Science investment paying off in the Middle East

Published online 3 April 2011

Tony Scully

Several countries in the Middle East are reaping the return on their increased investment in science, according to the report Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century1, published earlier this week by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom.

Tunisia made rapid scientific progress since 1996. By 2009, its research expenditure had reached 1.25% of GDP, up from 0.03% 13 years eariler. This increased investment led to a restructuring of the national R&D system and setting up 624 research units and 139 research laboratories, with 72 labs dedicated to biotechnology sciences. (See How Tunisia's science measures up)

Turkey's government pumped six-times more money into research and development in 2007 than it did in 1995 and increased the number of researchers by 43%. In 2008, Turks published four times as many research papers as they did in 1996, and rivals the gains made by China in terms of growth.

Qatar plans to increase public spending on science to 2.8% of GDP by 2015. This compares to an average of 1.78% in the European Union. This, alongside reforms to education and a massive capital investment in infrastructure since the early 1990s, has the tiny gas-rich nation competing to become a knowledge-based economy.

Iran is benefiting from increased collaborations with international partners. Despite political tensions, the United States remains its highest international collaborator. The number of research publications from Iran has skyrocketed from just 736 in 1996 to 13,238 in 2008 — making it the fastest growing country in these terms in the world.

Promising projects

A total of US$ 1,000 billion goes towards R&D expenditure worldwide, a 45% increase since 2002. The United States still dominates league tables, spending US$ 400 billion a year on science, and remains the most prolific nation in publishing research results. But rapid economic growth in China, India, Brazil and emerging nations in the Middle East are helping globalize the scientific community.

More than 35% of all articles published in international journals are now the product of international collaborations. This represents an increase of 10% over the past 15 years, according to the report. As South-South science collaborations increase, Egypt and Sudan are now poised to build bridges between north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Between the periods of 1999 to 2003 and 2004 to 2008, Egypt's domestic production of research papers grew by 43% after government and business more than doubled their investment in science from US$403 million in 1996 to $911 million in 2007.

"Developments in the Middle East are equally striking. Saudi Arabia has recently opened its new [King Abdullah University of Science and Technology] KAUST. With an endowment of around US$20 billion, KAUST is attracting faculty and postgraduate students from across the world. As a graduate-only institution, it aims to rival the California institute of technology for prestige within 20 years," says the report.

It also highlights several innovative projects that could increase the region's potential in science. The Masdar Initiative in the United Arab Emirates, which plans to be the world's first carbon neutral city, will focus on renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

The Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), which is under construction in Jordan, is modeled on Europe's CERN. It is a joint project between nine countries and, besides building scientific capacity, can increase collaborations across the region.

One of the important factors helping developing nations collaborate in world class research is the information revolution. Countries with the fastest rate of growths in scientific output also show high increases in mobile phone usage and internet penetration. Internet penetration in Iran, claims the report, has grown 13,000% since the turn of the century.

In Tunisia, penetration has grown 3,600% from 100,000 users to 3.6 million since 2000. The report contends that this allows for the "rapid and effective sharing of information" and removes some of the logistical problems of working together across time zones. The rise of the social web and, social networks in particular, has the potential to dramatically change the way scientists collaborate.