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Restoring Arab passion for science: Mission impossible?

Today, the Arab world is still being accused of not doing enough to find and nurture its star scientists and the discoveries of tomorrow

Faisal J. Abbas

Published: Updated:

At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Al Arabiya English, we asked what has gone wrong with Arabs and science given our historical achievements. I asked Science Editor of pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, Dr. Ahmed Moghrabi, whether it really is “mission impossible” to restore the passion for innovation.

Arabs have been overshadowed by advancements from both the Western and Eastern worlds, where one side has put man on the moon while the other has made spectacular technological advancements in a spectrum of fields.

Moghrabi reiterated that over the years, the failure doesn’t stem from lack of talent but lack of efforts. He said that many Arabs don’t bring up their children by integrating scientific thinking into their own thinking. He added that the educational systems we have in place across many countries in the region today can’t produce a person who can think scientifically and innovatively.

Unfortunately, the statistics speak for themselves. Last year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published the biggest-ever league table of educational attainment in 76 countries. The report examined how representative samples of 15-year-olds performed in math and science tests, ranking them relative to their peers in more than a third of the world’s nations.

Arabs have been overshadowed by advancements from both the Western and Eastern worlds, where one side has put man on the moon while the other has made spectacular technological advancements

Faisal J. Abbas

None of the GCC states performed well; they all ranked in the bottom half of the index. Students in the UAE were ranked at number 45 on the table, while Bahrain and Saudi Arabia came in at 57 and 66, respectively. Qatar came in 68, ahead of Oman in the 72nd place. Kuwait did not even appear in the index.

Another point of failure is the lack of efforts from governments in investing in scientific research. A recent MIT Technology Review report titled “Falling Behind” found that Arab states spend an average of 0.3 percent of their GDP on research and development, whereas the world average is 2.1 percent. South Korea leads globally, spending 4 percent of its GDP.

Does science belong to the West?

Another point of contention that Dr. Moghrabi pointed out was that the mentality that “science belongs to the West” still exists. “Different forms of resistance to science, such as those who say ‘this is the West’s science, we don’t like it,’ and other examples of identity-guided thinking is an indicator that we are on the wrong track,” he said.

It doesn’t help that recently a Saudi cleric proclaimed loud and clear that “the Earth is flat, not round” and captured the Western media’s attention while doing so.

Our media needs to step up its game in countering the narrative that insinuates “Arabs are fools” by distilling the notion that out-of-touch clerics represent the majority… when they don’t!

The media needs to play an important role in combatting – and quickly – the wrong perceptions of a few that say the earth is flat and that driving affects women’s ovaries. We need to do this instead of simply feeding the masses, like the international media, which these days let’s face it, is hungry for anything that can go viral from the Arab world.

But that’s not to say religious clerics are off the hook. While the media shouldn’t deliberately mock religion for the sake of mocking and getting hits, scholars should also refrain from expressing views in areas they don’t fully understand and are not their fields of expertise.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for science in the Arab world. Recent efforts by the United Arab Emirates must be given credit for attempting to bring Arabs back to the scientific forefront. An example of this is the Mohammad bin Rashid Space Center’s Emirates Mars Mission. It’s goal? To send a space probe on a 60-million-kilometer journey and arrive at the Red Planet by 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE.

Another MbR initiative worth noting is the “Drones for Good” program that aims to reverse the negative use of the technology for the better of humankind.

Arab governments must involve science and technology into our strategic planning, private sectors and society.

Moghrabi argued, and I too agree on this, that the right track towards Arab progress in science is to first admit the problem exists, to see who and what institutions are advanced in scientific fields, and finally to figure out how to catch up to advanced thinkers.

But today, the Arab world is still being accused of not doing enough to find and nurture its star scientists and the discoveries of tomorrow. While steps have been taken to move forward, sadly, we’ve still got a long way to go.

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Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, he is a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both Al-Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, and is a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.