Reason why Arab minds search for greener pastures in the West

While Western societies are increasingly focused on cutting-edge science and technology, Arab societies have largely stagnated.

People around the world celebrated World Science Day for Peace and Development on November 10 as they looked to scientific progress to bring forward social change. “Science, a human right” was chosen as this year’s theme by UNESCO to encourage people everywhere to engage with science.

The international focus on science drew attention to recent breakthroughs and achievements and highlighted concerns over science and technology in the Arab world, which lags far behind countries in the West.

Indeed, at a time when Arab nations need scientific progress more than ever, the region seems to be producing less of it and many of its top minds are leaving their homes for better opportunities in the West — a trend known as the “brain drain.”

While Arab thinkers have made significant contributions to science and technology, their work has largely been used in the West, not their home countries. Consider Andre Choulika, a Lebanese-born inventor of nuclease-based genome editing; or Eid Hourany, a French-Lebanese nuclear physicist who made major contributions to cluster decay theory; or Iraqi-American Professor Fakhri al-Bazzaz, who specialised in the study of plant community succession.

There is also Hassan Kamel al-Sabbah, a Lebanese-American serial inventor; Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American 1999 Nobel laureate in chemistry and Farouk el-Baz, a scientist for NASA who helped plan the Apollo moon landing.

The trend of bright Arab minds moving overseas reflects a startling one in the region: talented young people’s desire to pursue opportunities anywhere but home.

A Gallup poll in 2017 indicated that close to half of North Africans between ages 15-29 surveyed expressed a desire to emigrate, a 6% increase on the previous year.

The Tunisian agency Sigma Conseil said that 45% of young medical doctors who were registered in 2017 had left the country, and approximately 2,000 engineers had opted to emigrate. A staggering 90% of doctoral students studying abroad and receiving a state grant did not return to Tunisia, said Zied Ben Amor, coordinator of the Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers.

For Egyptians, the number of scientists working abroad is estimated at 86,000. With conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria, thousands of other scientists are thought to have left their countries to seek opportunities elsewhere.

So what other than conflict at home explains the massive exodus of Arab brains to Western countries, whether in Europe or North America?

Much of it boils down to culture. While Western societies are increasingly focused on cutting-edge science and technology, engaged in vigorous debates on how to further knowledge in fields such as medicine, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, Arab societies have largely stagnated, unable to reconcile modernity with tradition or religion with science.

It wasn’t always this way. Science in the Arab world has gone through periods of remarkable growth. From 900-1200AD, known as the Arab “Golden Age,” science flourished in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba. There were dramatic advances in medicine, agronomy, botany, mathematics, chemistry and optics. Arabs, along with their Asian counterparts, were viewed as the world’s scientific and intellectual leaders, with Europeans lagging behind.

Things started to go awry in the 13th century when political instability, religious intolerance and a series of invasion in the Arab world slowed scientific advancement to a standstill while an awakening began in Europe.

Eight centuries later, not much has changed. Science in the Arab world went through a modest revival in the 19th century but today has fallen prey to religious extremism and political volatility, further exacerbated by the “Arab spring.”

The rise of political Islam has been especially alarming. Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood imposed outdated social norms and limited critical inquiry, pushing the region away from scientific development.

Conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, a lack of resources and investment in scientific fields and a waning educational system compounded the problem.

While oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have poured vast amounts of money into science and technology, their research output has failed to match their state-of-the-art facilities. In fact, by attempting to buy science and technology rather than produce it, their progress has been marginal.

Language has also been a huge barrier. With an estimated 80% of the world’s scientific literature first appearing in English, Arabic remains an inadequate way to communicate scientific breakthroughs and findings to students and researchers abroad. Most scientific work requires competence in English reading writing and comprehension, an area in which Arabs are less skilled than others, such as the Chinese, Thais and Brazilians.

The Arab world needs improvement in the educational system itself because schools place more emphasis on teaching than research. This translates into fewer doctoral programmes and produces overcrowding and underfunding in universities and research centres that do meet standards of academic excellence. This means students often have inadequate equipment and lack access to data, further reducing scientific output.

On top of this, there are fewer incentives in Arab universities for professors and researchers to publish new work. As a result, attempts to develop research capabilities in universities, institutes, government ministries, non-profit foundations, multinational corporations or local corporations have rarely succeeded.

These factors and more have contributed to the Arab world’s scientific and technological drought, which requires serious structural changes if the region is to move forward, regional experts said.

One of the most important measures that could be taken is educational reform, they said, particularly more financial assistance and incentives to improve scientific cooperation and research.

There have also been calls to build an academic and research infrastructure in the Arab region that would help keep native scientists, doctors and researchers from emigrating, as well as maintain contacts with those who have left through joint enterprises.

However, even with such measures, science and technology in the Arab world would have a long way to go. For the fields that are so important to human innovation and growth to again flourish in the region, underlying factors such as conflict, political instability, religious extremism, cultural intolerance and economic stagnation must be addressed. Until then, catching up on science and technology will be an uphill battle.

Iman Zayat is the Managing Editor of The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.