Could Arabs one day regain their historical inspiration and explore space?

Published online 22 August 2012

The Algerian researcher Noureddine Melikechi is one of many Arab science researchers who had to leave his country to continue studying and pursue a bright career abroad.

Hichem Boumedjout

Melikechi left the Houari Boumediene University of Sciences and Technology in Algiers, in the early 1990s. Today, he is the vice president of research at Delaware State University and the founder and technical director of the Applied Optics Center.

He is one of 300 scientists across the United States working on the Mars Science Laboratory mission which landed the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars this month. He is part of the ChemCam team, which yesterday fired an infrared laser at a fist-sized rock on the surface of Mars and will now study its composition for elements needed to sustain life.

Why did you leave work in Algeria to pursue a career in the US?

After I completed my studies at the Houari Boumediene University, I became a professor there for 18 months. I then had to leave home due to the tough social and political circumstances in Algeria. I was also keen to continue my education in a Western university.

In the beginning I went to the United Kingdom. I got my Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Sussex then went on to the US and joined the renowned Delaware State University as a researcher in using lasers for early detection of cancers.

I did not face any difficulties or obstacles here in the US. All conditions are optimum to conduct sophisticated scientific research. A researcher only needs to work and compete in order to prove himself. This is available to everyone without discrimination.

Today you are part of the science team working on the Curiosity rover. What is the rover's mission?

This is the age of technology and knowledge-based economies and nations who do not care about science research will not last long

There have been several exploration missions to Mars in the past but none as sophisticated as where we are today.

This is the first time that we are able to send a rover that can move and scan the surface and skies of Mars, as it can move a total estimated distance of 20 km. This is considered an accomplishment, since no rover has ever moved on Mars before. It can also capture accurate images for us to analyze back at the NASA control center.

The objectives of this mission are to find out if there is life on Mars or if it is habitable for humans. The information currently available to us neither confirms nor denies the possibility of living on Mars.

This mission will enable us to determine the existence of the elements of life, including oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorous and a source of energy, as well as water. We have images of what look like dry valleys that may have previously been real valleys. We also have images of icebergs but we don't know what kind. All this is not enough, however. To sustain life of the planet, there must be running water.

In addition to that, Mars is surrounded by many unidentified rays. We must identify and analyze them.

We estimate the mission will last two years, but it could take up to ten years.

What is the status of space research in the Arab world?

I know that we are lagging behind because of our lack of scientific qualifications, but there is great interest in this field of research. It also requires the provision of considerable budgets that the Arab countries are still unable to provide.

In Algeria, for example, I have relationships with science researchers from several different universities, but I have no ties with the Algerian Space Agency. This shows a lack of coordination between local authorities and expatriate researchers outside the country. The same problem arises in all Arab countries.

What are the main problems that face Arab researchers and how can they overcome them?

I think that the current cultural, financial and political circumstances of Arab states are the main cause of deterioration of science research in the region. Looking at the mediocre budgets given to scientific research sectors, it seems obvious that governments of these countries do not care about science. The lack of any kind of strategic planning and clear, concise policies leads to widespread confusion and chaos throughout their science research ministries.

The other problem behind the deterioration of science research in Arab states is the marginalization of researchers within their own countries. Scientists receive no appreciation or gratitude nor is there any encouragement for their work. This compounds the problem of limited resources they have at their disposal.

The Arab states must change these conditions because this is the age of technology and knowledge-based economies and nations who do not care about science research will not last long.

How can one generate more interest among Arabs in space sciences?

I would bet by raising a young generation within a science culture. We should instill a love of science, discovery and invention in them. This is the cornerstone if we want to build a strong scientific system that is able to produce research of the highest quality.

How do you see the future of this science in the Arab world and do you think that a day may come when the Arabs explore space?

In the past Arabs were pioneers in astronomy. Different nationalities flocked to them to learn about this science. We were distinguished because the researchers back then were very interested in this science and found all conditions were favorable to conduct research.

Therefore, I believe that it is not impossible that a day might come when Arabs explore space. The scientific competencies are there and many people have vast science expertise which can contribute to the achievement of this dream.