Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Science and Scientific Production in the Middle East Working Group I

Science and Scientific Production in the Middle East

On September 16–17, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) hosted the first working group under its research initiative on “Science and Scientific Production in the Middle East.” Over the course of two days, scholars discussed issues around: the social impact of scientific research; Islamic ethics and legitimacy of scientific innovation; women and science in the Middle East; social inequality, economic policies and scientific innovation; sanction regimes; and the military-industrial complex.

Sari Hanafi began the working group discussions with his presentation on “The Social Impact of Scientific Research in the Middle East.” During his presentation, Hanafi discussed four main issues: the relevance of research and internationalization; profiles of Middle Eastern academics; transnational scientific networks; and production versus usage of knowledge in the region. Hanafi stated that based on his study, research publications in Arabic appear to be less influential, and scholarship as well as scholars located outside the region hold more influence. As far as citations are concerned, Arabic publications when compared to research that is published in English are less cited. Research produced in Arabic tends to have less visibility to academics and scholars, as there are no proper databases that capture all Arabic language publications. Much of the research produced in the region, instead of being carried out at within a university setting by academics, is carried out for policy purposes by professional researchers and tends to be funded by international organizations for short, limited periods of time. This is primarily because there is not enough funding being devoted to academic research, and professional researchers are dependent on policy institutes and foreign donors for accessing funds. This has a significant impact on the sustainability and long-term production of scientific research and knowledge, as well as its consumption. There are an absence of intermediary institutions in the Arab world that connect universities to industry and society. Hanafi concluded his presentation with by identifying a few of the core challenges for attaining social impact through scientific research in the Arab world: there is lack of trust in science in the region; research and science are not considered as value neutral; societal debate is part and parcel of research in the region; authoritarian states are not committed to developing evidence-based policies; conducting critical research impacts academics and they can find themselves marginalized and their careers negatively impacted; knowledge production needs to become more socially distributed; and Arab universities have little control over or involvement in scientific production.

Ayman Shabana focused his discussions on “Islamic Ethics and Legitimacy of Scientific Innovation.” Shabana opened his remarks by raising the questions of why Islamic ethics are important for legitimation of scientific innovation, and even what Islamic ethics mean. There have been few deep studies examining the relationship between Islamic ethics and science or scientific innovation in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. It is important to also examine who the key stakeholder and actors involved in the domain of Islamic ethics and science are. Emerging social concerns pertaining to legal, theological, and moral domains have challenged the Islamic normative tradition and its authority. From theories of evolution and astronomical calculations in the 1900s to modern biomedical technology, Islam has been invoked either to justify or condemn scientific advancement. In grappling with the issue of Islam and scientific production, Shabana identified four gaps in the literature that deserve in-depth study: the role of muftis/Muslim adjudicators and judicial scholars and the relationship between Islam and science; Islamic ethics and warfare in the Middle East; Islamic bioethics and human enhancement; and Islamic ethics and artificial intelligence.

Rana Dajani’s remarks at the working group discussion focused on the topic of “Women and Science in the Arab World.” Dajani posited that there is a general assumption that there are low numbers of females engaged in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in many parts of the world, but statistics show that in the Arab world and East and South East Asia this is not necessarily the case. In fact in the Arab world there are higher numbers of woman in STEM fields than in the United States, and this needs to be further explored. If gender equality is better in Nordic countries than in the Arab world, what are the reasons for such high female representation in STEM fields in the Arab world as opposed to northern Europe? Dajani argued that despite social conditions that are considered to limit girls’ educational choices and perceived traditional norms challenging women’s empowerment women, the number of females in the STEM fields continues to grow. However, women’s professional participation in STEM fields remains disproportionate to the number of female students pursuing STEM education—there are more young women studying in these areas that are not reflected later on in the labor market. Dajani suggested a few gaps in the literature which need further studying. Among other things she suggested that research was needed to examine the long-term impact of the segregated educational system on female educational choices, and specifically whether girls who study in single-sex environment have a greater tendency to pursue STEM-based higher education. Dajani also suggested that there is a need to further understand how Arab women are impacting the scientific workplace, and women’s influence on scientific laboratories and innovation hubs. Other sub-areas that need to be studied are mentoring schemes in sciences for women and the impact of female scientists as role models for young women and men.

Building on Dajani’s discussion, Abelkader Djeflat discussed “Science and Social Inequality in the Middle East.” Djeflat argued that the pervasive social inequality in the Middle East has been obstructive to the advancement of sciences and scientific production in the Middle East. Social disparity has not only manifested in the high unemployment rates across the region, but also in youth’s access to knowledge. Elites have more access to foreign technology, scientific discovery, and research than lower classes. This incongruent access to knowledge is passed down through generations cementing inequality, and ultimately frustration, between social classes. Djeflat argued that there is a need to study the social system in the Middle East, and identify the dysfunctional social institutions that create such disparity in the access to knowledge between social classes. 

Mehran Kamrava presented Parviz Tarikhi’s comments on “Sanctions and Scientific Production in Iran.” Tarikhi suggests that science and scientific production in Iran remain dependent on the state politically, ideologically, and financially. The state’s control over science and scientific production in Iran led to three structural problems. First, given that the state is the biggest funder of scientific research, there has been an ostensible disparity in allocation of public funds to scientific research. Instead of funding research that contributes to scientific production and knowledge, the state has funded pretentious projects that boost national pride domestically, and project an image of a powerful, advanced Iran internationally. Second, state’s control of scientific production has circumcised the parameters of constructive scientific criticism. Finally, many scientific endeavors funded by the state have been considered sensitive to national security; hence, impacting the circulation of scientific information. In addition to the aforementioned structural problems, Tarikhi highlighted the role of sanctions in further hampering scientific production in Iran. He claimed that because of sanctions, the trend towards brain-drain has picked up dramatically, and more Iranian scholars and scientists have been leaving the country than ever before. In addition, Iranian scholars face limited access to scientific production outside Iran both for education and contribution purposes, as some journals do not accept papers from Iranian scholars. However, the sanctions contributed to the growth of cosmopolitanism among Iranian scientists in diaspora and those in Iran. Tarikhi highlighted a number of areas that deserve further studying, among which: the inverse relationship between sanctions and science; sanctions impact on the criticism of scientific production; Iranian scientists’ ability to conduct independent scientific research; immigration and scientific cosmopolitanism in Iran; and the internal quality of dissent, and how it impacts scientific production in Iran.

Tariq Da’na concluded the working group discussions with his presentation on “The Military-Industrial Complex and Technological Advancement in Israel.” Da’na provided an overview of Israel’s business-political-military relations. He argued that the military-industrial complex in Israel could be traced back to pre-statehood. Israel Military Industries, currently known as IMI Systems, was established in the 1933. This company, and the Israeli military-industrial complex at large, played a significant role in the Israel’s state building process in the 1950s and 1960s. Da’na claimed that given the central role the Israeli army plays in politics, the Israeli military-industrial complex remains worth studying. Da’na identified key gaps in the literature on the Israeli military-industrial complex, among which: the connection between Israeli academia and military apparatus, the indigeneity of Israeli scientific production the privatization of security in Israel; privatization of Israeli checkpoint and prisons; and comparisons between the Israeli and Egyptian military-industrial complexes in 1960 to the 1980s.

Participants and Discussants: 

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Rana Dajani, Hashemite University, Jordan
  • Tariq Dana, Doha Institute of Graduate Studies, Qatar
  • Abdelkader Djeflat, University of Lille, France
  • Mohammed Ghaly, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar
  • Sari Hanafi, American University of Beirut, Lebanon
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ayman Shabana, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS