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Muslim countries should harness their huge diaspora and support collaboration between their expatriate and local scientists, says Munir Nayfeh.

In the last 50 years, huge numbers of intellectuals have migrated from the Muslim world to industrialised countries. Studies estimate the number is almost 500,000 from the Arab world alone, comprising a third of the entire diaspora of professionals from developing countries to the West.

While doctors form about half of this exodus, scientists account for about 15 per cent.

Many of these professionals have been highly successful, accounting for 1-2 per cent of positions at the most prestigious institutions in Europe and the United States, and contributing significantly to the development of science and technology in the West.

Much talk, little action

However, the exodus drains Muslim countries of talent and transfers huge investments in education to the West, each skilled person representing an educational investment of US$10,000-20,000.

The 57 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have failed to stop the brain drain by tackling its root causes. Furthermore, they have wasted talent and ideas by failing to transform the brain drain into a brain gain for their economies.

It has been claimed that Western immigration laws are designed to steal brains to keep their rate of economic growth in high gear. In this, they have succeeded, with attractive working conditions on offer — ample resources, an intellectually stimulating environment, recognition and reward. But "push factors" in countries of origin have also played a part, including a lack of research facilities and of academic freedom, and persecution.

The OIC has failed to slow, let alone stem, the bleeding. There is much talk about tapping into the diaspora, but little action. Research and development (R&D) allocations in Muslim countries remain insignificant, at about 0.2 per cent of GNP on average, compared with three per cent in industrialised countries.

I doubt that the push-pull forces can be reversed without major political and economic integration of OIC resources, along with a massive overhaul of higher education in Muslim countries to focus on R&D.

In the absence of such a shift, the question is whether the OIC is willing to put together coherent, sustainable programmes in individual countries to tap into the diaspora. At the moment, one sees only short-term, scattered attempts, with little long-range planning or vision.

Acute mismatches

The OIC has not been a champion of exchange programmes, or even shown willingness to fund them, perhaps for fear of inadvertently encouraging further emigration, or for religious and cultural reasons. Differences in the cultures of science and societies or discriminatory practices are potentially disruptive to exchanges, collaborations and international funding.

Acute mismatches in training, resources and reward are also barriers – local professionals in the Arab world become hostile and defensive, and expatriates highly critical. It was this that prompted the Network of Arab Scientists and Technologists Abroad (ASTA), which I helped found, to discuss what could be done to alleviate sensitivities on both sides.

ASTA, one of several diaspora organisations set up in the absence of effective OIC action, was inaugurated in 1992 at a congress in Amman, Jordan, that brought together members of the diaspora from Canada, Europe and the United States and scientists and officials from across the Arab world.

ASTA has received funds from the Association of Arab Universities to identify and produce an electronic directory of its membership. This has proved a formidable task, as the diaspora is scattered and on the move, with members under intense pressure to succeed in new lands and cultures, and with huge variations in their sense of belonging as well as fears of persecution.

The Arab world, however, has failed to build on the ASTA initiative and most funding continues to be derived from local institutions on a project-by-project basis, largely based on personal connections, as there are no clear and open mechanisms for receiving and processing proposals.

This deficiency has been compounded by the atmosphere created after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, with the diaspora shying away from initiating or participating in associations or activities that might be misunderstood.

The chilling effects of 9/11 on funding have further exacerbated the situation. Funding on both sides has been cut or redirected to other priorities, with many strings attached. Because of the post-9/11 atmosphere of uncertainty and difficulties in travel and funding, ASTA adopts a cautious wait-and-see approach.

Attitude change

But there is still plenty that could be done. The OIC could, for example, help create a network and directory of Muslim scientists and technologists abroad, along with a foundation that supports collaboration between the diaspora and their counterparts in OIC countries.

This small step could boost R&D in OIC countries. Collaboration could produce a wealth of intellectual property shared by both sides that is capable of catalysing and leveraging additional funding and commercialisation, resulting in true transfers of know-how and technology.

Areas of potential benefit from collaboration include low-cost advanced devices based on nanotechnology in the field of advanced materials, public health, water collection and purification, and biofuels.

But such activities will not bear fruit unless the OIC agrees to look for ways of harnessing the diaspora, and starts to change attitudes in its member states towards exchanges and collaborative projects.

The process has begun: proposals have recently been discussed by representatives of the diaspora in the United States of Algerian, Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Indian, Iranian, Jordanian, Lebanese and Pakistani origin. OIC officers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, have been briefed and proposals are under preparation.

It remains to be seen whether this endeavour will spark sustainable institutionalised collaborations or remain as another isolated effort.

Munir Nayfeh is professor of physics at the University of Illinois, United States.

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