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February 23, 2011

Turning on the light of Muslim science

Naser Faruqui

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The political dramas unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries present pivotal opportunities: They improve the prospects for harnessing science and its values to advance sustainable and equitable development, openness and democracy in the Islamic world.

During Europe’s so-called Dark Ages, Islamic scientists led the world in innovation.

In this “golden age” of Muslim science, Muslim scholars made advances that remain cornerstones of our scientific outlook. Al-Khwarizmi developed algebra, for example, and The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (Latinized as Avicenna) became the standard medical text used in Europe for centuries.

Enquiry and debate are the essence of the scientific method – and the foundations of any open society. It’s not surprising that, during this era, respect for science transcended religion, and scholars of all faiths exchanged ideas and advanced learning.

But after the 13th century, Muslim societies fell into a long decline. One feature of that decline was a mistrust of innovation by Muslim leaders. Consequently, today’s Islamic world is characterized by low levels of science, development and openness.

Many predominantly Muslim countries are ruled by authoritarian governments. Half the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are developing countries. And 15 of the 20 countries that spend the least on the research and development needed to escape poverty belong to the OIC.

Recently, though, Muslim leaders have shown signs of increasing respect for science.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for instance, have invested large amounts in research universities, and Turkey increased its R&D spending by 600 per cent in the past decade. Such investments have been paying off: More Muslim women, for example, are now earning advanced science degrees.

Against this backdrop, Canada’s International Development Research Centre and eight partner organizations support Britain’s Royal Society in mapping the changing landscape of science in 15 countries across the OIC. The project, The Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation, also charts the delicate interplay among science, innovation, culture and politics.

As we know, the recent relationship between the Islamic world and the West has been fraught with risk.

Neither party benefits if Muslim countries slide further down the scale of science or development. Regardless of what new leaders may emerge in countries such as Egypt, far greater investment in science, technology and innovation must happen if OIC countries are to prosper.

Furthermore, this investment must be underpinned by greater international collaboration. Otherwise, we may again see the same protests, from citizens whose governments have changed but who find themselves no better off.

Investment in science by developing countries helps alleviate poverty and foster openness – but these improvements take time. Many countries with strong R&D sectors can also be authoritarian. Sometimes, periods of military rule can be more supportive of science than periods of democracy. Science, for all its benefits, is no guarantee of development and democracy.

So how can science be pursued in a way that leads to multidimensional development, including economic gains but also greater transparency, voice and freedom? Naturally, scientific rigour is essential, but three other principles are important.

First, science must be local. The best way to achieve sustainable and equitable development is to build homegrown capacity to do research. Rather than importing scientific know-how, people can, with help, acquire the skills they need to solve their own problems – and reduce their dependence on foreign aid.

Second, science must be multidisciplinary. Research for development demands a range of approaches, which should be focused on solving socioeconomic problems with natural or engineering ones. In other words, the social sciences – which tend to be neglected in developing countries, including Muslim ones – are as crucial to success as the natural or applied sciences.

And third, science must pursue equity and inclusiveness alongside growth. While it’s essential to use science to promote growth and competitiveness, it’s not enough. Many countries that have grown this way have widened the disparities between rich and poor. The solution is to choose science, technology and innovation paths that will benefit society as a whole, not just a narrow elite.

Science is a constant process of discovery, reflection and reconsideration. By its very nature, science is democratic – and thus less welcome in societies that frown on public debate. But once we open the door to science, the light pours in, and remarkable things can happen. The emerging political changes in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world may be only the beginning.

Naser Faruqui is director of science policy at the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. Published by the Globe and Mail, Feb 21, 2011.

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