By Zakri Abdul Hamid
There was a time when budding Western scholars travelled long distances to the then epicentre of science and technology — the Islamic world that spanned from southern Spain to China, from the 7th to the 17th century — to seek and learn new knowledge from the masters of that 1,000-year era.
But that was long ago. The countries that constitute the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) today lag behind in the scientific world. As innovators, none of them can be considered in the league of developed nations, despite the financial wealth many of them have acquired.
Part of the problem is a lack of mastery of modern knowledge, in particular science and technology.
The knowledge deficit and what to do about it was the subject of a recent conference in Doha, Qatar, convened by the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) on its 25th anniversary.
The meeting was aptly themed, “The Islamic world and the West: Rebuilding bridges through science and technology.”
The IAS president, former Jordanian prime minister Abdel Salam Majali, lamented that the majority of OIC countries spent less than 0.5 per cent of their gross domestic product on research and development (R&D). Support for human resources in science is low and apart from Egypt, Turkey and Iran, a critical mass of researchers is absent in many countries.
Moreover, apart from Malaysia, most OIC countries hardly export any high technology products.
Majali quoted the 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Science Report showing that less than half of the OIC’s 56 countries have a national academy of sciences or play host to a supranational academy.
This is astounding, as academies of sciences, as strong advocates of science and impartial advisory bodies, have been at the vanguard of scientific endeavour in countries such as the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France. They are also part of the landscape in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, Malaysia and Mexico.
He also pointed out the uphill challenge of many OIC countries in adopting science-based development policies to raise the socio-economic level of their people. For instance, we are not using science to combat our immediate health, water and energy problems.
The conference keynote speaker, honorary IAS fellow and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, set the tone of the meeting when he reminded delegates that, “the relationship between the Islamic world and the West has never been cordial. From the time of the Crusades to the present Palestinian conflict there have been disagreements and even open confrontations between the Islamic world and the West”.
“But despite all these there is much to be gained from some degree of understanding between the two. There are so many things in the West which can contribute to the development of the Muslim world.
“On the other hand, the Muslims are rich not only in oil and other resources but the true Muslim values and practices can contribute something towards arresting the moral decay in the West.”
According to Dr Mahathir, the acquisition of knowledge currently residing in the West should be an all-out effort. It is not enough just sending students to study in Western universities: we must also adopt best practices in Western education systems and methods. Islamic countries must also devote more resources to R&D, an essential feature of knowledge creation and innovation.
To excel in R&D we may have to acquire sophisticated skills from the West but, once mastered, we could embark on our own. Dr Mahathir cited the case of South Korea and Japan, both of which acquired the basic knowledge from the West, allocated huge sums of money for their own R&D, and were eventually able to develop new knowledge on their own and apply it without further Western assistance.
The ideal situation for Islamic countries is to create conditions that foster academic pursuit: the kind of environment that existed in the West that turned Muslim scientists like Abdus Salam of Pakistan and Ahmed Zewail of Egypt into Nobel Prize winners in science in 1979 and 1999 respectively.
Major limiting factors today in many countries include financial constraints; lack of solid grounding in science and mathematics; inadequate governance structure for science, technology and innovation; and the lack of a critical mass of researchers, scientists and engineers.
However, some Islamic countries, particularly the wealthy “oil” states, have made a start. As described by Ellis Rubinstein, president of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) at the IAS conference, one strategy being employed in the Gulf states and in some non-Gulf Islamic nations is “twinning” to import capacity-developing assistance.
Such endeavours involve sums of money beyond the reach of many Islamic countries. More modest modalities have to make do for the time being.
Rubinstein proposed the establishment of a pan-Islamic alliance of complementary institutions that would use all the tools of physical (face-to-face) and virtual (online) social networking to achieve synergies across the Islamic world.
Rubinstein believes that, properly funded (with about US$10 million [RM31.6 million]), such an alliance of neutral institutions could “run under the radar” of national jealousies and create an “Islamic science, technology, and innovation ecology” where the whole would be far greater than the sum of its parts.
This compelling idea deserves the consideration of the IAS, the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS) and the respective national academies of sciences in Islamic countries.
Institutional partners within the Islamic world such as the OIC and the Islamic Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organisation (Isesco) have indicated interest, and international partners, such as the NYAS, with the backing of Unesco, are ready and willing to operationalise the concept.
The US$10 million question remains whether we have the political wherewithal to take the next critical step to realise this wonderful dream.
The author is the Science Advisor to Prime Minister Dato Najib B. Tun Razak of Malaysia. This article was previously published on New Strait Times on November 21, 2011 and can be read here.