SCIENCE
Funding Arab Science
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

It’s 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.



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