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The Muslim world need not lag behind in science and technology. Abdalla Alnajjar looks at an initiative that is charting a new approach.

Science, technology and innovation are now viewed alongside natural resources, capital and people as key ingredients for economic development and growth. Many industrialised countries and newly emerging economies — such as China, South Korea, Taiwan and India — have invested heavily in all three and reaped handsome dividends.

Unfortunately, the countries of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world have lagged behind as they continue with their pattern of wholesale import and adoption of science and technology from elsewhere.

Funding for research and development stands at a mere 0.2–0.7 per cent of gross domestic product among Arab states, compared with 2.5–3.5 per cent in the developed world. This low rate is both a cause and an effect of the neglect of science, technology and innovation in Muslim countries. More often than not, governments have simply paid lip service to investing in indigenous research and development. Lofty goals and declarations are rarely followed by action and commitment of resources.

Even when governments have chosen to invest in research and innovation, they have done so with little or no understanding of the inputs and outputs of research. Government investments in high-profile projects are often driven by a desire to achieve a public relations advantage, or to 'buy' quick results — a questionable motivation for investing in research and development.

To make matters worse, plans by Arab governments to set up a pan-Arab organisation to fund scientific research have been hampered by intense rivalry and jealousy.

Different philosophy

Having realised that there was little hope for government initiative and concerted action, a group of over 400 Arab scientists and engineers meeting in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, in April 2000 launched the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF) — an alternative, privately funded but non-profit vehicle for financing scientific research and commercialisation across the Arab world.

From the outset, ASTF has been driven by a fundamentally different philosophy in raising funds for scientific research and innovation. Its view is that support from the private sector, almost totally lacking in the Muslim world, can be developed to replace the gaps in public funding. ASTF has demonstrated an organisational model as proof-of-concept that can be replicated elsewhere.

Our efforts at ASTF have helped identify several key principles and pointers on how a successful private sector funding strategy for scientific research and innovation can be undertaken in the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Key steps to progress

First and foremost, there is pressing need for a radical change in the general attitude towards science and innovation. Large parts of the Muslim world suffer from a misplaced sense of inferiority about their ability to do useful science. The general feeling is that foreigners know better and so should be allowed to do the job as long as they provide work for local people. This attitude condemns people to perpetual dependence.

Also, although research by transnational corporations and other companies is rare in the Arab world, some private philanthropy — for which there is a strong tradition — can be solicited to create a stream of private sector support for scientific research. ASTF has demonstrated this with its ALJ Research Grant Programme, which is funded by a private company, Abdul Latif Jameel Co. Ltd, in Saudi Arabia. The Arab world is awash with other wealthy individuals who increasingly want to give something back to their communities. By exploiting opportunities and options, some of these funds can be leveraged for scientific research.

Concurrent with this emerging support for private funds is a demand for accountability and an assessment of the benefits of research investments. ASTF's approach is that demonstrating the value of privately funded scientific research for society (for example, in terms of new ventures and jobs, papers written and products commercialised) is key to keeping this source of income alive. Communicating the outcomes of investments has encouraged our sponsors to deepen their commitment to the fund.

However, funding scientific research is not enough: such programmes need to embrace the entire 'innovation pipeline' from scientific research to development, through to commercialisation, and finally to profitable businesses and other successful social outcomes. Scientific research also has to be matched with local needs and priorities.

'Can do' confidence

Private sponsors, more than public sector entities, demand demonstrable outcomes and real societal benefits at each step along the innovation pipeline.

Such success stories validate the proof of concept and demonstrate the inherent worth of investments to the wider private sector community, setting the stage to replace negative self-perceptions with a "can do" confidence.

Although funding by the private sector of what is essentially a public good is not the ultimate solution to the problem, it can provide a stimulus to force the public sector into action. By utilising the experiences and insights I outline here, and by merging public and private funds, funding initiatives will eventually be better designed and more successful.

Until governments in the Arab and Muslim world shoulder their responsibility to invest in scientific research, the private sector may be the only hope of jump-starting and sustaining our quest to join the knowledge economy of the twenty-first century.

Abdalla Alnajjar is president of the Arab Science and Technology Fund.

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