Science in Muslim world improved but still dismal

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Copyright: University of Salford Press

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  • Scientists in most Muslim countries have doubled or tripled production
  • Funding for research has risen more slowly and remains dismal
  • The findings will be discussed widely and may inform policy

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[CAIRO] The volume of science publishing from Muslim countries has grown in the past decade, but the overall state of research there remains poor, according to a report by the Task Force on Science at the Universities of the Muslim World.

Most countries studied multiplied their output by a factor of between two and three from 2006 to 2015 compared with the previous decade, says the report published last month (29 October). Qatar and Malaysia published 7.7 and 5.8 times more papers, respectively.

The number of published papers divided by each country’s GDP (gross domestic product) per capita has also been growing, especially in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, but the situation has not improved as much in other countries such as Qatar.

Yet scientists do not cite those papers as often as those published in other nations.

The task force also paints a drearier picture of science funding, which it calls a “source of grave concern”. “Research spending, while having slightly picked up in recent years, is still dismal,” it says.

And, it says, Muslim countries still have a small number of researchers per capita. For example, UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) data shows that Muslim countries have 600 researchers per million people on average, compared with 1,000 in Brazil, 4,000 in Spain and 9,000 in Israel.

Athar Osama, the task force’s project director, says that it was difficult to collect accurate data to produce the report.

“What was particularly surprising was how little we knew about several important aspects of science at our universities,” he tells SciDev.Net. “We need a lot more data at the finer level to be able to make proper prognosis and address issues.”

The task force calls on international bodies such as the Islamic World Academy of Sciences and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to collect and share better data on universities.

Meanwhile, universities should seek to “attract quality faculty”, starting with Muslim academics working abroad. They should provide the faculty with autonomy and offer merit-based competitions for research-funding, the report recommends.

The task force intends to show the way forward for university reform by inviting a small number of leading universities to form a new Network of Excellence of Universities for Science.

But Abulgasem H. El-Badri, director of science at the Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, says the report makes unfair comparisons between universities in Muslim countries and those in developed countries. “The report criticises the situation but does little to direct policymakers towards establishing a National Innovation System which links universities, research centres and the private sector,” he says.

Tyseer Aboulnasr, a former dean of engineering at Ottawa University in Canada who recently returned to Egypt, says the report is helpful in gathering information in one place for policymakers. She says governments should “tie increased funding to universities with meeting” clear national targets for education and research.

The report’s findings and recommendations will now be discussed in universities across the Muslim world. “University leaders, faculty members and even students should, hopefully, come up with their own course of action going forward too,” Osama says.