Science is Golden

/ by Saira Jesani /

The Arab World builds its own scientific infrastructure.

Illustration by Adam Billyeald

In 2005, UNESCO’s Science Report identified the Arab region as the least R&D intensive area in the world. Moreover, rather than focus on scientific innovation at home, Arab nations spent a staggering trillion dollars importing scientific and technological knowhow over the past three decades.

Now, a number of these nations are shifting their attention to developing regional R&D. Earlier this year, the 22 nations of the Arab League approved a 10-year plan to boost scientific research. It calls for member states to raise their allocation to science twelvefold to 2.5 percent of GDP—more than the average 2.3 percent spent by developed nations.

Arab political leaders are laying down the foundation for a strong scientific community. “It is a substantial step forward,” says Mohamed Hassan, director of the Third World Academy of Sciences in Trieste, Italy. “If there is a political will to regionalize and internationalize initiatives, it would be of great benefit to the Arab world. The worry is that these [initiatives] will remain localized.”

To counter that particular concern, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum of the United Arab Emirates recently launched a new pan-Arab foundation with a monumental endowment of $10 billion—one of the largest charitable donations in history. The foundation’s stated mission is to “develop world-class knowledge” in the Arab region, and many are hoping it will foster broad-based scientific research. “Currently the scientific community in the Arab region is nonexistent,” says Herwig Schopper, former director-general of CERN. “Although money is necessary, we also need international collaboration to help develop a scientific mentality.”

Arab nations increasingly are investing in international science collaborations to catch up with the West. Recently, Germany and Egypt declared 2007 as their Year of Science and Technology. The initiative will provide the opportunity for scientific exchange through conferences and workshops, and will fund teams of young researchers. The project is only a small part of a bigger plan as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has declared the period from 2007 to 2016 as Egypt’s “decade of science.”

Qatar is also undergoing a science revolution. With a $1.5 billion annual allocation to science in a country with a population of less than a million, Qatar is intent on reform. Education City is Qatar’s new university system—a 2,500-acre campus that is home to branches of five of the world’s top universities, including Cornell and Carnegie Mellon. The Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) has enticed foreign labs and international companies by offering top-notch research facilities. The country is bringing in foreign expertise to achieve a long-term vision—to make Qatar a knowledge-based society. “QSTP is a 20-year program,” says director Eulian Roberts, “but we’re working hard now so that we can achieve a change in culture, a change in mentality.”

Omani political leaders have also set in place a 15-year plan for science development. Their strategy aims to transform existing colleges into science and technology institutions and promote international collaboration between these institutions and those in other Arab, Islamic, and Western countries.

Saudi Arabia has also secured plans for a multibillion-dollar science and technology university. The hope is that the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) will not bear any similarity to the expensive, white-elephant universities that Saudi Arabia has previously produced. But, the blue-ribbon advisory panel of international academics is adamant that this project will build the scientific mentality that is needed in the region.

Arab nations are making moves to translate their oil-driven economies into knowledge-based ones. “We are in a good position financially to create maximum opportunity,” says Qatar-based Roberts, “so that people can participate in the economy and not act as spectators any longer.”

Originally published October 3, 2007

Tags borders community cooperation globalization

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