Winds of change blow through research centres and universities operating in the Middle East.
(Image Credit: Northwestern University in Qatar Photo Gallery)
The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin), the studies on algebra and arithmetic of Al-Khwārizmī (Algoritmi), the Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen): these are just a few examples of Middle Eastern literature from the past that testify the outstanding contribution of Islamic intellect to modern science. However, statistics on the scientific impact of today’s Arab world portray a starkly different picture, with universities and research centres from these countries lagging well behind their Eastern Asiatic and Western counterparts1, 2. The output of publications from the entire Middle Eastern region in 2012 amounts to less than one quarter of that of the US1, and only three universities (two from Israel and one from Turkey) are listed in the top 200 institutions in teaching and research worldwide. Yet, an awakened community is now eager to trigger a scientific rebirth in this area.
The creation of scientific hubs able to both play a relevant role in the international community and involve an increasing number of Arab students in research may catalyse the change needed in the Middle East. Certainly, it will be interesting to observe the effects of these efforts on the scientific productivity of the next few years. In the long term, one only hopes that the exposure of young generations to a multicultural, curiosity-driven research environment will spark a new scientific golden age in the region.
All this may seem touching – yet the projects and the people behind them command respect. Instead of running away, more and more young Lebanese like Najwa, Hind and Ziad are fighting for futures in their own country. And showing greater enthusiasm and responsibility than the state has seen for decades. Who can say what they might yet achieve?
Inspiring, Lebanon’s Young Fight for the Country’s Future with Thought & Vision
Business Innovation in Lebanon The Other Spring by Mona Sarkis
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
I like to believe that we will be free, and we will have high-quality research centres in Palestine and the Arab world where students will want to study for PhDs, and continue onto postdocs. The logical progress of research is simply amazing. I honestly have no idea what I will be doing 10 years from now, but I want a world class cancer research centre in Palestine one day and will certainly continue teaching along with my research.
Rula Abdul-Salam Abdul-Ghani - Faculty of Medicine, AL-Quds University, Jerusalem, Palestine
Rula is one of 9 exceptional Arab women scientists who won funding for their research from the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women In Science Pan-Arab Regional Fellowships Program in association with the Arab Science & Technology Foundation (ASTF).
How has the Arab Spring provided opportunities for science and technology?
A large part of it is people starting to think in terms of meritocracy. A huge potential of talent has been unleashed — talent that was previously held back by corruption and by cronyism, and by a disregard for meritocratic progress. This is when we can start talking about the Arab Spring becoming the Arab Summer — when we see people assessed on, and acknowledged for what they are able to contribute. You cannot have successful scientific cooperation without meritocracy. The great new freedom has started to entice a lot of the Arab diaspora — we have lost so many of our talented people in the past.
Is there a lesson for other Arab countries that have not experienced protests?
I think so and that’s not just the result of the Arab Spring. Slowly people have started to realise that the way forward is investment in human resources, not in cement or other commodities. And, while some of our neighbouring countries have put huge amounts into science cities and so on, ultimately it’s the working partnerships that we develop between different scientists that will make the big difference. In Jordan, our great resource is human capital and that is what we are investing in. When we think about the Arabic and Islamic world, the contribution we have made to science and technology is a very important part of our heritage, and now is the time for us to continue from where we left off.
One year since the popular revolution in Tunisia ended the 23-year-old rule of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians are starting to enjoy newfound freedoms. Scientists and academics are cautiously hopeful science research and education will benefit in a new era.
"Since the early 2000’s, research has really suffered from the lack of democracy and the police state in place," says Faouzia Charfi, a physics professor at the University of Tunis. "Seminars and conferences were rare and under surveillance by the repressive regime of Ben Ali. It led to a serious violation of academic freedom."
Organizers of science conferences or meetings were required to submit full details of the topics or research up for discussion and in advance to receive permission to hold events. “Motivated researchers had to fight to maintain international relations and collaborations, but many potentially good researchers were discouraged and gave up,” says Rim Lahmandi, a professor of economy at the University of Carthage in Tunis.
As academics joined the millions protesting in Egypt’s streets this spring, the voice of one engineer soon began leading chants. Essam Sharaf was in the thick of demonstrations in January, and he became the first prime minister of a post-revolution cabinet in March — promoting science as a solution to the country’s woes. But by November, he had resigned amid a second surge of popular protest.
The 59-year-old Sharaf was born in Egypt and earned degrees in engineering from Cairo University and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. By 2010, he was an academic engineer at Cairo University and a fierce critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Sharaf’s stance during the uprising made him popular with the young revolutionaries. He was high on their list of candidates to lead the new transition government, along with Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, a chemist from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. When Sharaf was chosen, hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries gathered to greet him in Tahrir Square. “If I can’t bring the change you want, then I will return to the lines with you,” he told them.