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  • Promise for science after the Arab Spring

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa are recognising the links between the uprisings and science for development, says Bothina Osama.

The uprisings in the Arab Spring, which began in December 2010, lit the flame of change for science in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and not only in the countries that toppled a ruler. Almost all countries in the region now view science as the driving force for development, and most have stepped up their science programmes in the past two years.

These efforts vary: some countries have increased research funding, some have prioritised efforts to increase the capacity of the workforce and others have turned to translating a national science vision into development issues.

SPEED READ

  • Most countries in the region have taken steps such as increasing research funding or developing workforce capacity
  • Some countries have embarked on new S&T strategies as well as boosting funding relative to GDP
  • Conflict, brain drain, lack of policy and low funding remain major obstacles to progress

Although several countries still face major political instability, governments now understand that high unemployment is one of the main reasons for the uprisings, and that scientific research could pave the way towards socio-economic development.

Seeds of scientific change

According to a UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) report on the state of science around the world, published in 2010, spending on scientific research from 2005 to 2010 was about 0.3 per cent of GDP in most Arab countries (with the exceptions of Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco, whose spending rates were about 2.8,1.25 and 0.7 per cent respectively). [1]

But the wind of change has boosted the funds allocated to research. In Egypt the national budget for scientific research has risen from 0.23 of GDP before the uprising to one per cent in 2012. In Morocco and Algeria the science budgets hit one per cent of GDP, up from 0.7 and 0.3 per cent respectively in 2010.  

While increased funding counts as progress, better strategies for directing research are more advanced steps towards supporting science. In Tunisia, where the scientific research budget decreased after the uprising, the government is dedicating US$16.5 million to a project aimed at reforming its science and technology (S&T) system.

At its launch, Abdelaziz Rassaa, Tunisia's minister for industry and technology, said the project is "an excellent opportunity to boost the national research and innovation system in Tunisia, which needs to be efficient to successfully carry out any economic development strategy".

And in October this year, Iraq unveiled an ambitious strategy to rebuild its science infrastructure, while earlier this year (August) Algeria embarked on a strategy to enhance its human resources for research. Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, are commercialising research results to bridge the gap between science and socio-economic development.

Countries in conflict

But not all countries are making progress. In Libya and Yemen, where violence has toppled their rulers, fragile governments are struggling to consolidate their hold on power, so there is little change to the science budget, which remains at about 0.3 per cent of GDP in both nations.

Yet both countries are working on partnerships with international organisations to enhance their research capabilities.For example,Libya is receiving support from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

But ongoing armed conflict in Syria has seen the science budget, which was only 0.1 per cent of GDP, cut to about 0.04 per cent — in favour of military expenditure.

And in Sudan the government has not been able to reach the target — set by the country's parliament two years ago — of allocating one per cent of GDP to research by 2013, as there is an increasing burden of maintaining security, and South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan last year, now has some of its oil revenues.

Recognition regained

But what the Arab Spring has done is increase the political will to support science. Like throwing a stone in stagnant water, it is helping science communities to regain their recognition as an important contributor to their countries' development, and is highlighting their role to the public.

Ashraf Shaalan, president of the National Research Centre (NRC), the largest research centre in Egypt, tells SciDev.Net that the surge of national fervour for science after the uprising "had motivated Egypt's scientists".

But there is a long way to go. Although some countries have raised the research budget, it is still only about half of that of developed counties (on average about 2.5 per cent of GDP). Such funding is not enough to dramatically change the research produced in Arab countries or the commercialisation of results.  

The shortage of qualified research personnel is another challenge that needs to be tackled in the region. As UNESCO's science report notes, the low quality of science education is "failing to produce qualified scientists capable of tackling pressing national issues". [2] And an extensive brain drain means that many countries are losing qualified staff.

Partnerships with expat scientists can go some way towards reversing the brain drain. But Nabeel Al-Salem, director of the Arab Expatriate Scientists Network, says that "governments should support our efforts by [providing] an encouraging research environment" to retain talent and build on the potential of the Arab Spring.

Unlocking the potential

This makes policies that back S&T the most important step that Arab countries can take to support their research environment.

Mohamed Eid, director of the technology management and commercialisation office at Egypt's Agriculture Research Center, says that research knowledge will remain "captured in a 'paper' and locked there forever, with no impact on society or the economy until the laws that regulate science, technology and innovation are changed".

But boosting science to achieve socio-economic development in MENA countries goes beyond S&T infrastructure — it requires cultural, social and economic support for the outputs from scientific research.

Greater political will is a considerable step towards building scientific capacity that might produce development benefits in the region. Governments now need to follow up on commitments to fund high-quality education and a supportive research environment.

Bothina Osama

Regional coordinator for the Middle East & North Africa, SciDev.Net

References

[1, 2] UNESCO Science Report 2010