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  • Sound institutions could quickly boost Muslim science

Muslim countries need good quality institutions to motivate researchers, argues Athar Osama.

Describing scientific productivity in the 57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as abysmal is perhaps an understatement. More than 1.5 billion Muslims living across the Islamic world — about a quarter of the world's population — generate a little over one per cent of the world's scientific literature and have produced only two scientific Nobel Prize winners.

Commentators often attribute this malaise to a host of cultural, religious and historical factors. But this misses an important element: the absence of quality institutions and incentives for science in the Islamic world. To paraphrase a Bill Clinton campaign slogan: It's the economics, stupid.

In the past, science and innovation flourished through the patronage of kings, sultans and noblemen. Today, it is economic and professional incentives that are crucial, and the organisations and institutions that channel them.

The big picture

The overall inadequacy of resources for science and innovation reflects Muslim governments' poor commitment to developing indigenous science and technology. This failure is common to most governments in the developing world.

Colonial rule played a part, too, consciously keeping large parts of the Islamic world as producers, not processors, of raw materials. This created dependency and removed incentives for innovation. Muslim scientists' contribution to their societies' well-being and prosperity was not recognised. There is still no 'social contract' between the scientist-inventor and society, as exists elsewhere.

All these factors eventually translate into less money for research. And because science fails to attract the best and the brightest, the money is not used to maximum advantage.

Loyalty and conformity

On a smaller scale, institutions play a critical role in providing an environment that nurtures scientific talent. When, in an informal survey, I questioned around 60 expatriate Pakistani researchers and doctoral students working around the world, they identified a number of impediments to developing scientific careers in Pakistan, including poor leadership of scientific institutions and lack of equipment and resources, as well as of academic freedom and camaraderie. 

The picture is similar in other parts of the Muslim world, and in the developing world as a whole. Institutions are often run as personal fiefdoms, where loyalty and conformity are the pathway to individual progress and promotion. 

Personal incentives, such as financial security and professional recognition, are also important in motivating scientists. No wonder then that of the 60 or so respondents in my survey, less than four per cent thought the research environment in their home country was capable of making good use of their talents.

More than half said they wanted to do quality research regardless of where the work was performed. The inevitable result is a large-scale migration of talent.

I believe that economic and institutional issues offer a far more powerful explanation of the lacklustre performance of science and technology in Muslim countries than cultural and religious factors alone.

Religion and culture matter, but cannot be the only explanation, because islands of scientific and technological excellence do thrive in the Muslim world (for example, the H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry in Karachi or the Pakistan Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Technology). Nor does religion explain the low scientific productivity, compared with their counterparts in the West, of the many scientists and engineers in the Muslim world who live largely secular everyday lives.

The effects of institutions and incentives manifest themselves in multifarious ways, including personal financial security, motivation, intellectual freedom and research autonomy. All these factors are well-established contributors to productivity and quality of science and innovation.

Good results for little effort

Because people fail to understand this, prescriptions for how to fix Muslim science often call for radical changes in culture, thought processes and religious values — changes that are hard to 'force' externally, and are likely to take decades, even centuries, to take root.

Management specialists have an '80/20 rule' which suggests that 80 per cent of a desired outcome can often be achieved with 20 per cent of the total effort, while the final 20 per cent of the outcome may require the remaining 80 per cent of the effort.

I believe that the relatively small step of setting up quality institutions with appropriate incentive systems could largely solve the problem of low productivity amongst Muslim scientists. This could be achieved relatively quickly — perhaps by expending only 20 per cent of the effort required to change all the other factors.

Socio-cultural changes may ultimately be required to unleash the full potential of Muslim science, but they must not hold up progress on other, more eminently do-able, pieces of the overall puzzle.

Dr. Athar Osama is a public policy analyst specialising in science and innovation policy. He is also the founder of Muslim-Science.com. He is currently conducting an online survey on research environment, perceptions and motivations of local and expatriate scientists and engineers from developing countries. You may take the survey (here) or write to him at athar.osama@gmail.com.

This article is part of a Spotlight on The way ahead for Islamic science.