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Muslim-majority countries face a science crisis. Steps in two key areas are being taken to solve it, says Naeem Khan.
It is no secret that Muslim-majority countries have lagged behind much of the world in scientific and technological progress for far too long. On average, they spend less than 0.5 per cent of their GDP (gross domestic product) on research and development, compared with five times that in developed economies.
There has been important progress. The last decade or so has seen major investments by several OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) countries in education and scientific infrastructure.
But this is still far too little.
Three years ago, the OIC, which I help lead, partnered with the Royal Society to conduct the first major analysis of the science deficit facing the Islamic world. The report found that OIC countries account for just 2.4 per cent of global research expenditure, 1.6 per cent of patents and 6 per cent of scientific publications, despite holding nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
The social, economic and security implications of this are staggering. It means that the Muslim world is not investing enough in the core scientific and technological tools to generate solutions for newly emerging threats from climate change, water scarcity and food insecurity. Several studies have also shown a link between the outbreak of conflict and how climate change affects drought and food prices.
“Enhancing the quality and quantity of scientific educational resources available to young people will help to rapidly spread a culture of innovation and inquiry across the Islamic world.”
That is why this week (September 10-11), the OIC held its first Science and Technology Summit, with heads of state and government ministers from 56 Muslim nations.
The summit was designed to tackle the science deficit by focusing on two key areas.
Consensus on S&T support
The first focus was to generate a consensus among the OIC’s 57 member-states on proposals to be adopted that support science and technology. This was done successfully at the summit across a range of areas including energy, research spending, education and health.
Key proposals adopted by member states included doubling the number of global scientific publications and patents coming out of the Islamic world within the next ten years; doubling the number of scientific workers per million people; and increasing, by 10 per cent, the share of high-technology goods and services in the economies and trade activities of member states.
Ensuring this happens, and delivering on these targets, will require financial investment from member states to ensure they are able to develop the required knowledge and expertise.
Policy discussions at the summit also focused on how to improve the lives of citizens in OIC countries. On health, for instance, the OIC urged governments to raise health spending to a minimum of 10 per cent of national budgets. Policy proposals also called for universal access to education for both men and women.
Also adopted were proposals for the creation of high-technology infrastructures so Muslim countries can move into big science programmes. That includes a Center for Space Technologies that may lead to an Inter-Islamic Space Agency. It also includes proposals to connect all 57 OIC member states through a secure, high-speed intra-OIC network, and for individual member states to create national gene banks for the conservation and exchange of plant genetic resources with research centres.
A cultural approach
However, addressing the Islamic world’s science deficit also requires a deeper, more cultural approach — one that promotes the value of informed debate and critical inquiry, essential to building the knowledge-economies of the future. This is the second area of focus.
National policies and investment in science will once again play an important role in achieving this.
Enhancing the quality and quantity of scientific educational resources available to young people will help to rapidly spread a culture of innovation and inquiry across the Islamic world.Proposals discussed and adopted at the summit — to build new technology parks alongside major OIC universities, for example — will also contribute to this by creating links between centres of learning, industry and business.
However, let’s not forget that the Muslim world does not need to create a new culture of scientific enquiry — it always had one. It just needs to revive it. Part of our inspiration for organising the Islamic world’s first collective science and technology summit was Islam’s own ‘golden age’ of science.
Historically, there was no conflict between scientific inquiry, the free and open exploration and expression of ideas, and genuine Islamic teachings. That is precisely why science flourished under past Islamic civilizations, and why fields of science like astronomy, agriculture, medicine, horticulture, oceanography, physics, mathematics and chemistry were revolutionized or pioneered by Muslims.
It is also why it is so fitting that member states adopted the Astana Declaration, which calls on “all Muslim world countries to strengthen the culture of education and science, especially for youth and women as a means of enhancing social and economic modernization and socio-economic progress.”
Rather than seeing science as an alien doctrine that threatens Islamic traditions, the Islamic world must re-orient its perspective by reclaiming its role in science.
Naeem Khan is assistant secretary general of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and former ambassador of Pakistan to Saudi Arabia.