both contributed to, was set up to help OIC countries identify what they could do better, and where they might collaborate. Perhaps the most glaring indicator was the fact that several of the world’s richest nations, within the OIC, spent less as a fraction of national wealth on knowledge and scholarship than many of the poorest – an average of just 0.5% of GDP.

Of many individual contributions from that period, one by Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent physicist from Pakistan, stands out. In a 2007 article, Hoodbhoy asked: “With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?” But he ended on a more upbeat note: “Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes – a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigour and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms.”

So ten years ago, policymakers, university and research leaders were cautiously positive in envisaging a transition in science and innovation performance across the Islamic world, despite persistent challenges. Then came the Arab revolutions of 2011. Few anticipated that the Middle East would come alive with the voices of young people demanding a say in how they are governed; a movement that was fuelled in part by poor educational opportunities and high youth unemployment.

These revolutions initially provided further cause for optimism. At the launch of the Atlas project report for Egypt in April 2012, we witnessed the rare spectacle of a government minister being grilled by a packed audience of students and young people. “How come you still have a job?” piped one. “What will you do to improve my job prospects,” asked another. Such was the changed dynamic that the minister had no choice but to engage with his youthful critics.

But amid the talk of paradigm shifts, as we know now, many brave women and men were crushed, often brutally, as existing regimes sought to reassert control. With the exception of Tunisia, their cries for freedom have largely fallen silent. And the subsequent rise of ISIS meant that many regimes parked other priorities – including science – in favour of spending on security, defence and deradicalisation.

Alongside the return to a form of status quo, individual initiatives have continued to proliferate. Most significant has been the slow thaw in relations between Iran and the west, largely brought about by the efforts of the Obama administration and counterparts in the European Union. Few will forget the beaming smiles and handshakes as the nuclear deal was inked – in many respects, a triumph of science diplomacy.

What the US perhaps did not realise (or chose to set aside) is the extent to which Iran was simultaneously ramping up its regional influence in scientific and other domains. One visible demonstration of this was a new Mustafa Prize for scientific excellence, intended to rival Saudi Arabia’s longstanding King Faisal prizes. This move was not lost on representatives of the Gulf states, most of which chose to respond to an invitation to the 2015 prize ceremony in Tehran by boycotting it.

A further earthquake in regional politics was to follow with the elevation of Saudi defence minister Mohammad bin Salman as crown prince and de facto prime minister. The prince, though a liberalising force in Saudi society, regards Iran as Saudi Arabia’s principle regional threat.

Under Salman’s leadership, in its most aggressive foreign and defence policy of recent times, Saudi Arabia is fighting Iran-backed fighters in Yemen and has coordinated an air, land and sea blockade around neighbouring Qatar, which it accuses among other things of being too Iran-friendly. Saudi Arabia also appears to have engineered the sudden resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri, where Iran-backed Hezbollah is a strong political force.

Amid this regional turmoil, the science institutions of the OIC are soldiering bravely on, hosting their latest science and innovation summit in September 2017. One of the OIC science agencies, Comstech, has an energetic director general in the Pakistani nuclear physicist Shaukat Hameed Khan. He is fond of reminding the leaders of OIC member states that “science is disruptive and flourishes in an environment of irreverence”. Khan has a plan to create a network of scientific observatories (there are none of note in the Islamic world), and is confident that funding can be found.

Meanwhile, at the Islamic Development Bank, the Saudi bioscientist and entrepreneur Hayat Sindi was appointed in April this year to a new advisory position, and has been tasked with reviewing the bank’s R&D funding and investments. And a taskforce, chaired by Zakri Abdul Hamid, science adviser to the prime minister of Malaysia, recently issued a call for universities across the Muslim world to create a voluntary network of excellence.

At the bilateral level, funding schemes such as the UK’s Newton Fund are proving a useful vehicle for deepening scientific links with OIC countries such as Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia and Turkey. And on the multilateral plane, initiatives such as the World Science Forum, the Inter-Academy Panel, the World Academy of Sciences are important fora where OIC states can meet and work with each other under the umbrella of a neutral third party – or direct scientific efforts towards the less contentious UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A decade ago, it seemed reasonable to take the OIC at its word – that it is a body capable of coordinating and bringing the best out of its disparate and diverse member states. With the luxury of hindsight, that assumption appears naïve. Within individual OIC member states and its collective institutions, there are numerous individuals desperate to bury ancient rivalries and work towards a common good. But at the highest levels of political leadership, the desire to cling onto power is now so evident that genuine pan-OIC cooperation looks further away than ever.

In the opening session of last week’s World Science Forum, Ireland’s chief scientific adviser Mark Ferguson made a poignant observation on the forum’s theme of “Science for Peace”. Science, he reminded the audience, cannot be the primary vehicle for peace in an environment where there are deep-rooted reasons for conflict. Science can reap the dividends, he argued, but “it cannot make the peace”.

Right now, the nations of the OIC are heading towards what could be the defining crisis since the organisation’s foundation in 1969. Some would argue that the current battle between Sunni and Shiite groups, and their client states (Saudi Arabia and Iran), is an intractable conflict. We don’t subscribe to this view, but there is little doubt that wiser heads must prevail. Many opportunities to strengthen knowledge, learning and scholarship across the Islamic world exist independently of the OIC. Yet more effective and collective political leadership is crucial. Without it, the promise of an Islamic-world renaissance in science will forever remain a topic for history books.

Ehsan Masood is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A second edition of his book Science and Islam: A History is now out in paperback. James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield. This article is extracted from a longer paper on science after the Arab Revolutions, to be published in early 2018, with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).


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