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 they toed 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.”