Science in the Muslim World

Science in the Muslim World

By: Naseem Khan

How Ummah can reclaim its lost glory 

By any index, the Muslim world produces a disproportionately small amount of scientific output, and much of it relatively low in quality. It is an undeniable fact that 1.6 billion Muslims contribute a smaller share to the world’s knowledge. This global community – forming the majority population of 57 countries and spanning virtually every single country of the world – has had only three Nobel laureates in science — Dr Abdus Salam (Pakistan), Ahmed Zewail (Egypt) and Aziz Sancar (Turkey) — in the history of this prestigious prize. The number of universities from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries in the top 500 universities of the world is only a little better than that. In recent years, a number of Muslim-majority countries have made strong efforts, particularly with respect to directing scarce resources for improving science, in general, and universities in particular, to change this status quo of decades, if not centuries, and it is important to see how effective these efforts have been.

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 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) 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 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 percent of global research expenditure, 1.6 percent of patents and 6 percent 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.

That is why, the OIC held its first Science and Technology Summit, in September 2017, in Astana, Republic of Kazakhstan, with heads of state and government ministers from 56 Muslim nations present there.

The summit was designed to tackle the science deficit by focusing on two key areas:

1. Consensus on S&T support

The first focus was to generate a consensus among the present 57 OIC 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 percent, 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 percent 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 may 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.

2. 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 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.

A look at OIC STI AGENDA 2026
Science and Technology for the Ummah

Science and technology will play a critical role in addressing contemporary challenges of development across multiple dimensions including poverty alleviation, health, environmental preservation and ensuring security of food, water and energy — today and in the years to come.

Knowledge and critical thinking, of which science and technology are the most visible symbols, are key drivers of change, not just in terms of economic growth and development, but in all human enterprise in this century; this includes creating and managing the tools for change.

Encouraging advances have no doubt been registered in Member States in the areas of higher education, science, and technology. This is reflected in the tripling of scientific publications and researchers and major investments by several Member States in education and scientific infrastructure. However, the OIC countries generally lag behind other fast-developing nations.

The Document proposes a mechanism for building collective competence in a wide array of themes ranging from water, food and agriculture to energy, the basic and applied sciences, and large multinational projects, in addition to strengthening international linkages with the best in the world.

Recommendations and Targets in this document are defined as aspirational targets, with each government setting its own national targets guided by global level of ambition, but taking into account national circumstances.

This Document has focused on ‘high technology’ within the context of the ongoing global imperatives and the accompanying techno-economic-information revolution. This transition has resulted in a massive realignment and shift in centres of economic activity and relocation of manufacturing, services and design from developed to developing countries, globally and regionally. The key features of this revolution are:

a. The nature of work and workplace is changing, leading to a 24 / 7 society.
b. Technological and organisational changes have reduced the relative demand for unskilled labour in developing countries since the 1980s. The skilled worker may actually be more sought after than the scientist, with the result that SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) in emerging economies are evolving into global players offering complete supply chains.
c. New centres of power are emerging because of urban concentrations and growth of large cities and demographic transitions with completely different dynamics, which have important implications for society.

Fundamental Priorities

Meaningful collaboration among Member States can take place only after good science and education is available in these countries. Priorities are identified which are already being implemented with variable degrees of success in several Member States. These need to be strengthened further by employing modern tools and methodologies.

Priority # 1: Nurture the Thinking Mind: Build a Culture of Science and innovation
Priority # 2: Making People Employable: Education and Skills.
Priority # 3: Safety of Water, Food and the Environment
Priority # 4: Ensure Healthy Lives for all Citizens.
Priority # 5: Improve the Quality of Higher Education and Research.
Priority # 6: The Case for Mathematics and Physics; Biology and Biotechnology; and the Chemical Sciences.
Priority # 7: Managing Big Data with Security in the Digital Economy.
Priority # 8: Managing Energy Requirements
Priority # 9: One Planet: The Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability.
Priority # 10: Enhancing Intra-OIC Cooperation
Priority # 11: Big Science Programs
Priority # 12: Funding, Implementation and Monitoring

Recommendations presented in
The Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation
Final Report by The Royal Society

  •  More OIC countries need to draw up science and technology policies to address national and international challenges and contribute to national socioeconomic development. Science and technology should be supported at the highest level in order to address critical issues such as food, water and energy security, as well as sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development.
  •  International scientific collaboration needs to be strengthened and promoted. The OIC is a diverse group of countries with many shared and common challenges. As many OIC nations’ R&D expenditures are low, pooling these scarce resources to more effectively meet these challenges should be encouraged. Collaboration within the OIC and with the rest of the world will also enhance the quality of scientific research, accelerate access to new markets, and allow the financial costs of research to be shared.
  • More investment in R&D is needed. The OIC as a whole currently underinvests in R&D relative to its population. OIC countries account for nearly a quarter of the world’s population but contribute just 2.4% of the world’s total R&D expenditure.
  • More private sector investment in R&D is required. There is currently a lower level of private sector investment in R&D in the OIC as a whole compared to the rest of the world, and in some OIC countries, it is virtually non-existent.
  • More investment in human capital is needed. The OIC currently, provides only a small proportion of the world’s researchers relative to its population, at just over 10%. Along with increased investment in R&D, every effort should be made by OIC countries to build up institutional and human scientific capacity in order to benefit properly from any such expenditure.
  • Moreover OIC countries need to measure science, technology and innovation indicators. No data exist for over half the OIC countries on such crucial indicators as how much they spend on R&D, or the number of researchers in their countries. The OIC should urgently prioritise the measurement, monitoring and publication of these figures, to enable effective monitoring of national science policies and to measure progress against objectives such as those set out in Vision 1441H, the OIC’s fifteen-year plan for scientific and technological development.
  • Robust intellectual property (IP) regimes should be introduced and/or strengthened in order to protect the creative output of scientists, increase the number of patents filed and granted in the OIC, and strengthen links between research outputs and industry.
  • The OIC member countries should focus on fostering scientific excellence and high-quality research. The OIC’s share of global publications is relatively small, at nearly 6%. Additionally, patenting activity across the OIC is low, with just 1.7% of global patents filed and 1.5% of patents granted. Furthermore, the vast majority of the high-technology exports of the OIC are delivered by Malaysia, with the other OIC countries contributing less than a fifth of the total. Robust peer review systems, merit-based academic career structures, incentives which encourage the commercialisation of research, and research–evaluation programmes should be established and/or supported across the OIC to ensure that further investment leads to research excellence.

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