Why there aren’t many Arab Nobel science laureates

Arab scientists with a desire to excel generally immigrate, often to the West.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Reversing the trend. A technician works at a laboratory in Masdar City on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.   (AFP)
Reversing the trend. A technician works at a laboratory in Masdar City on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. (AFP)

The Nobel science prizes are done for another year and in 2018, just as in most of the past 117 years, there were few surprises for the Arab world. No Arab scientist was among this year’s laureates.

The Arab world has produced precious few Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine, including Egyptian-American chemist Ahmed Zewail in 1999, the first Arab to win a Nobel in the science category.

The most recent winner from the region was Turkish-American chemist Aziz Sancar in 2015, who stressed he wasn’t Arab but “a Turk.” There were two members of the Lebanese diaspora in the West — the half-Lebanese, Brazil-born, Britain-based Peter Medawar in 1960 and Lebanese-American Elias James Corey in 1990.

That makes four, all of whom have deep and abiding educational connections to the West and three who don’t count as Arab.

In fact, there seems more chance of an Arab from the region and based in it to win the Nobel Peace Prize than for science. Why?

“In the Arab world, we have not given great minds a great environment,” said Osama AbdelKarim who runs MaterialSolved, a start-up that helps researchers transform data into a visual story. “Behind one [Nobel]-winning scientist, there are teams of hundreds of researchers working on a project.”

The Arab world, however, doesn’t give its scientists such resources and “in Egypt, many researchers cannot even work full time on research but have to tutor to financially sustain themselves,” AbdelKarim said.

The point is underlined by the Arab Thought Foundation, an NGO advancing economic, social and cultural development. In its annual report on scientific research, the foundation said scientific research in the Arab world is heavily underfunded with investment in university infrastructure, research centres, human resources and the protection of intellectual property lagging far behind other regions.

In 2012, Saudi Arabia spent 0.25% of its GDP, Tunisia 0.68% and Qatar 0.47% on research and development. Even the private sector in Arab countries is said to be hesitant about investing in scientific research because it has little faith in it.

Research by Sana Almansour, an associate professor at Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University in Riyadh, said the region is beset by the poor application of information technology, a lack of strategic planning and an overdependence on foreign expertise.

AbdelKarim said the poor regional environment for science means it cannot “attract foreign researchers from, say, South Korea.”

He has a point. In 2005, Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries put together. UNESCO’s 2009 Science Report stated that Egypt produces 0.3% of all scientific articles in the world; Lebanon generates 0.04%; and Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia each 0.03%. Those numbers have likely not changed significantly in recent years.

Unsurprisingly then, Arab scientists are fairly limited in their ability to make groundbreaking medical discoveries, consider the laws of physics or develop transformational methods in chemistry.

In fact, they can’t help not winning prizes, said Harout Arabaghian, a research assistant and molecular microbiologist at the Sima Tokajian’s Microbial Genomics Lab at Lebanese American University.

“One of the main reasons holding back Arab scientists is the minimal support received by the scientific community. This prevents labs from having advanced facilities or [following] current technological trends, [which] makes it even more difficult to receive international grants,” he said.

Tamara Salloum, another research assistant at the lab, adds that the lack of ambition is upsetting, saying: “As researchers in the Middle East, we have the same potential as anyone else in the world.”

Arab scientists with a desire to excel generally immigrate, often to the West. In 2014, BBC Arabic reported that approximately 50 000 Sudanese university professionals, engineers and medical doctors had left the country.

In 2016, Jim al-Khalili, the Baghdad-born, Britain-based professor of theoretical physics, noted that Muslim countries in general “have fewer than ten scientists, engineers and technicians per thousand residents, compared to the global average of 40 — and 140 in the developed world.”

One of the reasons may be the lack of regional interest in studying science at the postgraduate level. The Arab Thought Foundation report said higher education institutions have a low enrolment rate in applied sciences and mathematics compared to other fields.

Those Arabs who do take up science seem a low-key bunch. A quick look at TEDx talks, the non-profit events that help spread ideas, shows there aren’t many Arab scientists presenting research.

Perhaps that, more than the lack of Nobel science prizes, says it all.