Earth Journalism Blog: Growing Science in the Desert


Columbia Journalism Review, Doha

Several Middle Eastern countries are pouring money into research; will it work?

“Water flows uphill toward money and power,” said hydrologist Tony Allan, citing a political truism during a talk here at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists. Can the same be said for scientific research?

Several Middle Eastern countries are pouring money into new research centers and ventures, hoping to make science bloom in the desert and bear fruits such as better medical care, water and food security, and lower carbon emissions. But can science flourish in an environment of absolute monarchies or fledgling democracies?

The question is crucial in Qatar, which hosted the conference and is home to an ambitious experiment that aims to turn the country from a feudal society to one based on knowledge and science within a generation. It’s of even greater relevance to the broader Middle East, where it is hoped that similar projects to develop scientific clusters, some trying to take advantage of the Arab Spring, will anchor information-based societies of the future. Reporters across the region are following the developments closely.

“A lot of people look at science journalism as a form that is not as critical as political journalism, but that’s not right,”Mohammed Yahia, editor of Nature Middle East. “The vast majority of problems that the developing world will be facing in the future are science-related. I really think science journalism should be a push to hold people accountable, to take a more proactive role.”

From the seventh to fifteenth centuries—while Europe was wallowing in the dark ages—science, astronomy, and mathematics flourished in the Islamic world, spreading from Andalusia in the west to Bukhara and Samarkand in the east, encompassing scientists from many different faiths. Classical Greek, Indian, and Persian texts were translated into Arabic (as recounted in a new book by Jim al-Khalili entitled The House of Wisdom) becoming a source for new discoveries such as “al-jabr,” or algebra. Later, they were essential in spurring the Enlightenment in post-Reformation Europe.

“Only [400] years ago, European scientists such as Edmund Halley and Robert Boyle had to learn Arabic in order to study the classical texts,” said Dr. Rim Turkmani, a Syrian astrophysicist at Imperial College London at the world conference in Doha. She helped put together a current exhibition in London on the “Arabick Roots” of science and medicine, which later entered its own “dark ages.” That breakdown in scientific progress eventually helped create a “Knowledge Deficit” in the region, according to the Arab Human Development Report.

There have been various efforts to lift this veil of scientific stultification. In 1964, Pakistani Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam established the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy to provide scientists from developing countries with the advanced skills and education they needed. I visited the center while doing independent research for a Watson Fellowship more than twenty years ago. I found it be a worthy endeavor, but with limited impact due to its focus on a single field of mostly academic interest, and being located, after all, in Europe.

There has been a marked surge in recent years in the number of scientific papers coming out of Turkey and Iran, scientist and journalist Homayoun Kheyri reported at the world conference, which was organized by the Arab Science Journalists Association in partnership with the United States’s National Association of Science Writers. The Iranian research is mostly focused on targeted fields such as nuclear physics, chemistry and missile technology, however. “They’re still much behind in fields such as biology and social science,” said Kheyri.

There have been more concerted and constructive efforts to create scientific centers of excellence in the Middle East, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Showcased in Doha, meanwhile, were the impressive efforts of the Qatar Foundation, which aims to help the country become a “post-carbon knowledge-based economy” and has “evolved into a vast ecosystem of … schools, universities, institutes, centres and joint venture.” This includes facilities like a science and technology park, medical and research center, and numerous university campuses—including branches of Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie-Mellon, Texas A&M, Weill Cornell Medical College, and VCU—all plunked down in the desert in grandiose, stylish new buildings.

Analyzing the various approaches, Waleed al-Shobakky, a Qatari journalist, said, “Qatar and Abu Dhabi have chosen a branch campus approach - they pick universities, invite them in, and bankroll them. KAUST also has a state-sponsored approach, creating one national university and inviting many partners. Dubai, meanwhile, has a more free-wheeling approach: They offer facilities, and whoever wants to come and invest to use them, can do so.”

There’s no doubt the region will need this scientific acumen. Its resource challenges alone are daunting. Rabi Mohtar, executive director of the Qatar Energy and Environment Research Institute, estimates that by 2030, the region will see its water demand increase by 30 percent and its energy demand by 40 percent by 2030. “This region has among the highest water and energy use [per capita] which means there is a lot of waste,” explained Mohtar, “and we’re sitting on a huge solar energy reserve.”

Besides addressing such challenges, the hope behind creating the science centers is that they will develop into scientific-educational-industrial clusters along the lines of Silicon Valley in California or Route 128 in Massachusetts. Toward that end, the rulers of Qatar have pledged to spend 2.8 percent of the country’s GDP—about $3.5 billion annually, based on 2010 figures—on government funded research. It’s a fabulous commitment towards a truly laudatory goal. But will it work?

The pitfalls are many. These initiatives first need to make good, strategic decisions in hiring researchers and doling out funds, avoiding the traps of corruption and nepotism. Then they need to get out of the way to let the scientists carry out their work. But in order to create a free-thinking environment in which scientific inquiry can flourish, they also need to promote educational, cultural, and media freedoms that will enable their citizens to take advantage of these scientific resources, and ultimately help to develop them.

“Any region hoping to be recognized for innovation needs an independent press corps that is able to seek out truth, without interference, while providing a conduit for exchange between science and the rest of society,” wrote Alan Leshner of AAAS and Mohamad Hassan of the Global Network of Science Academies in a June essay for Wired. “Freedom of the press inevitably helps drive scientific progress, which in turn propels innovation and economic prosperity. Moreover, science and the accurate communication of science go hand-in-hand: Good journalism, like good science, thrives on openness and a respect for truth based on evidence.”

It’s not at all clear that the Gulf kingdoms are willing to allow such freedoms. By all accounts, the local Qatari media, like that in Saudi Arabia, tends to be sycophantic toward the country’s rulers. Al Jazeera, which is based there, claims it is willing and able to be critical of local conditions, but ultimately it is bankrolled by these same rulers, and critics say theytoed the government line when uprisings threatened Persian Gulf regimes.

That’s why it will be interesting to compare the fates of these endeavors with that of the Zewail City of Science and Technology near Cairo, which the Egyptian government is underwriting with a $2 billion investment. It will presumably have less money than the Qatar Foundation, but will hopefully be operating in a more open society, liberated by the Arab Spring. Ahmed Zewail, the Egyptian Nobel Laureate who has played a key role in developing the project, believes in the power of free media, having witnessed it during the uprisings in Tahrir Square following the January 25 revolution.

“The media played a significant, positive role, with the youth communications being done through SMS and Facebook,” said Zewail during a keynote speech in Doha. But he also noted that more could be done, decrying the fact that, of the more than 500 television channels in the Arab world, “most are devoted to entertainment. We need to think more of information.”

Indeed, even in Egypt, the media has a long way to go, particularly to improve its coverage of science and the environment. “Egyptian coverage of issues like climate change and biodiversity is very poor,” says Hazem Zohny, a local journalist for Al-Masry Al-Youm. “In the Arab press, they just produce press releases and statements. The English press is better, but we can say there are only a handful of trained science journalists in the country. The rest just dabble.

“The problem is few journalists actually understand scientific issues. We get ‘science journalists’ who don’t actually believe in evolution. Their religious beliefs don’t allow it. What’s the solution? We need to completely change the education system. The idea of critical thinking doesn’t exist in the public schools. We also need more independent media.”

Indeed, while the decline of Islamic science resulted mainly from a broader economic decline and the closing off of trade, it also resulted from the failure of certain technological and educational reforms. Following Johanes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450, for instance, it took forty-three years for the Ottoman Empire to allow the construction of one in Constantinople, due to the opposition of guilds which decried it as “the Devil’s Invention.”

Few in the Middle East would say the same thing today, but if science is to grow again the desert, it must be watered with more than just money. It will also require a truly free and open-minded society.

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