Kiss of Life: Muslim world taskforce wants to save science universities

Published online 16 November 2015

Founder of the Muslim World Science Initiative Athar Osama talks about its big plans to revitalize the Muslim world’s ailing science universities.

Pakinam Amer

Muslim World Science Initiative founder Athar Osama 
Muslim World Science Initiative founder Athar Osama 
© Ahsan Qureshi Photography
The University of Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco, is the world's oldest continually operational university and a relic of an Islamic Golden Age. Yet, despite its glorious history in pedagogy, the Muslim world these days contributes sparingly to the growing body of knowledge.

The Muslim world, with its 57 countries, roughly 25% of the world’s population, has contributed only 1.6% of the world's patents, 6% of academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure to date, according to a report by a non-governmental taskforce of scientists, experts and educators, including Athar Osama, founder of the Muslim World Science initiative. 

This taskforce is straddling a line between reform and revolution; creating an initiative that aims to turn science education in Muslim universities on its head, but in stages.

From investigating university programmes and revamping them, to encouraging institutions to shift to meritocracy, offering training in the best science practices while establishing models of excellence, the taskforce may be accused of chasing an unattainable goal — considering the complexity and magnitude of the problems facing the Muslim world’s educational systems. 

But the taskforce members, including experts like Osama, are hopeful that their efforts will pay off. 

Nature Middle East speaks to Osama about the problem of science in the Muslim world, his taskforce’s first report and what the experts hope to achieve. 

How is this initiative unique? 

The purpose of the taskforce is to create a conversation about issues of science and society in the Muslim world. We want to enhance and amplify the voice of individuals; we want to involve a much wider cross-section, not just governments.  

Isn’t the involvement of Muslim world governments essential for real change?  

The governments respond to initiatives through their own plans and activities. Governments don’t feel much pressure right now. They do not feel obliged. That’s why we want to create a bottom-up conversation. It’s a society-based approach; where societies would encourage governments to act. 

We do believe that a small group of people who are motivated and enlightened, who come together to create a debate about issues that affect societies can go a long way in terms of convincing governments to cooperate.  

"A lot of times the problems can be solved but we’re not being vocal about it."

The report recommends, among other things, giving universities more autonomy, an overhaul of science curricula in addition to promoting the right metrics. What should take priority? Where should the Muslim world start?

The approach we’re taking, is saying, ‘listen, let’s not try to solve all of these problems for the entire Muslim world, let’s not try to fix all Muslim universities at once. Let’s just create a few models of excellence to inspire.’ This is what we’re doing. We’ll let the [Muslim] society judge for itself and see what excellence looks like. And as a result of that inspire others to achieve excellence. We’re calling for a network of excellence where each individual would work with eight to ten universities in the Muslim world and try to help them understand what a scientific approach is, what kind of actions and recommendations to implement, and how they can implement them. [Teaching them about] different practices, setting up summer schools for university leaders; we want to get everyone’s hand dirty regarding how to do this right. As time progresses, we will also monitor progress of universities who join this implementation network, and issue report cards to celebrate progress when that happens. 

So if you are a university that wants to do this right, if you’re a vice-chancellor or a provost and you’re interested in understanding how to do this correctly, you become part of a network and this taskforce can help you do that. If you’re a dean, and your professors need training, you want to organize summer schools for university leaders … if you want to understand how to integrate social sciences with hard sciences, or philosophy or history to the teaching of science, we can give you the tools and approaches on how to do it correctly. 

So this is dependent on the will and initiative of these universities? Or are you targeting specific institutions to jumpstart your work?

Ideally, we would like the universities to approach the taskforce, and we can help them build capacity for undertaking science education reforms. This way, our focus is to start small with a handful of institutions that have the desire to change and do things right  — rather than try to convince those who are sceptical of these reforms. Hopefully, if some institutions show market progress, others will automatically follow their example. 

You don’t offer funds and will work with the university’s resources?

Yes, exactly. 

Do you believe that universities can achieve excellence without aggressive funding? Because science can be demanding on resources, for example good labs, state of the art technology, etc. 

I think that could happen … if universities begin to show progress, money could automatically come. But most of the reforms we're talking about do not cost a lot of money. For example, teaching science in a manner that is inquiry-based doesn't cost much, so universities should be able to do it. Similarly, we're saying that science students should also be taught philosophy and history of science as well as languages and social sciences to create more holistic individuals. Those are not very costly actions...they're just signs and signals that the university is seeking to do the right things. Of course, money becomes a bottleneck at some stage but I think there are low-hanging fruits that we must pick first before getting to the tougher ones. 

So the lack of money won’t hinder your efforts? 

It’s a step-by-step process. Once we create this desire for excellence, [the resources will come.] Most of the time, the problem with science in the Muslim world is that we’re not demanding enough of our governments. A lot of times the problems can be solved but we’re not being vocal about it. We all understand the science problem but we’re not willing to put a lot of pressure on our governments to fund science. 

In your recommendations for progress, you speak of giving universities more autonomy. What are you asking governments to do?

A lot of university appointments are made by ministries or higher education regulators. These regulators decide what is taught in the universities. A student in the biology department cannot take part in the physics department because the regulator doesn’t allow this to happen. You cannot create your own major, but these days all scientists are very multidisciplinary. We have mathematicians who are working in biology and physicists who are working in chemistry. If our regulators are so stringent that they don’t allow this cross-pollination of ideas to happen, we have a problem.

We want universities to have freedom to innovate, and to debate, discuss and critique all kinds of ideas. We want innovation in curriculum and in pedagogy. 

But, of course, there are cases where universities when given autonomy have chosen to engage in a race to the bottom. That is, instead of improving quality and hiring better faculty, quality declines and they hire worse faculty. 

"It’s a perceived conflict between science and Islam, especially in areas like cosmology and evolution."

So while autonomy is an aspiration, universities must also become meritocracies to justify that autonomy. We want universities to hire based on merit. 

If you're not going to hire the best possible faculty, and give them freedom to do what they do best, how will you ever be able to do excellent science?

Why do some universities fail or falter when given autonomy? 

Most of the 'old' and large universities have faculty that hasn't engaged in competitive research of any kind. Not long ago, most such universities were merely teaching shops and not required to do research. Now, you suddenly ask them to do quality research and [in the absence of regulators] they find themselves struggling because they have never done it before; it’s not their fault, they were never asked to do it. So, these people sometimes feel threatened and they discourage younger faculty from doing research. So autonomy can be a double-edged sword. 

In a Nature commentary  this month, scientist Nidhal Guessoum and yourself argue that using textbooks that assume a Western experience and teaching in English or French can create a disconnect between education and culture. All prestigious high-quality science publications are in English, so won’t studying in the local language — like Arabic, Farsi or Urdu — create a disconnect between the students’ education and their careers later as scientists? 

We actually need to encourage bilingual education. We do understand that most of the high-calibre publications are done in English. We also do understand that the local vs. English debate is a ‘chicken and egg problem’; most students do not do well in universities or don’t end up in science universities because they don’t understand science that’s taught in English. They come from a school system where everything is taught in the local language. Science is one degree of complexity and English on top of it creates another degree of complexity. 

Wouldn’t it be better to give students preparatory language training, instead of switching the entire system?

There’s no consensus on which road to take when it comes to languages. Governments and institutions, should perhaps investigate the best approach. We also think that by the time students come to universities, they should be exposed to English as a second-language, but while they’re at the university, they should be trained to be multilingual so that they can operate in a versatile manner. What we say in the report is that maybe we need to mix the language, during science instruction. So you can, for instance, offer the class lecturing in English but tutorials in the local language. The whole idea is for students to really get the concepts [being studied].

Muslim World Science Initiative members
Muslim World Science Initiative members
© Ahsan Qureshi Photography
Why not use the Western/European experience as a model instead of re-thinking everything from scratch?

We don’t have anything against the European experiences. There’s no harm in learning from them. In Europe, and in most other intellectually 'living' nations, there are strong translation movements where everything gets translated instantly into their local language. Try going to a bookshop in France, Germany, or even Turkey, and you'll find [a translation of] every single book on earth but not a single book in English. So we must be ready to create robust translation movements. If we can credibly do that, we probably don't need as much English. But until we do that, and also to interact with global scientific literature, which is predominantly in English, we must help create bilingual learners. 

You mention that there are science universities here that refuse evolution altogether for religious regions. How do you plan on resolving this conflict in a predominantly religious region? 

In some cases, I think, it’s a perceived conflict between science and Islam, especially in areas like cosmology and evolution. The taskforce takes the position that science should be kept out of religion, and religion out of science. In the science classroom, the students are often thinking about the religious interpretations, like ‘I read this in the Quran, and you’re teaching me that.’ [There’s a dichotomy]. 

Should universities accommodate this thought process? Is it their job to reconcile students’ faith and their science education? 

In his essay [on teaching evolution], Michael Reiss argues that the purpose of teaching evolution in the classroom should not necessarily be to convince the student of the truth of this theory but to teach the theory as a scientific fact. But we do understand that the reality of the classroom is different. As Mustafa El-Tayeb points out; you’ve got a 45-minute lecture on evolution and cosmology and then in the end, you say, ‘by the way, this is just a theory and the Quran says this.’ So essentially you’ve wasted 45 minutes of your time … you negate yourself automatically. 

I think one of the ways to address this, and the taskforce is quite clear on that, is that you can’t study science in the absence of the history of science or the philosophy of science. So if you know these subjects, you can understand how the knowledge that you’re gaining can be placed in the overall view of things. You get to understand how [Muslim] scientists of earlier years have thoughts about these issues, in the same manner, and have reached similar or different conclusions. 

One of the things we’re very strongly against is this narrow strait of science that many universities embark upon in the Muslim world and developing countries. That’s why we want to train people to understand these tricky and sensitive issues in the intersection of science and religion. 

So can the interlacing of religion, culture and science here enrich the thought process instead of restrict it? 

Yes, sometimes it can. I believe it’s the way you approach an issue. I strongly believe that somehow we need to create a balance between our faith and what science tells us. I do believe God invokes Muslims in the Quran to study science and observe his creation. I don’t believe the former can ever give us a wrong answer.