New Arab strategy for science, technology and innovation

Arab states have approved a strategy to harness science, technology and innovation for development by improving science education, upgrading and reforming universities, building research capacity and encouraging international cooperation.

The 22 Arab states include eight countries in Africa, six in the Arabian Gulf and eight in Asia.

The strategy for science, technology and innovation, or STI, was adopted at the 14th Congress of Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Arab World held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from 11-13 March.

It was prepared by a panel of experts from the Arab region with institutional support from the Tunisia-based Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, ALECSO, the Union of Arab Scientific Research Councils and UNESCO, among others.

The STI strategy

The strategy focuses on improving science education and universities, enhancing scientific research capacity, increasing financial support for research and development and fostering regional and international scientific and educational cooperation.

An online Arab science and technology observatory will be established to monitor the science and technology scene in Arab states and highlight shortcomings in implementation.

The observatory will include a portal for research, development and innovation activities and projects, a database of Arab technological centres and universities, a directory of Arab scientists, technologists, educationists and policy-makers, science and technology indicators, and information on conferences, symposiums and workshops in the Arab region.

The strategy proposes setting up a network of science centres of excellence in the Arab world to promote interactive approaches, excellence and innovation.

The network will use selected outstanding technological institutions and research centres associated with universities in Arab states as regional hubs to facilitate cooperation through joint research projects, and to promote high-level training.

The strategy urges Arab states to increase financial support for research and development from the present 0.3% of gross domestic product to 3%, with the private sector contributing 30% to 40%.

This could be done by creating a fund for science and technology development, which could be supported by new financial mechanisms such as taxes and customs, according to the strategy.

It focuses on national and pan-Arab higher education and research initiatives in about 14 priority areas including biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, water, food, agriculture and fishing, space, energy, desert sciences, the environment, renewable energy, poverty and disease.

The strategy also calls for greater mobility of scientists within the region and cooperation with international science, technology, innovation and higher education organisations.

The problem of the Arab brain drain should be tackled by making universities and research centres attractive to local science and education communities, and the strategy suggests initiatives to promote collaborative research and innovation activities with Arab scientists living abroad.

Higher education reforms

Besides strengthening university-industry linkages - which can be a potent tool for building institutional research capacity - the strategy proposes enhancing the transfer of knowledge and technology from universities to firms, which can help to boost innovation and the competitiveness of companies as well as economic systems.

It also calls for special higher education programmes to provide skills training for the private sector, improved science and technology teaching standards, preparing graduates for careers in research and development, the production of employable graduates and promoting all ways of learning including distance and open learning.

At the conference, a guide for accreditation standards and quality in institutions of open and distance education in the Arab world was presented along with an analytical study of the status of e-learning and a report on Open Learning and Distance Education in the Arab World - Towards development and innovation.

The way forward

To make sure that the strategy is implemented, monitoring and evaluating committees will be set up to prepare progress reports and advise on necessary actions to put the strategy on track.