An Arab Science Spring: Science, technology, and innovation in the Middle East

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Given the growing global economic uncertainty, Middle Eastern countries will need to work to encourage STI and the education sector to mitigate economic risk factors, including population health, food, clean (fresh) water, security energy, and climate change. MENA countries can also learn from the significant socio-economic progress made by countries such as Japan, Brazil, China, Korea and Malaysia, partly due to the development of ETN-related sectors.

But there are definitely brighter days ahead for MENA science. Among the important developments are the multi-billion dollar endowments of many Saudi universities, including one of the richest in the world, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology ($ 20 billion), as well as King Saud University ($ 2.7 billion) and King Abdul Aziz University ($1 billion). ). Unfortunately, these are still the only three institutions in the region that publicly announce the size of their endowments. Indeed, there is a need for more transparency throughout the region, not only in terms of the amount of economic investments in science, research and education, but also, more importantly, in terms of the results of those investments. In fact, a wide range of recent positive MENA initiatives contribute to STI with socio-economic development, often in the area of ​​energy. Examples include the revival of the Zewail City of Science and Technology project in Egypt, Masdar in Abu Dhabi, the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS), and the establishment of the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) to operate. Earth observation satellites — each serving as its own shining star in its own country, many with regional ambitions.

The current link between MENA universities and regional industry is weak and non-existent compared to international best practices. This problem is further exacerbated by consumer-oriented populations and the weak academic research needs of many universities and institutions associated with TNCs. The symbiotic relationship between academia and industry has major implications for a country’s scientific status quo. It can be a powerful tool for developing institutional research capacity, as well as being central pillars of a national strategy that enables the transfer of knowledge and technology from universities to corporations. This, in turn, can help the innovation and competitiveness of companies and the nations in which they are based, and (eventually) boost the entire economic system itself.

To foster a true knowledge economy, MENA nations must focus on fostering specialized higher education programs that provide training in critical scientific skills and improved teaching standards for ETN, which will prepare tomorrow’s graduates for innovative careers in scientific research and technology development. Fortunately, the number of scientific publications has grown tremendously over the past decade in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Two universities in Saudi Arabia are among the top 500 universities in the world. Many other countries in the MENA region have made ambitious plans to reduce their dependence on foreign workers by developing technical and vocational education with equal opportunities across a widening gender gap.

So what is so important about science and technology?

Looking back in history, our world has experienced four industrial revolutions: the first saw the mechanization of production using water/steam power, the second involved mass production/assembly lines, and the third one that enables automation through computers and information technology. Today’s fourth industrial revolution is ushering in the digital age through the convergence of the physical, virtual/digital and biological worlds. While each industrial revolution brought greater and greater progress, they all have one thing in common — they all enabled economic growth by increasing productivity and efficiency, driving inclusion and reducing poverty, quality of life and improving access to education and health care, and making advanced creation. -job skills and raising global income levels. In doing so, repeated advances in science and technology are transforming all aspects of business, society and human life.

The ETN strategy for the MENA region must focus on improving science education in universities, enhancing scientific research capacity, increasing financial support for research and development (R&D), and fostering regional and international scientific and educational cooperation. A network of centers of scientific excellence must be established in MENA countries to promote an interactive approach, excellence and innovation. This network would use selected state-of-the-art institutes of technology and research centers associated with universities in MENA as regional hubs to facilitate collaboration through joint research projects, and to promote advanced training. Collectively, MENA countries must increase their financial support for R&D from the current 0.3% of GDP to 3%, with the private sector contributing 30% to 40%. Creating a pan-MENA fund for the development of science and technology could make this possible, supported by new financial mechanisms such as taxes and customs.

The ITN MENA strategy must focus on national and pan-Arab higher education and research initiatives in 13 priority areas, including: biotechnology, life sciences, nanotechnology, information technology, clean water, food, agricultural and fisheries technology, space, energy , desert sciences. , the environment, and renewable energy. There must also be greater mobility of scientists within the region and cooperation with international STI and higher education organisations.

Perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of our Middle Eastern scientific ancestors is that 165 different stars and star systems are named in Arabic — from the vast as-Saḥābat uş-Şaghirah or “little cloud,” also known today as the Andromeda Galaxy, first cataloged by Al-Sufi in his Book of Fixed Stars, for the giant Bint ul-Jawzā’, better known today as Betelgeuse, is the brightest star in our night sky. MENA’s young minds need only look up at the night sky for constant inspiration from our region’s remarkable contribution to science.

Dr. Mussaad M. Al-Razouki is the Chief Business Development Officer of Kuwait Life Sciences Company in Kuwait City, Kuwait.

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

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