Arab world needs a renaissance of the sciences

Sara Al-Mulla

The UAE becomes the fifth nation that has sent a spacecraft to the Red Planet. Hope is expected to answer a number of pivotal scientific enquiries regarding the red planet’s atmosphere. The probe is aptly named as the UAE hopes it will inspire the next generation of Arab scientists and prompt a renaissance of the sciences in the region.
The Arabs are heirs to the extraordinary legacy of the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th century to the 14th century and sparked advances in the fields of mathematics, medicine, chemistry, astronomy, and geography.

Its contributions were the catalysts for the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Europe. Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian in Oriental studies, wrote in his 2002 book “What Went Wrong?” that, “for many centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.”

For example, in the field of mathematics, Arab scholars invented the Arab decimal system, reformed the calendar, and revolutionized the use of the zero and algebra. In the field of medicine, physicians and scholars paved the way for standard medical practice in Europe. Ibn Sina, known as the “prince of physicians” in the West, wrote the seminal book “The Canon of Medicine,” which was required reading throughout Europe until the 17th century. Ibn Sina pioneered advances in pharmacology, holistic medicine, and psychotherapy.

In the field of astronomy, the Arabs invented the modern astrolabe and compiled astronomical charts and tables in observatories, where they were able to define the length of a degree, determine longitude and latitude, and understand the relative speeds of sound and light. Al-Biruni discussed the possibility of Earth’s rotation in his “Exhaustive Book on Astrolabes” six centuries before the theory was proven by Galileo Galilei.

However, this scientific eminence has been lost to the sands of time. The world is moving toward an interesting future, dominated by scientific and technological advances that will determine countries’ competitiveness. Today’s world relies heavily on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) leaders and professionals to solve increasingly complex problems, such as the management of the current coronavirus pandemic, climate change, sustainable energy, and food and water security.

Additionally, our economies rely on the inventions and innovations of STEM professionals to increase quality of life and economic competitiveness. If the region is to prosper in the long-term, it is vital that countries invest in STEM education to capitalize on the new industries and new sources of wealth arising from these sectors. According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, if Australia moved just 1 percent of its workforce into STEM roles, it could add $57.4 billion to its gross domestic product (GDP). On the other hand, a lack of investment in STEM subjects could force Australia to drop out of the list of the top 20 countries in this field by 2050.

It is imperative that governments uphold STEM education as a national priority. This can be started through early childhood education centers. It is also useful to inspire parents to create a home environment that nurtures STEM skills, such as curiosity, creativity and problem-solving, in addition to fostering a love for the sciences through books, documentaries and games.

Teachers have the opportunity to use STEM activities across multiple subjects, enabling children to develop the knowledge and skills they need to pursue careers in STEM fields. It is especially important to empower girls with confidence and knowledge in order to shatter the misconceptions, stereotypes and social norms that influence the subjects they choose to study. Parents and teachers can also access many online resources to support children’s learning, such as the Smithsonian Science Education Center, National Geographic Kids, NASA STEM @ Home, and guides published by government agencies. Similar content should be available in the Arabic language for students in the region.

Additionally, more investment needs to be channeled toward research and development (R&D), especially to expedite our recovery from the ongoing pandemic. Indeed, the public sector needs to come up with new administration methods, such as delivering smart services and adopting artificial intelligence to reduce costs and increase productivity. Furthermore, much work needs to be done on upgrading the research infrastructure of universities in the region.

On the other hand, the private sector depends on R&D to bring to life new products and offer new services to customers. Governments can partner with the private sector to fund and conduct research and innovation projects. Many countries dedicate full-fledged innovation parks to attract highly reputed companies and to facilitate research in a number of fields, after which innovations can be transferred to the manufacturing stage and then rolled out to market. Governments need a suite of incentives to attract such research centers, including investing in workforces and funding research projects.

South Korea is an exemplary case study on using STEM to boost the economy. It spent 4.81 percent of its GDP on research and development in 2018. Between 1960 and 2019, it recorded an average GDP growth of 7.3 percent, allowing it to catch up with many developed economies, with innovation playing a significant role in this. The private sector accounts for 80 percent of total R&D spending, ahead of many leading innovative countries.
By sparking a renaissance of the sciences, the Arab region can assure itself of a future that promises job creation, economic growth and quality of life for its residents.

The writer is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.