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  • Islam Analysis: Plant seeds for a scientific revolution

Arab Spring revolutionaries turning to governance must adopt knowledge and innovation as barometers for progress, says Athar Osama.

As revolutions swept countries and shook governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region this year, they created opportunities for greater public voice in governance. Tunisia, for example, recently went through an election, and the Egyptian people are in the process of electing an assembly whose job is to write a new constitution.

And as revolutionaries turn to governance, they will have to address the socioeconomic and cultural challenges facing tens of millions of people: poverty with no prospect of prosperity, a burgeoning young population, poor employment opportunities, a culture of entitlement, and growing radicalism. These will be the real test of their leadership.

Science and innovation must feature high on their agendas. There are promising signs, such as Tunisia's $16.5 million science and technology boost, and the pronouncements of Egypt's caretaker government that it will open Zewail City of Science and Technology, a new science city named after Egyptian Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail.  

But the capability of the revolutionaries and their countries is questionable in one key area. Can they nurture the science needed to create entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs?

Deploying science and innovation to bring prosperity will require deep and long-lasting changes in the way society views science and conducts everyday business.  

Looking back

MENA countries are sailing through troubled and uncharted waters, and a peek at other countries' histories could bring some useful insight. The recent experience of post-war Iraq is one example. There, a revolution led from outside has sapped the resources needed to invest in science and innovation.

And there is the not-so-recent experience of neighbouring Iran, where a political revolution created an Islamic republic that allows science to flourish — as evidenced by a 2011 report, produced by the UK's Royal Society, that found Iran had the world's fastest-growing number of papers published in international journals.

Pakistan's history could provide the best model. Between 1989 and 1999, the longest period of civilian rule in Pakistan's history, research and development funding as a percentage of GDP declined from 0.27 to 0.11 per cent. It then increased from 0.11 per cent in 1999 to 0.59 per cent in 2007 under the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf.  

While a complex set of factors may have led to these results, it is clear that science and technology flourished more under stable military rule than volatile and populist civilian governments.

The revolutionaries in the MENA region must learn from this. Rather than depend on the benevolence of a dictator to fund science, they must create mechanisms to build grassroots support and secure political buy-in for the policies, institutions and governance that will generate science-based solutions for social problems.

A scientific revolution

Ultimately, a scientific revolution of sorts will be needed to redeem the promise of prosperity through science and knowledge. This can co-exist with religion, but it must embrace certain crucial elements of a society that values scientific knowledge and learning.

Writing in the journal Science, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts, who is also one of Barack Obama's science envoys to the Islamic World, identified a strong culture of meritocracy as one such element.

As Alberts points out, at the very heart of the dysfunction in Muslim societies is a lack of accountability, undue deference to age or social standing, and using one'spersonal connections as professional currency.

To bring about a scientific revival, the Muslim world must start by developing a culture that permits — and in fact encourages — critical inquiry, free thinking and questioning of authority. It must create the conditions for evidence-based and open debate — not blind subservience to religious, political or scientific orthodoxy.  

The newly 'liberated' societies of the MENA region cannot hope to benefit from knowledge, science and innovation unless their barometers of progress are not who you are and who you know, but rather how much you know and how innovative you are.

Seeds for change

Some countries are beginning to take steps in the right direction. In Pakistan, for instance, the age-old process of determining faculty salary based on seniority is being gradually replaced with a merit- and performance-based tenure track process.

However, there are potential pitfalls, such as high-powered incentives — payment for publishing papers, for example. A carefully crafted policy must also seek to balance this kind of stimulus by appealing to the intrinsic reward of producing quality science.  

Another step in the right direction would be more emphasis on creating institutions. For too long, a preference for personality cults over institution-building has stifled meritocracy and open discourse in Muslim societies. The MENA revolutionaries could do much good by making a deliberate attempt to seed institutions with appropriate safeguards that nurture these attributes.

Creating such a scientific society will require a much deeper sociocultural and political revolution than anything we have seen so far — perhaps a different kind of Arab Spring that will lead to the flowering of knowledge and innovation. The work, however, must begin today, with small steps in the right direction.

Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy consultant. He is the founder and CEO of Technomics International Ltd, a UK-based international technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com.

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