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Science ministers and leading scientists from the Muslim world have pledged to increase the number of science academies in the region.

The pledge came at the end of a three-day meeting last week in Trieste, Italy, attended by 50 participants including a former prime minister of Jordan and ministers from Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Fewer than half of the 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) have an academy of science. There are just six in the Middle East region — one each in Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey and two in Jordan.

Furthermore, OIC countries are among the world’s lowest spenders on science and technology. The Arab states, for example, spend an average of 0.2 per cent of gross national product (GNP) on research and development, compared to 2.3 per cent in countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Participants at the meeting agreed to work to increase the number of academies, with Saudi Arabia the first to announce plans to establish a new science academy.

Mohamed Hassan, executive director of the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), said that independent science academies with a membership based purely on merit should be an integral part of any country’s scientific development. Academies, he said, played three roles: they were an important way of rewarding excellence in science; they were a source of public information on science; and were potentially a source of independent scientific advice to their governments.

A one-day symposium on science, religion and values held during the meeting underlined the significant differences in opinion between those who believe that faith should have little or no influence on the scientific enterprise and those for whom science is a way of validating their religious beliefs.

A middle way was proposed by Hassan and by Thomas Rosswall, executive director of the International Council for Science, who suggested that good scientists should listen to and involve a wide range of stakeholders in their work, which will inevitably include people who hold strong religious beliefs.

Participants were similarly divided over the question of whether open and more democratic societies were important for science to flourish. Samsuddin Tugiman of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia, pointed out that the two Nobel prize winners from Muslim countries — Egypt’s Ahmed Zewail and Pakistan’s Abdus Salam — had both done most of their prize-winning research in the United States and Western Europe.

But Salih Al-Athel, Saudi Arabia’s science minister, said that while democracy and openness were both desirable characteristics for any society, authoritarian Singapore’s record of scientific achievement suggested that they were not essential for scientific excellence.

The meeting ‘Capacity building for science academies in countries with predominantly Muslim communities’ was organised by TWAS and the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues, with sponsorship from the US National Academy of Sciences and the OIC.

Related external links:

Capacity Building for Science Academies in Countries With Predominantly Muslim Communities
InterAcademy Panel on International Issues
Organisation of Islamic Conference
Third World Academy of Sciences 

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