Science in the Arab World: Between Ideals and Reality

Samir Mattar

Ahmed Zewail's idealism and success is evident on every page of his autobiography, "Voyage Through Time: Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize." He reminds us of the altruism, the enthusiasm, and the stimulating atmosphere experienced by many a foreign student beginning graduate school in the U.S.: "I was working almost day and night and doing several projects at the same time…. Now thinking about it, I cannot imagine doing all of this again, but of course, then I was young and innocent."

Born in the Nile delta town of Damanhur, the city of Horus - who represents the triumph of light over darkness, truth over error, science over superstition - Zewail relates experiences from his childhood and adolescence in Disuq, steeped in the culture of Egypt, with the local mosque as a center of culture, scholarship, and religion. At an early age, the young Zewail excelled in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, but also enjoyed Arabic literature, history, photography, art, music, and theater. As we follow Zewail's path from Alexandria University in Egypt to the U.S. for his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, we learn that Zewail retained a strong affiliation with his family and his boyhood home. He even debated returning to Egypt: "I recollected all the wonderful years of my childhood and the opportunities Egypt had provided to me. Returning was important to me, but I also knew that Egypt would not be able to provide the scientific atmosphere I had enjoyed in the U.S." Moreover, he also remembered "the frustrating bureaucracy encountered at the time of my departure" from Egypt. He stayed in the U.S., rose quickly through the ranks to become the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Physics, director of the NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences at the forefront of international science, and to win the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

For most of us, a nanosecond - one billionth of a second - defines an unbelievably brief blink of time. But in Femtoland, Ahmed Zewail's NSF Laboratory for Molecular Sciences, waiting for a nanosecond to tick is like watching paint dry. In 1901, Dutch chemist Jacobus Van't Hoff was awarded the first Nobel Prize for chemistry, in part for defining some mathematical laws that describe chemical reactions. By the close of the century, Zewail has set chemistry more firmly upon its empirical foundations by showing us literally everything that moves in the world of molecules through the femtosecond - 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 a quadrillionth of a second.

I understand Zewail's reluctance to return to Egypt. For him, America was truly the fount of knowledge -- and opportunities. Reading "Voyage Through Time" at the same time that I was poring over "The Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations" got me thinking: What does it take to win a Nobel Prize? Why the dearth of Arab Nobel Prize winners? What went wrong with the Arab world? Why is it so stuck behind the times?

The Arabs, who once led the world in science, are dropping ever further behind in scientific research and in information technology. In the Arab world, investment in research and development is less than one-seventh of the world average. There are about 8,000 researchers compared with 400,000 in the United States, and the annual per capita spending on scientific research is $4, which is 300 times less than in the United States. Research budgets are around 0.25% of the GNP, compared with 3.5% in the developed world. Also, only 0.6% of the Arab population use the Internet, and 1.2% have personal computers. Hopelessly under-funded, scientific research, one of the driving forces of economic and strategic progress, is a marginal activity for Arabs. Add this to the unsparing United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report by Arab scholars that tries to explain why this region lags behind so much of the world.

It is not an obviously unlucky region. Endowed with oil wealth, and with its people sharing a rich cultural, religious, and linguistic heritage, it faces neither endemic poverty nor ethnic conflict, although religious intolerance is rearing its ugly head. The barrier to better Arab performance, we are told, is not a lack of resources, but the lamentable shortage of three essentials: freedom (the survival of absolute autocracies and republics; the holding of bogus elections; confusion between the executive and the judiciary branches), knowledge (a severe mismatch between the labor market and the education system), and womanpower (the Arab world still does not treat its women as full citizens - thus stifling half its productive potential).

Arab countries can still stimulate research and technological development by creating an enabling social, academic, commercial, and regulatory environment. Like Zewail, most Arab intellectuals crave the ever-receding renaissance; and, like him, they would choose the path of knowledge where opportunities abound--but, evidently, it would not be in today's Arab world. For Zewail, the role of thought is to search, question, explain, and share his findings; would that not be anathema in most of the Arab world with its deeply engrained fear of fawda (chaos) and fitna (schism)? "If God were to humiliate a human being," wrote Imam Ali bin abi-Taleb, the last of the four rightly guided Caliphs, "He would deny him knowledge."

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 41 (Fall 2002)

Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid

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