Is Arab democracy essential for quality Arab science?

KAUST: an example of successful top-down science

There was lively debate, at a special session on the governance of science within parliaments at the World Science Forum yesterday (19 November), on whether democracy is essential for science to flourish in Muslim countries.

Scientists and parliamentarians attending the session, co-organised by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), heard that there was a correlation between the levels of human rights indicators and science, technology and innovation indicators in Muslim countries.

Levels of investment in science are much higher in relatively democratic Malaysia and Turkey, compared with those in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, said Adnan Badran, president of Al-Petra University in Jordan.

But this was challenged by the chair of the session, Mustapha El Tayeb, president of Future University in Sudan, who said that Tunisia, where the Arab democracy movement started, already had, before the revolution, one of the highest investments in science in the region.

Badran replied that statistics without analysis can be misleading, and that in countries such as Tunisia, high investment in science can happen with a top down approach – which prioritises what the government needs and wants to do, not people or the scientists.

“The right political environment is needed to unleash the minds towards the unknown – this is research,” Badran said. He added that research and development need freedom of expression, the ability to talk, speak out, and think freely to fulfil its full potential.

Moneef Zou’bi, director-general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, from Jordan, said the Arab spring was a “failure of politics” and their “top down approach” to policymaking. But he admitted there were exceptions, where top-down initiatives have been successful, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, and Education City in Qatar.

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

 

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