Scholars of history have drawn attention to the significant contributions that the Arab and Muslim world once made to science. Yet today existing statistics on the Middle East point to a baldly different situation when it comes to scientific production and the creation of new, innovative science. While the contemporary Middle East has been blessed both in terms of its human capital as well as its abundant natural resources, neither of these critical assets has translated into tangible contributions to science and innovation that one would have anticipated. In fact, the region lags well behind other parts of the world with fewer people and less robust economies when it comes to scientific outcomes. Questions as to why this is the case have persisted amongst many of the states and their political and economic leaders for decades. Increasingly Middle Eastern policy-makers have suggested that this deficit be addressed, and that efforts to build “knowledge-based” societies and cultures based on expanding scientific research become a key priority.
In line with this several Middle Eastern governments have, among other initiatives, been developing academic structures, research facilities, and science hubs to serve as catalysts for scientific productivity. Examples of these efforts include the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, the Zweil City of Science and Technology in Egypt, along with the mushrooming of multiple science and technology parks across almost every Middle Eastern country. Several of the region’s wealthiest states, like Qatar and the UAE have devoted a significant portion of their financial assets towards policies and programs specifically tailored to support science and innovation efforts. In 2015 the United Arab Emirates allocated over US$80 billion to launching up to a hundred new initiatives under the Emirates Science, Technology and Innovation Higher Policy, while a few years prior to that Qatar had pledged to spend 2.8 percent of its GDP on research and development.
It is obvious then from viewing the efforts of these wealthier Arab states that it is not funding alone that oils the wheels of successful scientific production. Even when funds are readily available there are other impediments to be overcome if innovation is to flourish and science to produce perceptible benefits to nations and societies. Other researchers have suggested a host of varied possible reasons for the lethargic scientific outcomes seen across the region – from public policies that are not supportive of scientific inquiry or entrepreneurship, to inadequate training and education in key scientific fields, to the absence of adequate networks of scientists for collaboration, to the lack of full scientific independence under authoritarian rule, and to the lack of institutional protection of scientific production and of scientists from social or political influence and manipulation.
In the Middle East, it is important to explore some of the factors inhibiting and supporting the development of scientific production, including among other things the cultural context and historical legacies that have a significant impact on the development of coherent and long-term science and innovation practices and strategies. Socio-cultural factors impact people’s access to science, technology, and innovation. They also serve to limit gender equality when it comes to participation in science, and might inhibit girls’ and women’s access to educational opportunities and careers in STEM fields. They also influence the perception, the place in society of, and the role of scientists, researchers and educators. Those who have studied the development of science in the Middle East have also pointed to the ostensible incoherency in state-led innovation policies and how they inadequately incorporate the needs and interests of universities, research centers, and other producers of scientific knowledge. Moreover, innovation policies in the Middle East often lack long-term continuity and do not attempt to build the public consensus needed to ensure the longevity and commitment to scientific goals and achievements.
Despite the limitations that can be seen when examining scientific production in the Middle East, there have also been success stories in some fields such as biology and astronomy despite the fact that these areas of research might be construed as potentially encroaching on local cultural or religious sensibilities. Pockets of scholars in the region certainly have engaged in world-class scientific research and produced original knowledge. However, this science does not always translate into local or national benefits. For a variety of reasons locally-based scientific communities often refrain from disseminating their findings to the general public. Hence, such scientific production does not end up contributing to scientific literacy or having a direct impact on populations in the Middle East. This widens the gap between society and the scientific community, and between different social classes, some of whom enjoy more access to expensive foreign technology, scientific discovery, and research than others.
The role of networks and transnational scientific collaboration is critical to any success when it comes to scientific production, and it is important to look at scientific networks in the Middle East today, how they are operating, and what challenges they are facing. Such networks and collaborations advance Middle Eastern capabilities in scientific research and contribute to “scientific indigeneity.” For decades the Middle East has relied on imported technology, and many of the regions’ populations are the daily consumers of foreign technology and goods. Networks and collaborations allow for exchange of ideas and technological transfer while they also link local research to global scientific efforts. Finally, networks and transnational collaborations contribute to building local capacity, and developing local research culture, both of which are critical to the continuity and sustainability of scientific research within an individual country. Germane to this discussion, there is a need for developing ways to assess the levels of indigeneity within a particular country and transnational scientific interactions. Scholars have relied on surveying bibliographics to assess the emergence of local scientific production and transnational scientific interactions. However, although bibliometrics could highlight transnational co-authorships, capturing transnational cooperation among research institutions remains a significant limitation of this method.
The role of geopolitics and the global system of states also has an important impact on scientific developments in the Middle East. Western-led sanction regimes targeting several Middle Eastern states, particularly Iran, have had a crippling effect on many different economic sectors, but certainly also on scientific production. The sanctions regime severely diminishes the opportunity for transnational collaboration between local researchers in a sanctioned country and other scholars based elsewhere, and creates cleavages amongst the scientific community based on nationality, the effects of which can linger for decades even after the sanctions have been removed. Scientists in sanctioned states are not only unable to building collaborative research projects with researchers overseas, they are also unable to access external sources for funding research and equipping labs, and presenting their research results at international conferences. However, sanction regimes can also be a blessing. For example after the Islamic Revolution and the imposition of sanctions, the Iranian state has had to develop and invest its own local scientific community for self-reliance. This has contributed to Iran’s scientific indigeneity.
In order to fill this gap in the literature, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a roundtable meeting in February 2017. A number of experts and researchers gathered for robust one-day discussion on issues related scientific innovation in the Middle East, regional networks and transnational scientific communities, scientific indigeneity and internationalization, Islam and scientific ethics, the impact of sanction regimes, and the Arab uprisings of 2011. The final outcome of the roundtable was a consensus that there are critical gaps in the literature when it comes to the subject of science and scientific production in the Middle East, and a pressing need for a rigorous and in-depth study of the topic. In line with that, CIRS is deepening its focus and attention on the topic by launching a new research initiative on Science and Scientific Production in the Middle East. Through this research initiative, CIRS aims to, among other things, examine: Islamic ethics and the legitimacy of scientific innovation; science and social inequality in the Middle East; the military-industrial complex and technological advancement; economic policies, consumerism, and scientific Innovation in the Middle East; the social impact of scientific research in the Middle East; the role of women and science in the Arab World; and sanctions and scientific production in the region.
Article by Zahra Babar, Associate Director of Research at CIRS, and Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS