Partnerships that team up high-quality universities in Gulf states with talent in more populous nations can benefit everyone, says Athar Osama.
It is no secret that the Islamic world suffers from centuries of decline in science and technology. Theories of the political and cultural factors behind this are widely debated and well documented.
A rather obvious but often overlooked reason is that currently the centres of capital and human talent in the Islamic world are different and far removed from each other, ethically and culturally as well as geographically.
This is clearly manifested in the recent pattern of scientific investment in the Islamic world, which is largely driven by the petro-dollars in the less populous regions in the Persian Gulf — Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But talent hubs such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan — if population can be considered a crude measure of available talent — struggle with finding the resources to fund science.
Where aspirations meet reality
Coming out of King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one is awestruck by the enormity of the construction project that is soon to be Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University.
The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology's Red Sea campus, which encompasses a city dedicated to science and learning, is further testament to the kingdom's commitment to investing in science and human capital.
But building world-class universities requires world-class human resources to begin with — and that remains a major challenge.
Qatar has spent billions of dollars on Education City to bring the world's leading universities, such as Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon University, to this small emirate with an indigenous population of less than half-a-million people.
But despite aggressive attempts to position itself as the primary knowledge hub of the Middle East, Qatar has had limited success in attracting and retaining talent in numbers worthy of that aspiration.
Another aspirant, Abu Dhabi, has gone a step further by not only attracting universities of the calibre of New York University, INSEAD and the Sorbonne, but also by investing several billion dollars into obtaining the manufacturing capability of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).
Abu Dhabi is also seeking the human capital and infrastructure needed to build a microprocessor fabrication facility.
Ambitious as these plans are, their success hinges on the strength of several links in a chain, the weakest of which is the availability of well-trained, high-quality, native human capital in the region.
A beneficial partnership
Some countries have made efforts to build their talent base — for example, state-funded scholarships for Saudi students to study abroad have risen substantially. But despite these attempts, and for most others, filling these gaps will take years.
Yet an interim solution might be close at hand.
Creating partnerships between centres of talent and capital — in terms of research infrastructure, funds and equipment — across the Islamic world could address the gaps and make winners of both capital-rich and talent-rich countries in the region.
Such partnerships would allow the talent-rich countries to have access to capital to re-energise their research enterprises, while enabling scientists, engineers and technicians from capital-rich countries to receive training and the benefits of camaraderie.
Ideally, these collaborations would inspire a constructive environment of cooperation and competition that would encourage faster learning and better performance. The cultural, ethnic and religious affinity between member countries of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) would be useful in cementing such partnerships.
But this affinity often does not easily translate into action — elegant and simple as it might seem, this idea has proven extremely difficult to implement.
Previous attempts have met with failure. A Pan-Islamic R&D Fund proposed by the OIC in 2003 under the leadership of Mahathir Mohammed, which called on OIC member countries to contribute 0.1% of their GDP, was struck down by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Since then, a US$500-million Technology Fund, approved by the OIC as a part of Science Vision 1441, has failed to materialise for lack of enthusiasm by national governments.
One of the primary reasons for this lack of enthusiasm is an underlying trust deficit between Islamic countries. "OIC member countries don't see themselves as natural partners," says Atta-ur-Rahman, coordinator general of COMSTECH, the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation. Previous partnership attempts have been hamstrung by the inability of either side to see beyond their narrow self-interest.
However, attempts to revive these partnerships are already underway. The New York Academy of Sciences is spearheading an effort to form a science, technology and innovation initiative to create an alliance of institutions that would deploy tools of physical and virtual networking to achieve synergies across the Islamic world.
A true partnership of capital and talent will need to make a conscious effort to distribute the benefits equally. To be sustainable it must build upon strengths, use these to complement the weaknesses of partners, and assume responsibility for creating 'win-win' solutions.
Delivering on this promise will require trust and maturity from both sides. These alliances must be built on an unequivocal understanding that each party brings something valuable to the table, and that neither should be taken for a ride.
Some initial success stories could go a long way towards building that trust. A plan is already in place to fund centres of excellence from institutions that have won the Islamic Development Bank's science prizes over the years. With the right focus and planning, these centres could become initial laboratories for these partnerships.
A pilot project involving a smaller number of countries with similar attitudes towards science and development could get the ball rolling in the right direction.
Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy researcher and consultant, the founder of Muslim-Science.com and a visiting fellow at Boston University's Pardee Centre for Study of Longer Range Future.