» New STI Agenda reflects aspiration for change in Islamic world
04.12.2017 - Natural Sciences Sector

New STI Agenda reflects aspiration for change in Islamic world

© Istanbul Technical University Solar Car Team, The university’s experimental solar-powered car Ariba VI on a test drive in 2013.

On 10-11 September this year, the city of Astana, in northern Kazakhstan, hosted the first Summit on Science and Technology in the history of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Representatives of all 57 member states, including several heads of state and government, were there to adopt the organization’s first action plan oriented solely towards science, technology and innovation (STI), the OIC STI Agenda 2026. Moneef Zou’bi, who is Director General of the Islamic Academy of Sciences and co-author of the chapter on the Arab States in the UNESCO Science Report (2015), delivered a keynote speech to the summit. In this blogpost, he explains why this Agenda reflects a long-overdue aspiration for change in the Islamic world.

From the outset, the OIC STI Agenda 2026 strikes a refreshing tone. ‘Science is disruptive and flourishes in an environment of irreverence’, states the preamble.

Of the twelve priorities highlighted by the Agenda, nurturing the thinking mind by building a culture of science and innovation comes first. The Agenda observes that, ‘notwithstanding some important gains in the past decade, a true scientific culture is conspicuous by its absence. There should be no fears about the disruptive nature of knowledge and science, as this has been part of our heritage and traditions for centuries’… ‘Catch them young’, the Agenda urges, ‘so that critical thinking, integrity, curiosity, and creativity can flourish in the school systems’.

The reference to the golden era of Islamic science is not fortuitous. The Agenda argues that the marginal role science plays today in the Islamic world is a result of the loss of three key features that enabled Islam to enrich humanity’s accumulated reservoir of knowledge for 1000 years (circa 6th-16th centuries in the Gregorian calendar). The first of these three features is the recognition that science cannot emerge without a scientific culture which appreciates precision, learning and inquiry, encourages curiosity and criticism and interacts with the rest of the world to exchange ideas and share information.

The second feature is the recognition that science needs patronage and political support to flourish. During the golden age of Islamic science, the Umayyad and Abbāsid periods, science blossomed thanks to rulers’ direct and indirect political patronage. At the OIC Summit in Astana last September, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed establishing a forum similar to the G20, in order to utilize such a grouping to develop science and economies in the Islamic world.

The third feature is the recognition that science needs openness and diversity to prosper. Interdisciplinarity was the norm for Islamic science of the classical period, with no subject being out of bounds. Critical thought was supported and promoted by philosophy and debate was encouraged.

The Agenda embraces all three features. It encourages critical thought and creativity and calls upon governments to invest in every sphere of science: education, basic science, big science, etc.. It also encourages member states to establish science and technology funds to nurture joint bilateral and multilateral projects.

Targets for greater investment in research

The Agenda fixes a number of targets for investment. For instance, the fifth priority concerning improving the quality of higher education and research invites member states to ‘consider doubling the annual expenditure by 2025 on scientific infrastructure and research and development (R&D) in those countries which spend less than 0.3% of GDP, and aim for a target of 2.0% in countries which are at a relatively advanced level, in accordance with the relevant national laws in each member state’.

Currently, the two OIC countries with the greatest research intensity are Malaysia (1.30% of GDP in 2015) and Turkey (1.01% in 2014). When you consider that both countries have doubled their research intensity since 2004, the 2% target for 2026 seems within reach. Malaysia is even planning to reach this target by 2020. Turkey has even greater ambitions, with the government’s Strategic Vision 2023 document advancing a 3% target for the year the Republic celebrates its centenary in 2023. The world average in 2013 was 1.70% of GDP.

The great majority of Islamic countries spend much less of their GDP on R&D, according to the UNESCO Science Report. Burkina Faso, Oman, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all hovered at the 0.2% mark for the past decade and spending levels have actually dropped in Iran and Pakistan to about 0.3% of GDP. Qatar devotes about 0.5% of GDP to research and Kuwait 0.3%. It is hard for oil-rent economies to have a strong research intensity, owing to their high GDP. This said, Saudi Arabia actually now spends a respectable 0.87% of GDP on R&D, according to figures published by the Ministry of Higher Education1 in 2013.

The situation can evolve rapidly with sufficient political backing. Egypt raised its research intensity from 0.27% to 0.72% of GDP between 2004 and 2015 and even inscribed the 1% target in the Egyptian Constitution of 2014. The United Arab Emirates published data for the first time in 2011 and, by 2015, had – jointly with Saudi Arabia – the greatest research intensity of any Arab country: 0.87% of GDP.

The United Arab Emirates has achieved a similar feat when it comes to researchers. When it published related data for the first time in 2015, it immediately took the lead for the number of researchers per million inhabitants (2 003 in full-time equivalents), ahead of the traditional champion for this indicator in the Arab world, Tunisia (1 787). Among Muslim countries as a whole, only Malaysia had a higher ratio (2 261). The world average was 1 083 per million.

Data are unavailable for about one-quarter of Muslim countries but, according to the UNESCO Science Report, a growing number are developing national STI observatories to ensure better data collection and analysis in order to inform policy-making. Examples are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Tunisia. For its part, the African Union established an African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation in Equatorial Guinea in 2011 which publishes pan-African R&D data in the African Innovation Outlook every three years. As of 2010, Mali and Senegal devoted 0.58% and 0.54% of GDP to R&D, respectively.

Time is of the essence

It will be imperative to capture the moment. Many politicians in OIC countries are under pressure from their populations to succeed in terms of achieving strong national economic growth, cutting unemployment and raising living standards.

The economic fallout from the current insecurity in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen will ultimately be felt by all Arab countries, slowing the influx of foreign direct investment and hurting real estate markets. This will cause a slowdown in economic growth and push up unemployment in the region. Both Arab states reliant on exporting goods and services to the USA and European Union and those that normally receive aid from these quarters may be affected.

In parallel, OIC countries are conscious that, if they do not manage to adapt their workforces to the new knowledge economy, they will face growing unemployment. After relocating much of their production to the developing world in the 1980s, industrial countries are now investing in advanced manufacturing to revitalize their domestic manufacturing sector. In what has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technological fields such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, informatics and cognitive sciences are converging to blur the boundaries between the virtual world and reality, services and industry. Artificial intelligence is transforming society at a breakneck pace, changing the face of fields as disparate as medicine, manufacturing and cybersecurity. On the factory floor, robots and other cyber-physical systems are being designed to monitor production and make independent decisions.

This revolution is producing technological and organizational changes in manufacturing that are already reducing demand for unskilled labour in both developed and developing countries. It is no wonder that the OIC STI Agenda 2026 lays such heavy emphasis on high technology. It states, for instance, that ‘computational chemistry and computational biology now offer the possibility of manipulating atoms and molecules to create totally new entities, systems, membranes, materials and also fuel cells, which are critical for energy storage’.

A reinvigorated organization

The OIC is experiencing something of a revival that is particularly noticeable in the area of STI. This revival began in June 2011, when another summit in Astana decided to rename the Organisation of the Islamic Conference the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to signal the start of a new era and emphasize the cooperation aspect of the organization’s mandate, particularly with regard to other international bodies and United Nations agencies.

The OIC was founded in 1969 as a political organization grouping Muslim-majority countries. In 1981, the heads of state of the OIC decided to establish a number of specialized bodies to enhance co-operation between member states in a number of areas, including science and technology. This task was entrusted to the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Co-operation (COMSTECH), based in Islamabad (Pakistan). The Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) soon followed and was launched in Amman (Jordan) in 1986. Since the 1980s, a lot of effort has been expended by individual OIC countries and offshoot organizations to develop science and technology in member states but success stories have been few and far between.

The OIC Summit in Malaysia in 2003 adopted a yardstick for measuring progress in science and technology in member states, Vision 1441. The year 1441 in the Islamic Hijri Calendar corresponds to 2020 in the Gregorian calendar. Vision 1441 contained both collective and individual targets. Collectively, OIC countries were to account for at least 14% of the world's scientific output by the year 1441, through greater investment in science and technology, including research and development (R&D). Individually, OIC countries were to develop a competent workforce of at least 1441 researchers, scientists and engineers per million inhabitants and to devote at least 1.4% of GDP to R&D by the year 1441.

These three targets are, of course, extrapolated from the 1441 figure. This approach was chosen to ensure that people, especially top decision-makers, could relate to these targets. The choice of indicators is fortunate, particularly as the latter two have been chosen by the United Nations as the yardsticks for measuring progress worldwide towards Sustainable Development Goal 9.5, which encourages all countries to ‘enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors … including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending’.

When Prof. Ekmeleldin Ihsanoglu took the helm in 2005 as Secretary-General of the OIC, he encouraged member states to include a major component on STI in their Ten-Year Plan of Action to 2015. Owing to a lack of financial resources, interest among decision-makers in implementing the Plan of Action gradually dwindled, at least in the field of science and technology. In the higher education sector, however, a growing number of universities joined the ranks of the world’s top universities, including several from Malaysia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

The number of scientific publications catalogued in international journals also climbed steeply in some countries between 2005 and 2014 (Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Turkey, etc.). This was partly a result of the growing number of researchers and partly thanks to pro-active policies designed to attract foreign experts to OIC campuses or, indeed, persuade highly cited international researchers to adopt an OIC-based university for their second affiliation. Despite these positive trends, OIC countries generally still lag behind other fast-developing nations.

The OIC’s STI Agenda 2026 was drafted by COMSTECH and discussed at a number of meetings in Pakistan, as well as at the OIC Secretariat in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia). It is an ambitious document that is perhaps less utilitarian than it ought to be. It places great emphasis on mechanisms for building collective competence in a wide array of areas ranging from water, food and agriculture to energy, the basic and applied sciences, along with large multinational projects, in addition to strengthening international linkages with the best in the world. Recommendations and targets in this document are aspirational rather than prescriptive, with each government setting its own list of national targets to reflect its particular circumstances and ambitions.

The OIC STI Agenda 2026 will remain a stand-alone silo, unless a core group of countries commit to pursuing its ambitious recommendations and, ‘critically,’ allocate the financial means needed to realize its exciting ideas.

1 Ministry of Higher Education (2013) Actual Expenditure on Scientific Research and Development in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the fiscal year 1434/1435 H (in Arabic). Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Ministry of Higher Education, Secretariat for Planning and Information, General Directorate for Planning.

Source: Moneef Zou’bi and Susan Schneegans, with excerpts from the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015). See in particular the chapters on the Arab States, Malaysia, West Africa, Central and East Africa, Central Asia, the countries around the Black Sea basin and the Caricom countries (for Suriname and Guyana)

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