x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Science matters for future generations

While there are plenty of jobs in science and technology across the Arab world, there are too few graduates to fill them. Stimulating interest is the answer.

Children try out an experiment with wind turbines at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival held in the capital last month. Ravindranath K / The National
Children try out an experiment with wind turbines at the Abu Dhabi Science Festival held in the capital last month. Ravindranath K / The National

Last month's Abu Dhabi Science Festival was a nine-day event aimed at stimulatingthe curiosity of Emirati youth about science, technology and inventions.

The festival, organised by the Technology Development Committee in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Education Council, was a promising initiative that needs to be replicated across the Arab world to motivate interest in science and technology (S&T). According to a recent study conducted at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, more exposure to S&T subjects at school would positively influence students and increase the likelihood that they would consider applying for S&T and engineering degrees.

Disappointingly, however, the study highlighted a significant misalignment between labour market demand and the specialisation of university students in the region. There are plenty of jobs in the S&T and engineering fields, but there are too many graduates from the humanities and social sciences.

The situation is worse among female Arabs, most of whom prefer to study non-technical subjects with the hope of securing relatively permanent teaching or office jobs in the public sector. Given the conservative cultural and social characteristics of this part of the world, it is no surprise that women are strongly under-represented in S&T studies.

Over recent years, the number of S&T students in general has been increasing in absolute terms (because of an increasing young population), but decreasing in relative terms. International experience tells us these indicators could seriously hamper the region's ambitious plans to nurture the human resources needed to develop a knowledge-based economy.

Singapore is often thought of as a successful case study when it comes to developing home-grown S&T-related capabilities. Although the pioneering efforts of the Singaporean government go back to 1970, they would not have succeeded without continuously updating and reviewing ambitious plans that focused on getting the best out of their workforce while taking into account both their existing capabilities and potential for international competitiveness.

South Korea is also another case worth considering. Serious attempts to elevate S&T standards and enhance research capabilities, as well as purposefully steering students towards scientific disciplines, have made Korea a scientifically advanced nation with a resilient work ethic and a remarkably high affinity for S&T.

While many developing countries aspire to the success achieved by some leading Asian countries, something often overlooked is that innovation and value creation within our societies are not necessarily processes driven by S&T. The fact that value could be created within non-technical fields (such as service innovations and innovation in the public sector) does not underplay the importance of engineering and technical education. But it should be used as an argument to highlight the need for developing soft skills of business and entrepreneurship among our future engineers and scientists.

Looking at the education system in the Arab world, there is no doubt that it needs to be overhauled to improve the quality of education, develop a culture of research and instil an entrepreneurial spirit in such a fast-growing young population.

Despite most of the Muslim and Arabic scientists whom we praise today and feel proud of once being labelled "time-wasters" and "magicians" by their contemporary societies, they can now form a source of inspiration for new generations. Such awareness cannot happen only within schools, it should also take place through outreach activities and media channels.

It should be accompanied by a serious effort to transform our spoon-fed style of education to one that stimulates a joy for research and creativity among pupils. We also urgently need to make genuine efforts to stimulate interest in science education through hands-on engagement of young students with scientific phenomena and employ highly qualified teachers who are equipped with up-to-date knowledge and skills.

Such efforts - within schools and beyond - will not produce results overnight. Raising S&T awareness and enhancing education in general may well take at least a generation to bear fruit.

That is why there is a need for governments to establish permanent science and discovery centres and museums of S&T across the Arab world. However, rather than assuming that raising awareness in S&T is the sole duty of governments, universities should also play a greater role as a part of their responsibility towards community engagement.

Yasser Al Saleh is a senior research fellow at the Insead Innovation and Policy Initiative in Abu Dhabi

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