MIDDLE EAST: Research lagging - but expanding fast

Arab countries together with Iran and Turkey have slightly increased their share of world scientific output in the last decade, according to a survey of published papers from the region. It found these countries were "taking a growing fraction of an expanding pool" of research.

The just-released Exploring the Changing Landscape of Arabian, Persian and Turkish Research, from the scientific publishing company Thomson Reuters, shows the region still accounts for a tiny percentage of world science output, despite having many resource-rich countries in the region.

The countries covered are Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Jointly their output has risen from just 2% of world output to 4% in 10 years

David Pendlebury, citation analyst at Thomson Reuters, told University World News that progress in the region had been "patchy". But he added: "We see dynamic growth in the Middle East and that's an encouraging sign."

Many new institutions in the Middle East, such as the postgraduate King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and other higher education hubs in the region attracting overseas researchers, were not yet registering in the data, as they have been established only recently and require time to train a new generation of researchers.

But as the US share of world science research has dropped within a decade from 40% of output to around 29% now, Asia and the Middle East have increased their share. "Because these regions are growing at a faster rate [than the West] we are seeing a more equitable world in terms of science output and impact," Pendlebury said.

Patchy output

The best-performing countries are those with a long-standing tradition of science research, the report notes.

Turkey produces about half of the research articles and reviews among the countries surveyed, of which medical research is the single largest discipline. Iran produces about a quarter of the output of the group of 14.

Within the Arab world, only Egypt and Saudi Arabia are significant producers of research output. Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan together account for more than 90% of research publications in the countries measured.

Research productivity in Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen was so low they barely produced 3,000 publications collectively over the last 10 years.

"Of course there are individual scientists from the region who produce world-class research and there are institutions and nations in the Middle East which make significant contributions in certain fields," wrote Egyptian-American Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail in an introduction to the report.

There are some positive signs. In the last decade the Middle East region gained on Latin America, which also expanded rapidly, though both regions lag substantially behind the West and fast-growing economies of Asia and the Pacific.

In terms of influence on science internationally as measured by citation impact, citations of papers from the 14 countries are still low. The study notes that the five largest producers of scientific papers achieved only half the world average in citations.

Influence is improving, however, and in certain fields some nations exceed the world average, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in mathematics and Turkey in engineering making it into the top 1% of highly cited papers.

"All the [Middle Eastern] countries are starting from a pretty low baseline. Yes they may be doing badly if you compare them to advanced countries which have been investing strategically in science over decades, but relatively speaking there is a sense of something quite interesting going on that this report draws attention to," said James Wilsdon, director of science policy at Britain's Royal Society who also contributed to the report's analysis.

The Royal Society is part of a group researching an Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation. "Despite the encouraging progress shown in this report the path to a more innovative Middle-East is not without obstacles," said Wilsdon.

Resource-rich and poorer countries in the region

The region has poorer countries with a strong research and intellectual tradition such as Iran and Egypt, and resource-rich countries heavily and strategically investing in research but without an existing research base to draw on.

"It is hard not to think that with a more strategic, coordinated project in the region far better results in science could be achieved," Wilsdon said.

Referring to huge flagship investments in institutions in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the last five years, Wilsdon said many resource-rich countries' science research policies "are explicitly framed in terms of an ambition to play on the global stage. It won't happen overnight, but over 16 to 20 years they could develop into a significant research area."

"The Gulf states know there isn't a traditional research community in their countries and they are starting almost from scratch trying to build this system," Wilsdon said. "So much money is being sunk into starting from a very low base in many countries at once. Perhaps more could be done to invest in countries that already have a base."

However, as Pendlebury, said it is hard to see how these nations might build on this in the future, with unrest in many of the countries covered in the report, which was written before this year's popular uprisings.

"The situation is in great flux at the moment," Pendlebury said.

Addressing the problem

"The Middle East must not think it is incapable of competing with developed nations in science and technology," said Zewail, who is a professor of physics and chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. He has called for a "new education jihad for acquiring useful knowledge".

Zewail, who is pushing for a University of Science and Technology to be set up in Egypt, said centres of excellence in science and technology in each Muslim country could "show that Muslims can indeed compete in today's globalised economy and instill in the youth the desire for learning.

"But in addressing the gap in performance one cannot fail to bear in mind a history that has resulted in large populations of frustrated people who lack real opportunity," Zewail said, adding: "All their energies must not be allowed to be diverted into fanaticism and violence."

Unlike the rest of the world facing a silver wave, the Arab world is facing a youth wave. These young people can achieve great things in science if they are given a chance.

Since unrest broke out in many Middle Eastern countries there has been greater focus on the role of a disaffected youth and how the education system can respond.

"On the one hand there is enormous grassroots pressure from the bottom up while research in the region is by and large has been from the top down. The two need to be joined up," Wilsdon said.

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