Funding Arab Science
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
no secret that Arab science now is nowhere near
its days of glory, centuries ago. And, it is a shame
that support of scientific research in the Arab
or Muslim world is so low that it doesn’t
cause even a ripple in global science output.
In this light, it is wonderful to see a new pan-Arab
effort, a research funding and network organization
called Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF),
based in Sharjah, UAE. ASTF is set up as a non-profit
organization in private sector venture, independent
in operation, philosophy and goals, with no involvement
of any government organization. It would offer research
support to scientists on a competitive basis, after
a peer-review process. An article on this published
in a recent ‘Nature’ (29 June issue),
is an update of its first report some four years
ago (Nature volume 416: 120-122, 2002).
It encourages Arab scientists now in the US, UK
and elsewhere to collaborate with scientists in
the Arab world, and hopes to link research with
interested investors and entrepreneurs, complete
with intellectual property protections. ASTF realizes
the fact that despite affluence in Arab world, holders
of patents and trade-marks in the Arab world occupy
the lowest rungs in the world, and foreign investment
in Arab scientific research is also near the bottom.
Saudi Arabia joined WTO only recently, and as more
nations join, ASTF aims to get the scientists from
the region competing in the world markets.
What ASTF has so far funded include projects in
water desalination, mobile-cell telephone technology,
materials science, robotics and biomedical research.
ASTF has organized biennial conferences of Arab
scientists: The last one held in Riyadh
(2004) drew some 850 scientists – more than
twice of the previous meeting. It also focused on
some regional problems, such as future of science
in Iraq and how to help re-organize it in face of
murder of many Iraqi academics during the insurgency.
ASTF announced this month another ambitious program,
‘Izdihar’ (Arabic for prosperity). Its
aim is improving the quality of life in the Arab
world, through applied science, funding projects
that provide solution to problems, e.g., in agriculture,
energy, health care and governance.
One of the recent schemes, advanced by President
Musharraf and supported by 57 science ministers
of the member-states of the Muslim world, would
set aside science funds from each country and bring
them under the control and administration of international
trustees who would support best research in a competitive
fashion. Individual government would be restricted
from using these funds for any other purpose. Clearly,
it is a novel approach for sharing resources for
a much-needed effort and visibility in science.
This was also reported two years ago in Nature (volume
432: 273-274, 2004).
ASTF is a remarkable group effort, with a lot of
promise. It is hard to say at this time how much
of what is promised and planned it can deliver.