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Arab Science Needs More Respect

PARIS—Arab economies have taken a beating in recent years. Tourism has dwindled, high unemployment  persists and even rich Gulf States have had to deal with falling oil prices. Despite all this, military spending in the region has increased by 4 percent to a projected $150 billion. Saudi Arabia’s spending has risen by 14 percent, expanding at a faster rate than many Western countries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

This is just one example of what some observers of government spending in the Middle East and North Africa believe are misguided priorities. Much needed public funding is being eaten up by armies and navies and is not fuelling the education and research enterprises, said a 2015 UNESCO Science Report.

In the report’s details on the Middle East and North African countries, it highlighted how science, and more broadly any kind of research, remains undervalued in the Arab world.

“The politics of the region means politicians devote time to just politics and not policies,” says Moneef R Zou’bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences and co-author of the report.

“Science policies have taken a back seat,” he adds. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1990s and 1980s research and innovation seemed to be more genuinely of interest to political leaders in the region, says Zou’bi. He places blame on the current state of turmoil in much of the Arab world, where the turnover of education ministers is high. “Politicians used to have a little more time to listen to the scientists,” he laments.

This has a very real knock-on effect, says a senior programme specialist at UNESCO’s Science Unit in Cairo, Nazar Hassan. Hassan also contributed to the UNESCO report.

“Kids don’t go into science,” says Hassan. “Between 60 and 70 percent of students go to the social sciences and humanities. Science isn’t taught in a fun, inquiry-based way.”

“The quality of science teaching is not high because we don’t prioritize it,” adds Hassan.

For the sake of the region’s development and economic wellbeing, science research needs to be forced back up to the top of agendas in parliaments and boardrooms across the Arab world. “We need science because it is a means to contribute to human civilization through invention,” says Zou’bi, “It is also required to address immediate problems like water security, biodiversity and food security.”

Because science is neglected, Nassan says, “The Arab world is very good at exporting its academic talent abroad where they’re appreciated.”

Research is arguably one of the ways that Arab economies can diversify, which could help them weather future financial storms. “Scientific success in many incidents leads to economic success,” explains Zou’bi, “It can produce goods and services of value.”

While some Gulf States have been pursuing a so-called “knowledge economy,” they are often criticized for their perceived impatience and fickle funding.

“We need governments to re-prioritize spending and spend more on science and education,” says Zou’bi.

But money, while important, will not solve everything.

The report points to Tunisia as a lesson for the rest of the region to learn from. Before 2010 there was strong government support for research and higher education in the country. But socio-economic progress was sluggish and the investment in research was not creating jobs. The report attributes this failure to a lack of academic freedom and “the fact that allegiance to the regime was considered more important than competence.”

The take-home message is that adequate funding and governments that respect researchers’ curiosity create the best conditions for scientific innovation.

Both Zou’bi and Hassan agree that more people in the region need to care about science. Not just politicians, but also scientists who are prepared to encourage young talent to stay and work in the region, and those in the media who can explain the potential merits of science.

“The message,” says Zoub’bi, “ is that we need to cultivate people from across fields and domains to be champions of science to lobby for it amongst decision-making circles.”


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