Arab Spring raises hopes of rebirth for Mideast science

The Arab-Muslim world has improved greatly, even if universities are still pretty mediocre," says Algerian astrophysicist.

Scientist 311 (photo credit: Marretao22/Wikimedia Commons)
Scientist 311
(photo credit: Marretao22/Wikimedia Commons)
Egyptian chemist Ahmed Zewail first proposed building a $2 billion science and technology institute in Cairo 12 years ago, just after he won a Nobel Prize. Then-President Hosni Mubarak promptly approved the plan and awarded Zewail the Order of the Nile, Egypt's highest honor. Within months, the cornerstone was laid in a southern Cairo suburb for a "science city" due to open in five years.
But while Zewail, who has taught at Caltech in California since 1976, went on to collect more awards and honorary doctorates abroad, his pet project got mired in a jungle of bureaucracy and corruption.
Israeli, Arab researchers unite over shared ecosystem
His growing popularity in Egypt, where he was touted as a possible presidential candidate after mass protests brought down Mubarak this year, seemed to threaten the officials overseeing the institute, so they blocked it every way they could.
"We didn't get anywhere," Zewail told Reuters back in February.
But with revolution now sweeping the Middle East, Egypt's ruling military council and interim civilian government gave the project the green light in June. Supporters hail the decision as a positive step toward a new, more modern Middle East.
"Some people in the old regime were not happy with the limelight focused on Dr Zewail," said Mohammed Ahmed Ghoneim, a professor of urology at Egypt's University of Mansoura and a member of the board of trustees. But now, he noted with satisfaction, "the decision makers have changed."
The project is a "locomotive that will pull the train of scientific research in this country," he said.
The poor state of science in the Middle East, especially in Arab countries, has been widely documented. Only about 0.2 percent of gross domestic product in the region is spent on scientific research, compared to 1.2 percent worldwide. Hardly any Arab universities make it into lists of the world's 500 top universities.
But Arab scientists say the first steps toward change have been taken.
A recent Thomson Reuters Global Research report showed countries in the Arab Middle East, Turkey and Iran more than doubled their output of scientific research papers between the years 2000 and 2009. The progress admittedly started from a low base, rising from less than 2% of world scientific research output to more than 4% at the end of the decade, but the curve is definitely pointing upwards.
"The Arab-Muslim world has improved greatly, even if the universities are still pretty mediocre by and large," said Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysicist who teaches at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
"The educational system in primary and secondary schools is still lagging behind world standards, but relative to what it was 30-50 years ago, there is clearly a huge improvement."