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Science and innovation in the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are woefully inadequate, but the tide can be turned, says Mohamed H.A. Hassan.

The OIC's inability to embrace science and innovation is readily discernible by a number of statistical measures.

For example, OIC countries have 8,500 scientists, engineers and technicians per million population, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The world average is 40,000 per million. Among rich countries, the figure reaches 140,000.

Similarly, the world average for the production of scientific articles per million inhabitants is 137. The average among OIC countries is 13. Scientists in Italy, a country of 58 million, publish more articles in peer-reviewed international scientific journals than scientists in OIC countries combined, which have a collective population of 1.4 billion.

This picture of science in the Islamic region is even bleaker when it comes to applications of science and technology to economic development — in other words, when it comes to innovation.

As Declan Butler, a science journalist who writes for Nature, observed in an article last year, "OIC countries produce so few patents that they are invisible on a bar chart of comparison with other countries."

And, as Perez Hoodbhoy, professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, noted in a recent article for Physics Today, Pakistan, with more than 165 million people, has produced just eight international patents in the past four decades.

Plugging the gap

How can OIC countries bridge such an alarming science and innovation gap?

It will take sustained commitments on the part of governments to improve national educational systems. To some degree, that is already happening in higher education. Reform, however, has been less prevalent in primary and secondary schools.

Equally important, OIC countries have yet to provide adequate job opportunities for their increasingly well-trained university graduates. And the more conservative OIC countries have yet to take significant steps to address the challenges posed by gender inequality.

It will take an unwavering willingness on the part of wealthy citizens in OIC countries to invest in the region and to avoid placing money, sorely needed for economic development and jobs creation at home, in banks and stock exchanges in Europe and the United States.

It will take policy and regulatory reforms that promote entrepreneurial behaviour, reward success and encourage public-private sector partnerships.

It will take broad measures of reform that spur new ways of thinking and acting, that radically alter conventional patterns of behaviour and that introduce novel practices and methods to deeply conservative nations — measures that create a culture of science and innovation.

Academic roles

An examination of the shape of these reforms and how they might be implemented requires more than a short commentary. Instead, I will briefly focus on a narrow but potentially significant aspect of the challenge: how national, merit-based science academies can help promote science and innovation in the Islamic region.

The limitations of science academies in OIC countries are obvious to all who care to look.

Part of the problem lies in their small size and limited resources. Science academies in OIC countries are small, often woefully underfunded institutions. The OIC's largest science academy, in Uzbekistan, has 155 members. The smallest academy, in Albania, has 27 members. Many academies in OIC countries operate on meagre budgets, some on less than US$50,000 a year.

Another problem lies with the academies themselves, which are institutions largely divorced from their nations' centres of power, blissfully free of the troubles affecting their troubled societies.

But academies have strengths as well.

These institutions contain some of a nation's best minds. Those who belong to academies are often familiar with successful efforts to promote science and science-based development in other regions of the world. Close ties to the international scientific community make them ideal candidates for bringing new ideas and new insights to address the challenges facing their societies.

Academies of science are, in short, capable of serving as agents of science-based innovation.


The challenge is to transform the largely untapped potential of science academies into tangible accomplishments that generate both personal rewards and benefits for society.

We are beginning to see this transformation slowly take hold in some OIC countries. These efforts have been assisted by the InterAcademy Panel (IAP), a global network of science academies headquartered in Trieste, Italy, and by the Network of Academies of Science in the Countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (NASIC), a regional network of science academies affiliated with IAP and headquartered at the Pakistan Academy of Sciences in Islamabad.


Their efforts have paid off in the creation of science academies in OIC countries where they did not exist before. The Sudanese National Academy of Sciences was created in 2005. The inaugural meeting of the Mauritius Academy of Sciences took place in July this year. The Lebanese Academy of Sciences is scheduled to hold its first meeting later this year. The government of Mozambique passed a decree to create a national science academy, also scheduled for launch later this year.

Equally important, we are beginning to see this transformation take hold in the academies themselves. For example, in August, the Malaysian Academy of Sciences organised an international symposium co-sponsored by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and in September it held a training course on science and technology management for researchers from OIC countries.

Whether such efforts will turn into a fully-fledged regional transformation of the relationship between science academies and society remains to be seen.

This much we know: science academies can play a critical role in encouraging not just the pursuit of science but also the pursuit of science-based development. It's all a matter of innovation, not simply within classrooms and laboratories but within society as a whole.

Mohamed H.A. Hassan is executive director of TWAS — The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World — and president of the African Academy of Sciences.

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