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TWAS Newsletter
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Lagging indicators in Arab region

Lagging indicators in Arab region

Despite small strides in advancing research and development, the Arab region still lags far behind other regions in investments in science, technology and innovation.

Budapest, Hungary. Arab countries have experienced a modest increase in spending for research and development (R&D) over the past several years," says Mouïn Hamzé. "But progress has been slow and the overall level of funding remains woefully inadequate in relationship to the development and environmental challenges that the region faces."

Hamzé, who serves as the secretary general of the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Lebanon, made his remarks at the ministerial roundtable, sponsored by UNESCO in partnership with the Islamic Scientific, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ISESCO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in Budapest, Hungary, prior to the World Science Forum. The roundtable marked the launch of the Consortium on Science, Technology and Innovation for the South (COSTIS), a joint venture of TWAS, UNESCO and the Group of 77.

Hamzé's observations were based on the first-ever Report on Arab Knowledge, published by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Arab States. The report was released in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in October.

"There are a number of high-profile projects currently underway in the Arab region pointing towards a brighter future for science, technology and innovation in the region," Hamzé notes. These include the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, with its sparkling new research facilities and multibillion dollar endowment, and the Mubarak Science Park in Egypt, which will include research and development facilities sponsored by Microsoft, Siemens and other large multinational corporations."

But Hamzé is quick to add that funding for research and development in the Arab world remains far below that of most other regions. In 2007-2008, for example, countries throughout the region spent just 0.3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D. China, in contrast, now spends 1.5% of its GDP on R&D and India more than 1.0%.

R&D expenditures per person average just USD10 in the Arab region. In Malaysia, per capita expenditures are USD33, and in Finland, USD1,300. The case of Finland is both instructive and inspiring. Less than two generations ago, it was a poor country with an economy based largely on resource extraction and agricultural production. Today, it is a well-respected member of the international scientific community producing a broad range of sophisticated products and services in science and technology for the global marketplace.

For countries in the Arab world to replicate Finland's path to success, they must invest in science and technology on a consistent basis, says Hamzé, and engage in long-range initiatives that build the scientific and technological capabilities of their citizens. They must also provide adequate job opportunities for their most educated and technically skilled citizens (today 45% of the region's scientists and engineers stay abroad after graduating from Northern universities). And they must pursue strategies that raise the percentage of the private sector's investment in R&D (the private sector currently accounts for just 3 to 10% of national spending on R&D investment across the region).

"Today," Hamzé notes, "we are seeing signs of hope that the Arab region is finally recognizing the important role that science and technology can play in improving the lives of their citizens." But the steps that have been taken remain inadequate and, given the past history of such efforts in the region, there is no guarantee that the funding will be sustained in the years ahead.

Most importantly, when it comes to translating science and technology into goods and services that people need and want, Hamzé urges everyone to keep in mind that it is "not just the amount of money that is being spent but how it is being spent." Success, he says, will depend on long-range plans that build an enduring foundation in science, technology and innovation that can withstand the inevitable ups and down in the economy.