An exhibition in Abu Dhabi is celebrating the golden age of Arab discovery and invention. But nowadays the Arab world seriously lags behind the rest of the world in its commitment to scientific research.
Ibn Al Haytham, born in Basra in Iraq about 965, is known as the Father of Modern Optics for his research into the optical systems. The work of another Iraqi, Mohammed Ibn Al Khawarizmi, born about 780, helped to form the basis of mathematical algebra. And Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, made history as a master of medicine.
These scientists, among others, are regarded as some of the most important the world has ever seen, their work featured in the Golden Age of Arab Science exhibition which opened yesterday at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.
But today, the Arab world is often accused of not doing enough to find and nurture its star scientists and the discoveries of tomorrow.
Dr Mohamed Baniyas, vice chancellor of the Emirates College for Advanced Education in Abu Dhabi, says that while the Arab world has the potential to be a scientific leader once again, there are hurdles in the way.
“One of these is changing the expectation that an idea has to be delivered today, the patent tomorrow, and the profit the day after tomorrow,” he says. “That concept is a little bit naive.
“It can take hundreds of years of research before anyone pays attention to it. When we think of space technology, for example, people have been doing work behind the scenes for a very long time. It is not instant.
“We are a small country and we need to develop the manpower, this is so important, but a challenge. If we don’t have the passion it will not happen.”
Dr Baniyas is the former Provost of UAE University and dean of its faculty of medicine and health. In these roles he was responsible for the allocation of research budgets provided by the Government. Limited funding, he says, is another problem.
The Arab Knowledge Report 2009, produced by the United Nations Development Programme in conjunction with the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, says extremely low amounts of money spent by Arab countries on research and development have had a negative impact on Arab innovation performance.
The report also highlights the lack of a “pan-national monitor” that could guarantee the credibility of data and research and the dissemination of science and innovation within it, and says international institutions suffer from a severe shortage of information from the Arab world.
“The obstacles to funding and the lack of incentive-driven work opportunities for researchers are among the reasons for most Arab countries’ weakness in research,” it states. “This is compounded by a dearth of research and the scarcity of support offered by public and private industry.”
There are, however, some positives to be found. The UAE has made a number of huge advances in science and technology in recent years, despite the paucity of state funding.
Students at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, for example, are currently working on more than 300 research projects on topics including solar power, aviation biofuels and carbon capture, and research partnerships have been set up with Boeing, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Siemens, Toyota and Etihad, to name a few.
Of the 336 students of 52 different nationalities, 141 are Emiratis.
Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, the president of the Institute, says the manpower element of a productive R & D system takes much longer to develop than the infrastructure and part of the Institute’s mandate is that staff and students must spend 50 per cent of their time on research.
In terms of funding, the Institute receives about 15 per cent of its total R & D budget from the Government, and the remainder from the private sector. In comparison, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US received 16 per cent of its $681.1 million research expenditure in 2012 from private industry and about 70 per cent from state sources.
“We have not taken the passive position of waiting and seeing what the Government does,” says Dr Moavenzadeh. “We are actually working with the Government to develop research and development infrastructure … the Government cannot and should not stay away from research and development funding on the excuse that the private sector will do the job. The private sector obviously has more flexibility and agility to start doing things that for the Government requires a lot of bureaucracy.”
Dr Moavenzadeh is a founding member of the University Leadership Council, which was set up two years ago to “serve as an advocate to interface with industry and government to bring about a clearer understanding of the goals and mission of research-based universities”.
Worldwide, R & D is not a cheap enterprise. In 2010 the British government said it would spend about £4.6 billion a year on science and research.
Figures from the UAE reveal a far less promising picture. According to estimates from the National Research Foundation, a government body, the country allocates just 0.3 per cent of its gross domestic product for R & D.
The 2008 law under which the NRF was set up defines its mission as “to build and enhance the country’s research capacities, so as to support its economic and social endeavours and to boost all projects and processes in the country which are based on knowledge”.
The foundation’s main function is awarding research grants to individuals, institutions, science programmes and centres. Its Emirati Faculty Research Mobility Award programme specifically targets UAE national researchers to go abroad to take part in high-level projects before returning home to work. The total amount awarded per individual is up to Dh50,000 and winners must return to the country following the research stint.
Salem Al Marri, assistant director general for scientific and technical affairs at the Emirates Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, said he could see another golden age of Arab science, but only if certain conditions were met.
“There are a huge number of Arab scientists working in the US and Europe today so the brains are there. We need to develop the correct structure and funding to keep them in the Arab world and restart another golden age of development.”
The EIAST, set up in 2006, has already launched its first space satellite, DubaiSat-1, which was built in South Korea and launched in Khazakhstan.
The second, DubaiSat-2, is scheduled for launch later this year and EIAST have put a much bigger emphasis on including Emiratis in the project. There is a team of 20 Emirati scientists working in South Korea to develop the second vessel, and the institute hopes to build the third one in the UAE.
“A continuous and sustainable series of satellites will put the UAE on the map in terms of space technology. Achieving it through home-grown talents and local development will cement our position on that map.”
Echoing existing research, Mr Al Marri says improvements could be made in the country’s R & D achievements if there were more private investment in science and technology, and more support for R & D at the university level, particularly in terms in of investment from the private sector.
Dr Jacob Schmutz, head of the department of philosophy and sociology at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, says although Arab countries perform badly in terms of their contribution to international research and science it is possible for them to do better.
“Very few patents and new technologies are developed in the Arab world,” he says. “It will take huge efforts of training and human development to regain a better position.”
But the nature of scientific discovery has changed dramatically since the so-called golden age of Arab science. Research is now focused on inventions to help the majority of people rather than an elite few, and more importantly inventions that are sustainable.
“In the future we will not talk of Arab or western or Chinese science,” says Dr Schmutz, “but only of one global scientific development, since science is not linked to one specific civilisation any more.”