Impact of Arab Spring on funding of science in the Middle East

A panel discussion at Asia House

A panel discussion at Asia House

Impact of Arab Spring on funding of science in the Middle East

27 January 2014

By Naomi Canton

A panel discussion at Asia House will look at the implications of the Arab Spring on investment in science in the Middle East.

London-based Syrian researcher Mouhannad Malek will be in conversation with science journalist Ehsan Masood at the event titled ‘The Other Revolution – Scientific developments in the Arab world’, on 28 January 2014.

Malek is founder of Syrian Researchers, a group of 150 Syrian volunteer students, academic researchers and professionals that translate studies, articles and news relating to different scientific subjects into Arabic. This enables Arab scientists to have access to all the information they need in their own languages as many scientific documents are only available in English. The idea of the group, which began as a Facebook group, is also to encourage Syrian researchers to expand their knowledge of science.

The volunteers specialise in different fields such as medicine, biology, architecture, psychology and robotics. They also publish studies, multimedia material and research every week for free. The idea is to create an opportunity for creative and intellectual Middle Eastern youth to share their research ideas and inventions, protect the intellectual property of Syrian researchers globally and in the future provide grants and  scholarships for Arab students to study in the most important universities of the world.

The group has approximately 800,000 supporters and is active on social media.

Malek, a Research associate at the Dr Phillip Hawkins and Dr Len Stephens laboratory at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, will speak about the current situation in Syria; how universities and science have been affected by the civil war; and what is happening to science investment in those Arabic-speaking countries that have not experienced an uprising.

He will be in conversation with Masood, Editor of the ‘Research Professional’ family of science policy magazines including Research Fortnight, at Asia House on 28 January.

Ehsan Masood

Ehsan Masood

Masood said: “I will be asking Malek about the latest from Syria as well as the implications on science and in universities, since many of  the people involved in the Arab revolutions are students, teachers and academics.”

He said that in the recent past Syria was renowned for  world-class centres of research but the civil war is destroying this. Aleppo was once home to a prestigious international research centre, the International Center for Agricultural Research in  the Dry Areas (ICARDA), that housed an important seed bank distributing seed to disaster-hit farmers. ICARDA has been forced to move its main office to Lebanon, he said.

Masood, who also teaches science and innovation policy at Imperial College London, added: “One thing that I hope will come out of the debate is that the oil and gas-rich constitutional monarchies such as the UAE and other Gulf states are  funding a lot of scientific research. It’s still very early days but they have learnt the lesson of previous decades and are  investing more of their  wealth in knowledge institutions. They are investing more in science and technology because one  day they know the oil will runout. They want to become knowledge economies like the UK and the USA.”

Qatar, unsurprisingly, of all the Middle Eastern countries, spends the most on science per capita, he said.

“They realise they can’t rely on natural gas, even though they are one of the biggest exporters of it. It’s not enough to just be a supplier of natural resources. The big money is in innovating and converting what comes out of the ground into new materials, new products and processes,” he added.

The areas of scientific research in the Gulf states are largely the same as for the developed world, namely better healthcare and biomedicine, along with the search for new drugs and therapies for conditions such as heart disease, dementia, obesity and cancer which often afflicted their “homogenous populations,” he said.

The Gulf states are also investing heavily in research into cyber security and environmental science. “These countries often have very high uses of energy and water but there is certainly not enough water so they are finding ways to reduce, reuse and recycle water as well,” he added.

In the short term, those countries experiencing revolutions will witness a drop in scientific funding, Masood predicted, owing to the constant instability and weak government. In contrast, the monarchies and single-party autocracies would likely see spending become more stable, or continue to rise.

In the Gulf states especially, rulers are committed to spending more on science. By contrast, “in the mature multi-party democracies there are many more demands on the public purse, MPs to answer to, and much more lobbying by different interest groups, so getting funding for science is much more competitive,” Masood said.

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s government was a strong supporter of research and development but the last two years have been more turbulent for Egyptian science, he pointed out.

He said the new governments emerging in the Arab states were having many demands on their budgets ranging from primary education to healthcare and that science would have to fight its ground.

One of the many positive impacts of the Revolutions was that the governments of those countries that did not experience the Arab Spring were paying a lot more attention to the concerns of their young people. Issues such as youth unemployment, more university places and affordable housing for young people are driving many policies as it was precisely these issues that sparked the  revolutions in the first place.

“The focus is on keeping young people in work, in study or occupied, and investment in science is one way of doing that,” he added.