Promoting Scientific Innovation in the

By Athar Osama, Ph.D
Posted October 4, 2006

Scientific and technological research and innovation is not among the qualities that one may attribute to the countries in the Muslim World. Having missed the dawn of scientific age due to reasons beyond the scope of this article, the 50-odd countries of the Islamic world cut a sorry figure when stacked against the modern and advanced countries of the West or even, for that matter, the states of the former Soviet Union and the under-developed India or China.

Yet, science and technology remains the single most important factor that distinguishes the economic leaders and laggards of today.

Science and Technology—from the basic blue-sky research in universities and public and private laboratories to the applied research and development in leading corporations of the world—is the engine of economic growth.

Majority of Muslim countries—in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—continue to lag behind the rest of the developed world in the state of development and maturity of their scientific and technological infrastructures—a fact that translates into shocking disparities in the standards of living.

Scientific and Technological Innovation – Key to Economic Development

According to Economist Jeffery Sachs, the gulf between today’s rich and economically developed countries (mostly western Europe and North America) and poor and under-developed countries (that includes much of Asia, Middle East and Africa where majority of the Muslim countries lie) is a result of this years of lagging behind the pack.

For example, between 1820 and 1998, the per capita GDP of Western Europe and the United States-Canada grew at an average rate of 1.5 and 1.7% per annum respectively while Asia (excluding Japan) and Africa managed to only grow at 0.9 and 0.7% per annum respectively.

This seemingly minor difference in growth rates—compounded over one-and-a-half century—has resulted in dramatic consequences for these countries. While the per capita GDP in the Western Europe grew from $1,200 per person in 1820 to $30,000 in 1998, that in Africa only managed to grow from $400 in 1820 to $1,300 1998.

One of the main reasons why future transpired so differently for these set of countries is the latter’s inability to harness the tremendous force of science and technology for their social and economic development.

The Symptoms and Causes of the Disease

For decades now, Muslim countries have struggled with appreciating the value of scientific and technological research, and in many cases, have become blind consumers of western technology. They have failed to develop scientific and technological capacity and infrastructures which has in turn resulted in weak agricultural and industrial capabilities.

They have thus remained dependent on the West for not only the technical infrastructure (machinery, high-technology equipment, medicines etc.) but also high quality consumer and luxury goods—a fact that virtually guarantees them continued dependence and hence a lower status in the development ladder for years and years to come.

While a lot can be said about why this has been the case—from political, social, and religious perspectives—the lack of emphasis on human resources—obvious from low levels of literacy and human development, as outlined by the Arab Human Development Report of 2002.

Scientists and engineers from the Muslim world—individuals like Professor Abdus Salam of Pakistan, Dr. Ahmed Zewail from Egypt, and others—have made a name for their genius and hardwork as they left their own countries and worked in universities and research labs abroad. This “brain drain” of scientists and engineers continues to afflict the Muslim world today. Stopping this brain drain and reversing it may be key to harnessing scientific innovation for the benefit of societies in the Muslim world.

One of the most important factors that has afflicted the scientific and technological establishments in the Muslim world is a lack of appreciation and acknowledgement of their contribution to the society followed by application of scientific and technological knowledge thus created to the real development needs and problems within these countries. This lack of appreciation has often manifested itself in the absence of coherent science and technology policies that go beyond mere paper documents and are actually implemented and supported by the state, private, and academic sectors.

State of Scientific and Technological Development in the Muslim World

Table-1 highlights the top-10 OIC member countries by one measure of scientific and technological productivity, namely, publication of research in established journals. Clearly, Turkey leads the pack with Egypt and Iran being distant second and third. Indonesia—the largest Muslim country (by population)— is notably absent in the top-10 most scientifically productive countries, as is Bangladesh—the third largest (by population). Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country, is only a distant eighth on this list of top-10 most productive countries.

Table 1: Top 10 Most Scientifically Productive Countries in the Muslim World*
10-yr Publications
Top Discipline
Applied Mathematics
Saudi Arabia
Gen – Internal Medicine
Physical Chemistry
Food Science & Technology
Plant Sciences
Chemical Engineering
Gen – Internal Medicine

* As measured by publications frequency between 1995-2005

Table-2 highlights the institutional dimension of this lackluster performance. While the overall policy environment is set at the country-level, it is really the institutions where scientific and technological innovation takes place. Here the contrast is even starker than the earlier list. Of the 25 most scientifically productive institutions in the Muslim world, 10 are in Turkey, 5 in Egypt, and 3 in Malaysia. Of the top-10 institutions, 7 are in Turkey. Most notably absent from list are institutions in three of the largest Muslim countries, namely, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh that account for about 40% of the population of entire Muslim world.

Table 1: Top 25 Most Productive Universities in the Muslim World*
University Hacettepe
University Istanbul
Ankara University
Cairo University
Kuwait University
King Saud University
Saudi Arabia
Middle Eastern Technical U.
Gazi University
Istabul Technical U.
Ege University
King Fahd University
Saudi Arabia
Ains Shams University
University Malaya
National Research Center
Alexandria University
American University Beirut
Ataturk University
United Arab Emirates U.
Mansoura University
King Faisal Research Center
Saudi Arabia
University Sains Malaysia
Dokuz Eylul University
Uzbek Academy of Science
Cukurova University
University of Tehran

** Ten-year Publication Rate (1995-2005)

These statistics alone are a grim reminder of the tremendous challenges faced by countries in the Muslim world as they seek to transform themselves from agriculture and natural resource dependent economies into innovative and knowledge societies of the 21st (or 22nd) century.

Doing so would require not only developing coherent and relevant science and technology policies across the Muslim world but also creating institutions that could provide the environment necessary for scientific and technological research. It would also require appreciating and recognizing the value of both science and technology as worthy disciplines—not only in letter but also in spirit—and then applying these to socio-economic problems in these countries. In return, it would also require a compact between the scientific community and the public-at-large that investment in science and technology would be returned through meaningful advancement in socio-economic goals.

Silver Lining in the Clouds

Things have only recently begun to change. Increasingly, the Muslim countries in Middle East and Asia are waking up to the reality of the steep challenges that they face as they scramble to catch up with the rest of the world. A number of very hopeful initiatives have been launched with an explicit aim to narrow the innovation gap between the respective Muslim countries and the West. While these initiatives are in their preliminary stages—and hence their effects (or lack of) may not yet be evident—they point towards an unambiguous desire to break from the neglect of the past.

Pakistan’s Thrust into Higher Education

Pakistan’s newly formed Higher Education Commission (HEC) has since 2002 launched an aggressive scheme to grow the base of scientific and research manpower. This has resulted in a several thousand percent increase in budgetary allocation to the higher-education sector in Pakistan. A two pronged strategy has been adopted to achieve this purpose.

First, HEC has very aggressively pursued cooperative agreements with foreign governments, aid agencies, and foreign universities to provide opportunities to Pakistani students to pursue studies abroad and inviting Pakistani Diaspora to teach at local universities at home. Second, it has concurrently embarked upon an ambitious target of creating 5,000 new PhDs locally over the next five years.

While many questions are being raised about these initiatives from a policy-analytic standpoint—most notably, the ability of the country to ramp up the throughput of PhDs in such a dramatic fashion without sacrificing of quality, the ability of the country’s scientific establishment to absorb this sudden increase in research manpower, and issues of cost-effectiveness etc.—this recent thrust represents a major shift whose effects (or ill-effects) may only become apparent in the years and decades to come.

Qatar’s Unique Experiment in Higher Education

Qatar’s Education City—a 2500 acre campus on the outskirts of Doha—is the latest and one of the most unique educational experiments in the whole of the Muslim world. The Qatar Education City attempts to bring together—in a single university premises—some of the most reputed campuses from universities around the world. For example, the Education City currently hosts an engineering school from Texas A&M University, a business and computer science school from Carnegie Mellon University, a school of arts from Virginia Commonwealth University, a school of public service from Georgetown University, and a school of medicine from Cornell University.

When fully completed, this multi-billion dollar project would house a complete academic and innovation system with a Science and Technology Park, a public policy think tank, a library, residential and recreational facilities, and other paraphernalia that would form a unique innovative milieu in Qatar. This project alone, Qatar’s visionary leaders hope, would transform the Emirate into a regional—perhaps international—educational hub and a knowledge society in the 21st century.

Dubai’s Foray into Creating an Intellectual Culture

While Dubai and its leaders have long surprised the rest of the Muslim World—and the West—with their sincere-steadfast leadership and visionary policies that have transformed Dubai from a desert oasis to the center of finance and commerce in the Middle East and a bridge between the East and the West, the Dubai “Miracle” has often been seen with mild skepticism by many. One of the primary reasons for this has been the disproportionate use of expatriate workforce and the lack of a concurrent human development in the indigenous population of the Emirates. For many, therefore, the Dubai miracle lacked the legs necessary to stand on its own feet. That may have gradually begun to change.

Increasingly Dubai’s leaders are paying attention toward creating an intellectual and research culture in the Emirates that may although be driven by an essentially expatriate (or borrowed) workforce is not necessarily limited to it. Increasingly, Dubai is a favored venue for management and leadership conferences involving several hundred participants and leading government and business thinkers from the Western world and across the Emirates and the Middle East. While not substantive in themselves, these conferences create an opportunity for Dubai’s leaders and populace to interact with and benefit from western intellectual capital at a close proximity.

Other institutions that have only recently emerged on Dubai’s intellectual scene—and have already begun to make a mark—include Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), Gulf Research Center (GRC), and Dubai-Harvard Foundation for Medical Research etc. Most recently, the Emirates launched the Dubai Economic Research Awards to promote economic research on Dubai’s socio-economic issues and is set to hold the 2007 Meeting of the Middle East Economic Association (MEEA). While these are small steps towards the creation of an indigenous intellectual culture in Dubai, they are nonetheless steps in the right direction.

Nigeria’s Planned Investment in Science

The Nigerian government recently announced the creation of a $5 billion endowment for setting up a science fund that would place scientific development at the heart of the Nigerian Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS). The planned investment, it is believed, is likely to translate into an economic growth of around 8-10 percent per year by 2020—up from the current 4 percent today. The project is being conceived and executed in collaboration with UNESCO under the latter’s Project for the Reform of Nigerian Science and Innovation System.

The project would be funded in part through the country’s oil revenues but also jointly with industry and multi-lateral institutions. While it is premature to say anything meaningful about this initiative, it clearly represents a departure for yet another Islamic country at the heart of the poverty and conflict-ridden continent of Africa that is likely to inspire other Muslim countries in the region to take a similar route.

Success = Thoughtful Policy + Clever Institutional Design + Seamless Implementation

These examples represent only a few of the more forward looking countries in the Muslim World and are chosen to highlight the diversity of what is beginning to happen. It is in fact quite possible that none of these initiatives may be able to fully achieve their ultimate objectives. They would, however, allow these countries to make definite strides towards the final objective and, in the mean time, generate considerable learning about what might and might not work in each of these unique socio-economic, political, and cultural environments.

Whether Pakistan is able to achieve its goal of producing 5000 high-quality PhDs in five years, Qatar manages to become a knowledge hub for the Middle East, Dubai is able to create an educated Emirate that transforms its overnight success in the corporate world into a more permanent and sustainable “developed” country, or whether Nigeria’s ambitious science-fund puts it into a higher development trajectory would depend upon the quality of policies, institutions, and implementation that is pursued in support of each of these initiatives.

Learning from hundreds of examples around the world and putting several decades of experience to ones advantage is a virtue that must never be overlooked. Success in developing a system that works would require more than throwing money at the problem which many, especially Middle Eastern countries, have tended to do in the past.

Carefully thinking about ones objectives—and asking the right questions before seeking answers–and the kinds of institutions and programs that would help achieve those objectives is critical before rushing into implementation as has sometimes been the case in the Muslim world. Finally, one must also develop a sense-and-respond capacity to continually measure and monitor progress and fine-tune and adapt policies and programs as results from these begin to emerge.

Only through an intelligent use of policy followed by patient implementation can the Muslim countries can lift themselves from the shackles of poverty and under-development and transform themselves from today’s scientific backwaters to equal participants and beneficiaries of the scientific age


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