Ambitious plans for a 'desert development corridor' in Egypt could provide a concrete example of the social value of science, says Athar Osama.
Last month, the journal Science published a supplement called 'Revolutionizing Egypt's Science' that hailed the prospects for Egyptian science after the 25 January revolution. Its optimism reflected a spate of initiatives and increased science budgets announced by the new government to demonstrate its commitment to science and innovation.
But some have rightly warned against reading too much into recent announcements, saying there are still significant obstacles to lifting the scientific profession from its low point during the pre-revolution regime to a place where it can play a constructive role in socio-economic development.
Egypt's leaders and scientists, like those in much of the rest of the Islamic world, need to work with both intellectuals and ordinary citizens to achieve a vast cultural change before science can really be expected to deliver the goods. Progress for Egyptian science must come by putting people first, rather than high-profile 'bricks and mortar' mega-projects.
Highway to prosperity
One example of how this might be achieved is a proposal for a massive 'desert development corridor', which is the brainchild of Boston University geologist Farouk El-Baz, who has been using satellite imagery to study Egypt's deserts for decades.
Initially conceived in the early 1980s, when El-Baz served as president Anwar Sadat's science advisor, the project was shelved for two decades after Sadat's death. But interest was reignited in the mid-2000s and has escalated since.
This US$24–billion initiative — even larger than the US$2-billion 'science city' proposed by Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail — would use scientific knowledge of satellite imagery, desert geology and hydrology to provide socio-economic benefits to society.
It seeks to build a major superhighway to the west of the Nile from the country's north to the south, with arteries connecting it with towns in the east and west. The corridor will also provide a freshwater pipeline and an electricity line to support these areas during the development and afterwards.
According to El-Baz, the corridor "would bring much-needed relief to overpopulated Egyptian cities and reduce urban encroachment of agricultural land, enhance the habitable land mass, improve continental trade linkages from the Mediterranean in the north all the way to South Africa, and create, literally, a 'breathing space' for Egyptian society that is so critical to creativity".
A key aspect of the idea is the creation of a special funding vehicle — essentially, a bond open to the public — that would allow Egyptian people to invest in the initiative. They would become its 'owners' and so, according to El-Baz, control their own destiny.
A social contract
The initiative is most unusual in the Islamic world in making an explicit link between a scientist's idea and its direct beneficiaries.
It could also address a serious weakness in the science policy discourse within the Islamic world.
One of the most fundamental reasons for the lack of science-based development in the Islamic world is the absence of a 'social contract' between scientists and citizens. Under a social contract, citizens pay their taxes to fund scientists in the expectation that they will benefit from the knowledge created and the subsequent socio-economic improvement.
The absence of any such social contract in Islamic countries is exacerbated by the fact that science is not seen as having contributed much towards socio-economic development.
With some notable exceptions — such as agricultural research, development and extension in Egypt and Pakistan during the 1960s and 1970s — much of the science carried out in laboratories across the Islamic world is limited in its scope for commercial application. It is often theoretical, rather than practical, and is sometimes not of sufficient quality to solve real-life problems.
Making science relevant
Furthermore, the entrepreneurial infrastructure needed to commercialise the benefits of scientific research is extremely underdeveloped in the Islamic world. In the absence of strong private sector participation, innovation often ends up as an unwanted baby, with nobody prepared to pay the bills or take responsibility for it.
The crucial link between science and its impact is therefore broken and society suffers as a result. This limits the possibilities, popular enthusiasm and political support for science in the Islamic world.
Two things must happen if science is to win the popular and political support it needs to develop some form of a social contract — a task for which the scientific community must share responsibility.
First, scientists and science policymakers must make science more relevant to their respective societies. Scientists have an important role to play in this; they must come down from their ivory towers and use science to address the urgent needs of their societies.
Without a visible link between investment in science and its returns to the society that funds it, a social contract will be hard to achieve, and science will continue to be seen as a burdensome tax on the present, rather than an investment in the future.
Role of communication
Second, scientists and science policymakers must communicate science more effectively. This is a global challenge but is particularly acute in the Islamic world.
El-Baz learned this the hard way when he started exploring the Egyptian deserts. "We had to tell desert nomads what we were doing, and initially it was hard to do, but we gradually became better at it," he says.
Science journalists can play an important role here. But the much-needed enthusiasm for using science for public benefit must come from scientists themselves.
The growing grass-roots political support for Egypt's Desert Development Corridor is the kind of movement that can help establish a genuine social contract for science. In doing so, it will help put the Islamic world on course towards embracing a culture of science-based development.
Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy researcher and consultant, and director of Middle East and Asia for a technology policy consulting firm. He is the founder of Muslim-Science.com.