Doha, Qatar—“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  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.”