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Reforms of science and higher education must deliver results to gain support of society, says science policy specialist Athar Osama.

Excellence in higher education and scientific research is not generally attributed to contemporary Muslim societies. For centuries, Muslims have gone through an equivalent of Europe's Dark Ages and have longed for the dawning of another golden age of science.

In recent years, fresh resolve in a number of Islamic countries has seen them take steps to close the wide gap between Muslim countries and the developed world.

Several Muslim countries have invested heavily in science and innovation to fund massive projects aimed at creating hard and soft infrastructure. Flush with petro-dollars, Qatar and Abu Dhabi have sought to attract established universities from the West.

Many other countries, such as Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have undertaken far-reaching reforms of their systems of higher education and scientific research. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has funded a US$2 billion, five-year science and technology action plan, which is being extended for another five years. It is now building huge new universities.

Pakistan funded a ten-fold increase in spending on higher education between 2002 and 2007, and Egypt also undertook a major reorganisation of education.

Questioning the outcomes

Several of these countries had to make deliberate and conscious choices to invest in science and education despite a plethora of competing demands. This has sometimes led to vigorous debates about what could be achieved from such investments and whether they have worked.

In several instances, however, the basis and rationale behind the reform efforts — as well as the considerable investment that went into them — is being questioned.

In Pakistan, for instance, the utility of the higher education reforms is under scrutiny. The government recently cut higher education funding, seriously jeopardising the continuation of its reforms. Faced with resignation threats from the vice-chancellors of dozens of universities, the government has been forced to restore some of the money.

Particularly surprising, however, was the silence of broader society. This raises important concerns about the need for societal support and, in the absence of support from business and industry, the utility of the education and science reforms in Pakistan.

Pakistan is not alone. In Malaysia there is a growing concern — and a debate within the relevant communities — that several years of funding universities and science has not delivered commercial outcomes. A special innovation unit (UNIK) has been set up under the prime minister’s office to respond to this apparent crisis.

Rationale for funding science

Such examples demonstrate the fragility of the 'social contract' of science in these societies, whereby the entire rationale for funding science could come under question and take the ground from beneath the feet of the reformers.

Mohammed ibn Ibrahim Al-Suwaiyel, Saudi Arabia's minister of scientific research and the architect of his country's reforms, believes that Muslim countries have a long way to go before they can develop the kind of societal support for science often found in the West.

"I am certain that the ultimate success of reforms could only be measured by how much impact it has on the lives of the person on the street. Traditional measures of performance, such as papers published and patents filed, may not do justice to the needs of our countries," he has said. Yet these were precisely the focus of the higher education reforms in Pakistan.

When the public does start to feel the benefits of science reforms, effective communication of science's benefits must be a critical element of a strategy to build societal support for science.

Al-Suwaiyel admits Saudi Arabia in particular and Muslim countries in general have often failed to commercialise the results of science. Policymakers in Malaysia, Pakistan and elsewhere would probably agree.

High-level and grassroots support

Managing expectations of the broad set of stakeholders is critical as reforms are rolled out and gather steam. Policymakers and would-be reformers must work hard to build coalitions of support and keep them together. Successful and sustainable reforms must be built on high-level, as well grassroots, support for science in respective countries.

Setting the right expectations about the likely impact and timeframe of reforms, and managing these expectations, is a critical part of the reform process that is often overlooked by overambitious and zealous reformers. Policies and measures must be put in place to deliver results and ensure that expectations are met.

Commercialisation programmes are also needed to ensure the uptake of research by industry, business and entrepreneurial communities. Social and commercial dividends may not materialise unless policies and programmes are in place to make it happen.

Unless Muslim countries realise the importance of ensuring that the outputs of their investment in science produces impact in the form of tangible improvements in the lives of their citizens — and these improvements are widely communicated — reforms of science and higher education systems are unlikely to succeed.

Athar Osama is a science and innovation policy consultant, founder of Muslim-Science.com, visiting fellow at Boston University's Pardee Centre for Study of Longer Range Future and a director of a technology commercialisation, consulting and policy firm.

 

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