The scientific ripples from the edge of the Arab Spring
- Algeria's research funding has risen to almost one per cent of GDP
- Many scientists in Jordan and Morocco say that extra research funding has done little
- Sudan's austerity plan has hit its already limited research capacity
[KHARTOUM, AMMAN, RABAT, ALGEIRS] The Arab Spring ushered in hope of reforms and greater freedoms across much of the Arab world that would, among other things, improve science and development.
Before the wave of revolutions, there was a perceived lack of support by many decision-makers for science, with governments also exerting undue influence over universities, mainly out of political considerations. Many people saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity for change.
Abdalla Alnajjar, the president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, tells SciDev.Net that "we have seen a real interest in a scientific research renaissance in the Arab Spring countries".
Indeed, early moves in post-revolutionary Egypt held high hopes with, for example, the science budget increasing by more than a third, researchers' salaries rising, and plans for a science and technology city.
But the winds of change that are still blowing through the Middle East and North Africa affected not only the countries in which rulers were toppled, but also left their mark on countries that kept their governments or monarchy yet faced public protests or knock-on effects from their neighbours.
SciDev.Net examines how the Arab Spring has affected science in four such countries: Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan.
Algeria's government was deeply concerned with events in the region, especially in its neighbours Libya and Tunisia, as well as Egypt, and sought to retain the status quo. The country was largely politically unaffected by the Arab Spring, but the protests that broke out in Algiers in May 2011 pushed the government to introduce reforms, including some relating to scientific research.
The policymakers' response to the regional unrest was influenced by earlier events in the nation's history. Algeria has experienced cycles of political instability and violence caused by civil conflict between government forces and Islamist groups, and these have weakened the research sector.
"Political instability in the 1990s and at the start of this millennium had a disastrous effect on scientific research, leading to a brain drain of thousands of researchers," Abdel Malek Rahmani, coordinator of Algeria's National Council for Higher Education Professors, tells SciDev.Net.
A report prepared by the Algerian Economic and Social Council said that 71,500 Algerian researchers went abroad, mainly to Europe, between 1994 and 2006. It described this outflow as "the biggest wave of migration of cadres since Algeria's independence in 1962", adding that most have not returned, despite government efforts to tempt them back.
“The government has been trying to reform scientific research to link it more to the priorities and problems of [local people].”
Rahmani says that this difficult period taught the country's policymakers how to deal with public protests, so their response to demands for change in 2011 was reasonable and maintained political stability.
That stability has helped to deliver positive reforms to scientific research over the past two years, with these being further assisted by a rise in science spending and a shift in government research policy.
"The government has been trying to reform scientific research to link it more to the priorities and problems of [local people]," says Hafid Aourag, director general of scientific research and technological development in the Ministry of Higher Education.
Aourag points out that the administration has increased its scientific research budget from about US$250 million in 2012 to US$340 million in 2013. This amount means it is close to its target of spending one per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) on research and represents a level three times higher than five years ago. Well-equipped research facilities have been built, the standard of living of scientists and researchers has risen, and more-qualified researchers have been brought in from other countries.
Nevertheless, says Rahmani, bottlenecks remain.
"There is a shortage of highly qualified scientists and limited academic freedom, not only in political terms, but in terms of bureaucratic hurdles in the universities. In addition, there is a lack of demand from the private sector for Algeria's scientific outputs and distrust of its efficiency. All these are obstacles that need to be tackled," says Rahmani.
A wave of protests began in Morocco on 20 February 2011 and continued until June that year before restarting in May 2012. Such protests accelerated the pace of reform in Morocco, where various programmes launched by the government in 2011 aimed to link scientific research to industry in the hope that this would help curb the unemployment that was a key driver behind the demonstrations.
"In the last two years, the government has been able to continue implementing Morocco's strategy of supporting innovation and boosting scientific research as a key to generating employment," Abdelkader Amara, minister of industry, trade and new technologies, tells SciDev.Net.
He says that the government launched three innovation and research funds in 2011 with a combined budget of about US$65 million. The funds are intended to help about 800 innovative research projects until 2014.
“The government has been implementing innovation and boosting scientific research as a key to generating employment”
But some scientists think these efforts did little to boost science.
Mohammed Derouiche, general secretary of the country's National Union of Higher Education, argues that the sector still suffers from the lack of a comprehensive strategy for boosting science and innovation. As a result, the financial and human effort put into projects to support research is not matched by results.
Aziz Bensalah, the director of public engagement in Morocco's National Centre for Scientific and Technical Research, tells SciDev.Net that "scientific research was not in a good situation before the Arab Spring nor after it because, despite the government's programmes, it still needs reforms to ensure that good use is made of the available human resources".
Bensalah argues that an organisation is needed to coordinate the different bodies working on scientific research in the country, and the private sector must play its part in financing scientific research – especially projects regarded as priorities for Moroccan development.
Jordan has faced recurrent protests over the past two years as part of the Arab Spring, resulting in its King appointing four different prime ministers since February 2011. Protesters demanded political and economic reforms, especially over rising energy costs.
The kingdom, which imports 96 per cent of its energy at a cost of a fifth of its GDP, was directly affected by the uprising in Egypt, which is one of its main energy suppliers. Egyptian natural gas supplies to Jordan were cut many times during 2011.
One of the government's resulting strategies was to allocate more funds for research in an effort to solve the energy problem, but many scientists still think that it has done too little to boost science.
“Scientific research is the main solution for the rising cost of energy.”
"Scientific research is the main solution for the rising cost of energy that sparked protests by Jordanians in the last two years," says Abdallah Al-Zoubi, director general of Jordan's Scientific Research Support Fund, an administratively independent government institute. "That is why the government allocated about €30 million (more than US$39 million) to the fund for 2012 to 2016, with the aim of supporting research centres and institutions in Jordan."
Al-Zoubi says that the fund's first priority is energy projects, especially those related to renewables.
However, Moneef R. Zou'bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, argues that the wind of change that blew the Arab Spring did not really change much in scientific research in Jordan. He points out that the 0.34 per cent of GDP allocated for scientific research is still far below the level that industrialised countries invest in this.
Issa E. Batarseh, president of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology, tells SciDev.Net: "I don't see any major change in the way we approach research and development activities in Jordan's higher education institutions and universities. The challenges of R&D issues are huge and need highly focused strategic decisions by the government to provide the leadership and resources to make it happen."
The Arab Spring reached Sudan in January 2011, while a further complication was South Sudan's secession in July that year. A larger wave of protest started in June 2012 after the government passed an austerity plan that also hit the country's already poor scientific research capabilities.
Sudanese researchers point out that scientific research barely exists in their country.
"Although there is political will to boost scientific research — as was evidenced two years ago when science and technology was given a separate ministry with the aim of giving a focus to problems in the sector and developing research outputs — because of the bad economic and security conditions Sudan faced in 2012, the ministry was merged with the communication ministry," El-Tayeb Idris, director of the Sudan Academy of Sciences, tells SciDev.Net.
“Sudan's private sector carries out no scientific research.”
Under the austerity budget, he says, "we have to accept the very low allocation for scientific research, which accounts for about 0.04 per cent of GDP".
Idris points out that scientific research is included in the new five-year plan up to 2017 as a key solution for some of the country's economic and social problems.
Mirghani Ibnoaf, professor of sciences at Khartoum University, describes scientific research in Sudan as "a sluggish sector, the condition of which worsened under the austerity budget".
But he also says that the government's lack of attention to the sector is because many researchers are "idle" and fail to put "appropriate effort into working on research that is useful to Sudanese society".
Similarly, Ibnoaf tells SciDev.Net that Sudanese researchers have failed to press for a strategy linking scientific research to society's needs.
And Sudan's private sector carries out no scientific research, he adds.