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[TUNIS] Arab scientists expect the region’s science and higher education ministers to approve the creation of a science policy organisation for the Arab world next month at a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of their anticipated backing for a wider science and technology strategy.
The aim of the Supreme Council for Scientific Research and Technological Development and Innovation will be to improve policymaking in science and research among Arab League members. If the council is set up, the league’s 22 member nations will be committed to implementing the new organisation’s recommendations.

The council is part of a wider initiative — called the Arab Strategy for Science and Technology — that is designed to improve cooperation on shared concerns and link research efforts to industrial solutions. It is spearheaded by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO).

“Some research fields are regional by their nature — examples include water, environment, health and space — and this is why the Arab neighbours need to combine their expertise and efforts to work together,” says Mohamed Mrayati, senior advisor on science and technology for sustainable development at the UN, and a member of the committee that wrote the draft document setting out the strategy.
Concerns about the council
Scientists at the first Arab Forum for Scientific Research and Sustainable Development last month (20-22 December) broadly welcomed the plans to set up the council. But they also raised fears that the next Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, which the region’s leaders will attend and which must approve any new planned bodies within the Arab League, was not fully committed to such a council and might not ratify it. The summit is scheduled for January 2015.

“If scientific research is not linked with development ... there can be no expected impact, whatever the budget increase.”

Mahmoud Nasruddin, Centre for Middle-Eastern Strategic Studies

Discussions at the forum reflected scientists’ desire for the council and improved policymaking: instead of asking for more money to fund research, scientists spoke of the need to make better use of existing support.

“It is not a lack of funding and material resources we suffer so much as a lack of policies that serve the scientific research [community] and link it to the private sector,” said Abdalla Alnajjar, chair of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, an NGO that encourages science and technology investment.

In Egypt, for example, the government failed to spend extra funding allotted for scientific research. In 2012, the government allocated one per cent of its GDP to scientific research, up from just 0.23 per cent in 2010, but because of a lack of concrete, applicable strategy, the science ministry was unable to spend all of the budget and returned about a quarter of this money.  

Useless degrees

The key worries that emerged at the forum were the discrepancies between research done at public bodies in Arab countries and the actual needs of both society and industry.

“About 30,000 research papers are now published by Arab research centres each year, with a total of 270,000 research papers since 1993, most of which didn’t have any impact on the development of Arab countries or the wellbeing of their people,” said Moza Al-Rabban, general-director at the Arab Scientific Community Organization, a UK charity that provides a forum for scientists in the region.

Similarly, she added: “We have two million engineers in the Arab world, which increase by 100,000 each year. However, we do not take advantage of what is available and instead resort to foreign companies when implementing any project.”

Mahmoud Nasruddin, head of the Centre for Middle-Eastern Strategic Studies think-tank saw the high unemployment levels in Egypt and Morocco as the main reason for this disconnect between research papers and their social value. This is because research students’ main concern was to get a degree that they hoped would make them more employable rather than producing high-quality research.

“The graduate degree holders who fail to find employment utilise their time by obtaining a master’s degree and PhD, thinking they might be of use to them when they get a job in the future,” he said.

But, Nasruddin said, this undermined the creativity and innovation of both professors and students.

“A professor who works with a large number of students will be unable to effectively follow-up with these students,” he said. “On the other hand, the student cares more about obtaining a certificate than about being creative and doing applicable research.”

“If scientific research is not linked with development through applicable strategies and identified research priorities, there can be no expected impact, whatever the budget increase,” said Nasruddin.

Ineffective conferences

Hasan Silwadi, dean of scientific research at Al-Quds Open University and a member of the Palestinian Council for Scientific Research, criticised the fact that the Arab world spent an estimated US$3 billion each year on conferences in various scientific fields, despite them usually being ineffective and failing to offer clear recommendations on how to improve the situation.

“For the past three decades, I have been attending conferences and listening to the same discussions concerning the need for increased resources and the need to link scientific research with the private sector. However, nothing has been achieved,” he said.

Sultan Abu Orabi, secretary-general of the Association of Arab Universities, said he wanted the Arab world to emulate South Korea, which had made significant advances in scientific research over the past few decades.

“This improvement was based on the private sector realising the importance of scientific research,” Abu Orabi told SciDev.Net, adding that South Korea had reached a point where every US dollar spent on research generated US$199.

Abulgasem El-Badri, head of ALECSO’s science and scientific research department, echoed some of Silwadi’s concerns about linking scientific research with the private sector.

“I constantly hear calls for the private sector to initiate scientific research support,” he said.

He hoped the discussions will lead to effective solutions that can make this link a reality.

“I am hoping [that firms] will reach out to us themselves when they realise the benefits they will gain,” he said. But he warned that this will not happen if scientific research was only used to promote researchers, regardless of its social benefits.

Arab governments’ role

Alnajjar said governments were also key to achieving this private-public collaboration.

If public research centres pay their staff well for private sector work, researchers will be motivated to apply their full creativity and innovation, he told SciDev.Net. It was Arab governments’ responsibility to draw up policies that ensure this happened, he said.

For example, Alnajjar said that Arab governments often put extra taxes on publicly funded research centres that provided services to the private sector — something that can hinder collaboration.

The discussions at the forum have helped to identify challenges, but Hanan Issa, a professor at the Jordan University of Science and Technology, told SciDev.Net that she feared the wishes expressed at the meeting will not be acted upon.

She said: “This can only be achieved through effective strategic planning of scientific research that understands the importance of collaboration with the private sector”. It will also need to deliver “incentives for researchers who provide services to the private sector and a change in the admission process for graduate students so that it becomes more controlled and takes into account society’s needs by setting clear priorities for the research they conduct”.
Monitoring progress
As well as trying to improve policymaking for scientific research, the proposed new supreme council will monitor progress in implementing the Arab science and technology strategy.
“The new strategy’s main targets are transforming knowledge into wealth, by linking scientific research to economic development, and creating a partnership between scientific research and the private sector,” said Mrayati.
He added that the council will help in developing “regional scientific infrastructure and unifying the research effort in the region. For example, lots of Arab countries are doing separate research on the palm weevil disease, which can be done jointly.”
Declan Kirrane, managing director of communications agency ISC Intelligence in Science, said the council will face many challenges if it was approved and so will need a clear vision, management and funding to be successful and sustainable.
“Without that,” he said, “it will become a project rather than an institution with a policy.”
Additional reporting by Rehab Abd Almohsen.