25 November 2020
Bridging the gap between scientists and society in the Arab world
Published online 22 February 2011
Science and technology will be indispensable to the development of any nation in the future. Universities and scientists must interact with the wider community to breed the needed science culture.
The world of the twenty-first century will be shaped and led by knowledge-based societies and nations. Globalization has already set the stage for this era by making the world interconnected more than ever and the tools of empowerment accessible to all.
This realization is being driven by breakthroughs in science and technology that now touch every aspect of our lives. To compete in this new era we must become a science literate and science appreciative culture. Rooted in our heritage, from Ancient Egypt through the Roman and Arab/Muslim empires, nurturing this spirit is a proven catalyst to stimulating a knowledge-based society; to fostering innovation and creativity; and to promoting good citizenship and governance, and thereby developing society as a whole.
But how can we, as a region, induce this transition from our present reality? Societal transformations do not emerge in a vacuum. They require a cultural context driven by visionaries and institutions. With over 60% of the population below 25 years of age (more than any other region in the world), universities and educational institutions are poised to play a pivotal and vital role. Schools and universities need to realize their untapped potential in fostering public engagement with science and knowledge, while bridging the divide between science on the one hand and arts and humanities on the other. This should yield cross-disciplinary collaborations among their faculty and students, setting the stage for a true enrichment to the curricula and education.
The human passion and curiosity to know and understand nature, the Universe, and ourselves is an important value to cultivate.
More and more scientific and technological issues — ranging from climate change to renewable energy, from epidemics to natural disasters, and from pioneering biomedical research to new medical practices — appear in the daily news. These may sometimes stir controversy, but they always influence much of our public discourse locally and across the globe. The need for the scientific and intellectual community to convey highly complex technical information and any potential implications to mass audiences grows apace. Furthermore, as scientists and intellectuals attempt to address these issues with the general public, the need to enliven their communications so that they truly resonate with non-specialist audiences becomes ever more urgent.
To achieve this greater appreciation of science effectively and widely, universities need to launch new initiatives with formal and informal programmes. New bridging courses and curricula will need to be introduced to connect science and other disciplines, including mass communication, history, performing and visual arts, among others, so that graduates are ready to play an effective role as science communicators.
Universities will also need to revamp their community outreach role and activities by offering informal learning programmes that genuinely engage youth and society at large, such as the Cairo Science Festival, held for the first time in April 2010. In essence, there needs to be a dialogue between the intellectual and scientific communities and society (including civil society organizations). The benefits of such a dialogue are mutual and countless. Because science in the popular regional media, as well as science museums, nature centres, aquariums, planetariums and the likes are rather scarce in our locale, the need to create informal learning opportunities is a must.
Informal learning encompasses a variety of venues and media and offers valuable learning outcomes for people from all walks of life, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds and abilities. It allows people to explore and pursue their own interests and it provides useful social interactions. While formal learning stops for most people when they finish school or university, informal learning activities encourage people to become lifelong learners. Informal learning at schools and universities enhances and enriches formal learning by encouraging further inquiry and enjoyment. Research shows that participation in informal learning activities is linked to academic success and even good government policy .
The human passion and curiosity to know and understand nature, the Universe, and ourselves is an important value to cultivate. It led the first person to control fire and to domesticate plants. In the twentieth century, it led humankind to walk on the moon, to harness the atom, and to decipher the human genetic code. These endeavours are essential for our species to survive and thrive, and for the Middle East to recapture and surpass their legacies.
It is a birthright for every person to experience and enjoy this connection with nature and it is an act of civic duty for scientists, intellectuals, and universities to make it happen.
Alaa Ibrahim is an astrophysicist and assistant professor at the physics departments of the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Following more than a decade in the US, Ibrahim returned to Egypt to work towards materializing the paradigm he witnessed in the US of integrating cutting edge research, innovative teaching, and public service and community outreach.
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