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Science in the Muslim World: Weak Research, Strong Female Participation

CAIRO—The overall state of science at universities in the Muslim world is poor, despite recent improvements and the strong participation of women among those studying science.

Those are the main findings of a recent report, “Science at Universities of the Muslim World,” published by the Pakistan-based Muslim World Science Initiative.

Experts didn’t hide their frustration at the report’s conclusions. “The situation is dire,” says Abdallah Daar, a professor of public health services and surgery at the University of Toronto and a fellow at the Jordan-based Islamic World Academy of Sciences.

Daar doesn’t take much reassurance from the new statistics on gender balance in student bodies. “The apparent success of more women in higher education probably has deeper roots in male apathy,” he says, “and if you look at conservative countries, even the education that women get does not translate into empowerment.”

The 57 Muslim-majority countries are located in the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and some countries in Asia. When it comes to the Arab part of the Muslim world, it represents about five percent of the global population, but contributes to only 1.3 percent of the world’s academic publications and 0.1 percent of the world’s registered patents.

On the other hand, progress has been made in achieving gender parity for enrolling students. Several Arab countries have significantly more women than men enrolled in tertiary education. For example, the United Arab Emirates now has the highest female-to-male university enrollment ratio worldwide, with women outnumbering men three to one, according to a separate report by Freedom House.

UNESCO data indicate that Bahrain has two female students for every male student. On the issue of gender parity, some Arab countries leave behind several Western countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, although the quality of the education the students are receiving is up for debate.

The new report attributes the weak performance of science at universities to several issues, including low spending on research and development, the disappointing performance of pre-university students on math and science tests, and the narrow focus of science education, which does little to enable students to think critically, especially beyond their specialties.

The report also notes that self-censorship is often practiced in the selection of what topics are taught, particularly controversial subjects such as the theory of evolution. Additionally, the language of instruction created significant challenges because of a lack of up-to-date scientific content in national languages, which resulted in the use of English or French for science courses at most universities in the Muslim world. Faculty members were also ill-trained to teach using cutting-edge methods such as inquiry-based science education and active-learning teaching methods, the report said, and had little autonomy to innovate.

In more encouraging news, most countries in the report managed to double or triple their output of research during the last ten years. However, their papers are cited less frequently than those from other nations. Muslim countries have an average of 5.7 citations per paper compared with 9.7 for South Africa and 13.8 for Israel, according to figures from Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Science. (See related story: A New Way to Measure the Importance of Arabic Research.)

Reports such as this provide data to a region where hard statistics can be challenging to come by. As such, it offers the hope of building on areas of previous success. “This offers opportunities for mutual learning among the affected countries on how to improve higher education,” says a Kenyan scientist, Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard University.

The report’s findings are not unique to Muslim countries, Juma said. “The same dynamics apply in Africa.”

To face the scientific and educational challenges the report outlined, its authors called for science curricula and teaching methods to be reformed. The report also advocated for a broader education of scientists and engineers to enable them to address complex challenges across disciplines. Additionally, it recommended more autonomy for universities and a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct.

Although a number of Arab institutions are advancing in the international rankings of universities, the report warned of the perils of chasing rankings at the expense of real reform.

The report called for universities across the Muslim world to join a voluntary Network of Excellence of Universities for Science (NEXUS) that will be launched next year with an aim of bringing about some of these changes.

Former Pakistani minister of science and technology and UNESCO science laureate Atta-ur-Rahman points out that for much of these reforms, money is needed. Muslim and Arab countries on average invest less than 0.5 and 0.3 percent of their GDP on research respectively, which is less than the world average of 1.78 percent.   The range is wide, though—Qatar spends 2.9 percent while Kuwait spends 0.09 percent, according to the MIT Technology Review Pan Arab Edition. 

He also argued that universities and research centers should be “strongly linked to industry for supporting the establishment of manufacturing industries in high technology fields.”

Rahman called on politicians in the Arab world and other Muslin countries to increase their treasuries’ allocation of funds to education and science. “No one will help us,” he said. “We must help ourselves.”

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