Rich Arabs, poor science

Developing Just Leadership

Hasan Ferhat

Dhu al-Qa'dah 12, 1416 1996-04-01

Occupied Arab World

by Hasan Ferhat (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 25, No. 2, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1416)

THE oil-rich countries of the Middle East lag behind some of their more impoverished neighbours in science and technology, according to a survey of science in the Arab world published by UNESCO, the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which enjoy the region’s highest per capita income, spend among the lowest proportions - 0.22% and 0.11% - of their national income on scientific research and development (R&D) Impoverished Egypt, in contrast emerges as the region’s leader, spending~ 0.34% of gross domestic product (gdp) on research and development. Jordan with no economic muscles to speak o: comes second; it spends 0.24 per cent.

However these figures pale when compared to the industrialised world average of two per cent. They are also significantly below the one per cent threshold level generally considered to be the minimum acceptable proportion of gdp spent on research and development.

Interestingly, the survey points out that science and technology were among the first areas to suffer budget cuts after the 1991 Gulf War. R&D spending in Kuwait, for example, dropped from US$72 million in 1985 - it was rising at a rate of 12% per year - to US$47 million in 1992.

The UNESCO survey notes that a majority of countries have invested ‘sizeable financial resources’ to develop a research infrastructure. But, few, if any, are prepared to maintain the required degree of investment that will bring results. In 1992, according to the survey, the Arab world spent US$548 million on R&D, amounting to only 0.1 per cent of the cumulative gdp for the Arab states during the same year.

Agriculture emerged as the dominant research field, with a total of 88 institutions in Arab states, involving 44% - around 6,400 - of the region’s researchers. Health comes next with 36 institutions having less than 1,000 researchers. Atomic energy emerges as the dominant field within the energy sector. Seven hundred researchers out of 1,500 energy scientists are engaged in nuclear energy research at 14 institutions within the Arab world. The nascent field of biotechnology comes bottom of the league, with only six research institutes engaging the services of less than 100 researchers devoted to gene technology in the entire Arab world.

The survey’s overall message of gloom was, nonetheless, tempered by news that the number of full-time research staff working in Arab countries has increased, from 11,900 in 1985 to 14,500 in 1992. The proportion of research personnel qualified to doctoral level, Ph.D, also rose from 49% in 1985, to 54% in 1992, ‘a development considered to be positive’, notes Dr Subhi Qasem, who compiled the survey for UNESCO. Indeed, more than half of the research staff in Sudan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt possessed a minimum qualification of a Ph.D as did 45% of researchers in the Lebanon and 42% in Iraq.

Egypt, nonetheless, emerged head-and-shoulders above all other 21 countries surveyed; Egypt spends US$144 million on R&D. Sixty-three per cent of its research workforce are qualified to Ph.D level or above. Egypt also has 19% of the Arab world’s research and development institutions and more than 50% of its 14,500 research staff. About 40% of them work in agriculture. But significant numbers work in other fields: 100 researchers are employed in the petroleum field; and 300 in nuclear energy. Egypt also has the largest number of biotechnologists in the region, a total of 50.

In terms of the actual amount spent on R&D, Saudi Arabia’s expenditure is US$1.3 billion, almost 10 times as much as Egypt’s, though its 800 research staff are thinly spread across a whole range of disciplines. Agriculture and water are the two biggest areas of inquiry. Sudan’s US$7 million is one of the lowest in the region, though it does have 600 research staff, divided equally among Ph.Ds and M.Scs.

Iraq spends nearly one third of its US$33 million R&D budget on agriculture, employing about 300 researchers at M.Sc and Ph.D level. The National Date Palm research takes the second largest slice, with a budget of US$1.6 million, employing 107 researchers which include 26 Ph.Ds.

Jordan’s annual research budget of US$13 million is spread among 320 research staff. Most of Kuwait’s 176 Ph.Ds are employed in petroleum research, followed by industrial economics and food technology. Libya has an R&D budget of US$13 million, 20% of which is spent on seven animal feeding programmes.

Morocco which spends 0.22% of its gross domestic product emerges with 1,300 researchers, including 400 Ph.Ds, on a research and development budget of US$ 62 million. Sixty-one Ph.Ds and 196 M.Scs work in agriculture.

The survey notes that salaries for researchers remain among the lowest in the world and that short-term contract research is beginning to take hold, particularly in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. R&D is largely government-funded, though the money received is often less than the amount budgeted, according to the survey.

The survey, however, does not contain any information about scientific publishing in the Arab world, nor does it indicate the quality of work being performed. It also acknowledges that the term ‘researcher’ is not universally defined. A researcher in one country, for example, could be considered a technician in another state. The data were subjected to a degree of verification, but were provided by the governments themselves.

Courtesy: Impact International, London.

Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996

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