KUWAIT—Arab countries are ranked among the lowest in the world in spending on research and development as a proportion of economic output. And the region has the fewest scholars as a percentage of total population, according to figures published last year by the Unesco Institute for Statistics.
But lack of funding is not the only reason for the low status of scientific research in Arab countries, scholars say.
“The lack of management in the Arab world’s scientific research system is the biggest challenge that hinders joint action and weakens the impact of Arab research at the international level,” said Mahmoud Sakr, president of the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Egypt’s Ministry of Scientific Research.
At a conference here of the Federation of Arab Scientific Research Councils in December, Sakr criticized the lack of networks among Arab scholars in general. “There is no common database to enable Arab scholars to communicate and explore each others’ competences and research,” he said.
The Unesco data show that spending by Arab countries on research and development was 0.2 percent of gross domestic product last year, while the number of Arab scholars worldwide amounted to 1.9 percent of population.
However, only six countries spent more than 3 percent of GDP on research and development. South Korea was ranked first for its ratio of spending to GDP of 4.3 percent; Israel came second with 4.1 percent, followed by Japan, Denmark, Finland and Sweden.
As for Arab countries, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco achieved the highest expenditure ratios by spending 0.7 percent of their GPD on research. Qatar’s spending ratio was 0.5 percent, while Algeria and Saudi Arabia both spent 0.1 percent.
Besides getting better funding, Arab scientists need to work and share information on a regional basis, according to Husam al-Omaira, executive director of the science and technology department of the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research.
“The European Union and the countries of East Asia do not provide funding for research by a single country. This highlights the need for Arab countries to cooperate to get significant funding,” he said.
Abdulnasser al-Ansari, deputy executive director of the Qatar National Research Fund, confirmed the poor research cooperation among Arab countries. “Qatar is currently involved in scientific research with more than 500 research centers and institutes, most of which are in the United States and Europe,” al-Ansari said. “I regret that our cooperation with other Gulf countries is limited to only 50 research centers.”
Mohammad al-Majali, assistant secretary general of the Higher Council for Science and Technology in Jordan, said that Arab scholars tend to conduct academic research in order to secure a promotion, a focus that undermines the value of research.
“Arab universities and scholars have been unable to produce research projects with practical results that really benefit their countries and their fellow citizens,” al-Majali said. “Moreover, most of our research depends significantly on government funding. This is different from developed countries, where private industry carries out much of the research and development, something almost completely absent in our region.”
Indeed, the Unesco report points out that in the 15 countries that spend the most on research and development there is a significant contribution by the private sector.
“There are many bureaucratic and governmental restrictions that hinder scientific research. These restrictions frustrate young people, and make them choose to go to other countries to carry out their research,” said Samira al-Sayyid Omar, chairman of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. “We have to get rid of these restrictions first of all.”