The Arab world’s path to progress goes through science
The shortcomings of scientific research and innovation in the Arab world and the means of overcoming them were discussed during the World Government Summit in Dubai. The issue is likely to be debated in many more events considering the distance that separates Arabs from the rest of the world in this regard.
Scientific research is at the core of human progress and development. It is the key arena through which the Arab world can either be part of the journey to fulfil human dreams or remain on the sidelines of history.
In a region shaken by wars and threatened by terror, more billions of dollars are spent on military equipment than on scientific research. Expenditures on scientific research and development remain below the 1% mark, despite Arab leaders committing more than two decades ago to raise that budget allocation.
Egyptian Nobel Chemistry Laureate Ahmed H. Zewail notes that, while South Korea and Israel spend 4% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development, Egypt’s R&D budget is 0.4% of GDP.
One of the more telling indicators according to the UNESCO Science Report is the number of researchers in proportion to the general population. The Arab world counts 371 researchers for every million people, compared to a world average of 1,081.
Their number is as low as 19 per million inhabitants in Sudan, 50 in Bahrain and 137 in Oman. The situation is better in certain Arab countries, such as Tunisia with 1,394 researchers, Morocco with 864 researchers and Egypt with 581.
Another indicator is the number of patent applications by Arab countries. In 2013, according to the MIT Technology Review, applications from the Arab region represented only 0.1% of patents registered at the US Patent and Trademark Office.
Scientific and technical articles by Arab authors constitute just 1.3% of journal entries published.
An important part of the problem is the disconnect between businesses and the R&D community. According to the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, only 5% of the research budget in Egypt emanates from the private sector.
Indicators show progress in the participation of Arab women in scientific research but more can be done. The high ratio of women in tertiary education is not reflected in the research sector. More than 50% of university students in most of the Arab countries are women but only 37% of researchers are female.
A poor R&D environment is causing thousands of researchers to leave the Arab region. The “brain drain” is not bad in itself, if researchers kept ties to their home countries. For a young Arab researcher leaving out of despair, looking back does not come easy.
For the Arab world, once at the vanguard of scientific progress, the issue of scientific research has to do with more than government policies. It has to do with youth regaining confidence in the ability to clinch achievements at home and not having to look for greener pastures abroad.
Initiatives such as the UAE space programme and a few others offer Arab youth the opportunity to widen their scientific horizons as well as the rare luxury of dreaming.
For Arabs, science is the only track that could lead to regained status and restored pride among nations.