MUSLIMS of the world contribute an extremely small share to its knowledge relative to their 1.6 billion in number.
This is reflected in the number of Nobel laureates in the sciences — only three — from the 57 countries with a Muslim majority population (the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation or OIC), in the number of books or patents, and in the number of universities from OIC countries in the top 400 of world rankings.
Other indicators include research spending, researchers per million people, the performance of pre-university students in science and math and global university rankings.
Overall, OIC countries invest less than 0.5 per cent of their gross domestic product on research and development, and only one country, Malaysia, spends more than one per cent. The world average, meanwhile, is 1.78 per cent, and most advanced countries spend 2.5 to 3 per cent.
In terms of pre-university preparation, standardised international tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment have shown students from Muslim-majority countries are well behind their peers worldwide.
What causes this state of affairs, and what are the potential remedies?
I recently had the honour to chair an international non-governmental and nonpartisan Task Force of experts organised by the Muslim World Science Initiative — a private non-partisan group of individuals.
Our review found that several countries have made good progress in terms of research and spending. But many issues — beyond the low number of papers and citations — soon became evident, such as how universities of the Muslim world teach and disseminate science, what kind of scientists were being educated, what is being taught, and what knowledge/curriculum is promoted.
Among the important underlying themes and issues, four stand out:
Research production: Quantity, quality and content
Data on science production shows that 20 OIC countries have produced more papers in the last decade (2006-2015) than the previous one (1996-2005) and, among the more aggressive of these countries, at a rate greater than five comparable non-OIC countries.
Several OIC countries increased the number of papers published by factors of 7.7 (Qatar), 7.6 (Iran), 6.5 (Pakistan), and 5.8 (Malaysia and Iraq). A few countries have had very modest increases, but most improved their output by a factor of 2 to 3.
Quality is more important than quantity, though; this aspect we assessed through the citation-per-paper ratios. The data suggests that papers from Muslim countries are less frequently cited; furthermore, a recent list by the journal Nature of the 100 most cited papers had none with a lead author from the Muslim world.
Beyond becoming globally competitive, it is critical that scientific research in the Muslim world be relevant and responsive to society’s intellectual and practical needs. This dual goal seems to be out of sight — and often out of consideration.
One approach at a growing number of countries in the Islamic world is to partner with — in fact, almost transplant campuses overnight — foreign universities, and through them, engage in cutting-edge research.
Universities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are hosting such bold new experiments and may be achieving some success, though the jury is still out on their wider impacts and long-term sustainability. And these are extremely expensive strategies, largely out of reach for a vast majority of OIC countries.
There is a correlation between large research spending increases made recently by some countries and an upsurge in research publications. Close international collaborations are also recommended to strengthen research programmes and raise their calibre.
Other shortcomings relate to an understanding of science and its social aspects. The Task Force noted with alarm that science and engineering curricula in the Muslim world are invariably so technically focused that graduates struggle to connect science and technology with the society and the world at large.
Broad liberal education in science
With few exceptions in most OIC countries, not only are students channelled into science or non-science streams (and thus careers) around the age of 14, but subsequent education is completely binary: science and technology students receive little general education — in the humanities, social science, languages and communication, for example — and vice versa.
This needs to be addressed. Today’s scientists and engineers must be creative and innovative and able to work as part of multidisciplinary and multinational teams, and this is only possible if they receive a broad and liberal education. A broad knowledge is needed for flexible and nimble thinking to intelligently relate the theoretical and practical aspects of a given problem, and to benefit from ideas found in other fields.
Another area of particular weakness within science education in the Muslim world is the almost universal absence of philosophy and even the history of science, essential for enabling scientists to engage on critical societal questions in terms of ethics, religious issues, purpose and goals of research, etc.
Curricular and pedagogical developments
The Task Force also notes that science textbooks used at universities of the Muslim world are most often imported and used as is from the West, with all the positives and negatives that this entails. Beyond the two vital issues of what must be taught and in what language (English/French vs local/native languages), the question of how science should be taught is also of critical importance.
With few exceptions, science curricula at universities of the Muslim world tend to be heavily loaded, with extensive “coverage” of topics, instead of aiming for a deeper understanding of how the sciences work and scientists think, and how to analyse problems.
Transforming our universities into meritocracies
In addition to knowledge production and scholarship, one of the main goals and raisons d’être of universities worldwide is to develop within society a culture of inquiry, intellectual rigour and merit — characteristics of the Muslim “Golden Age” of science, abut 1,250 to 750 years ago.
Needed is a culture in which learning is fostered and nurtured — the incubation of future scientists, thinkers and citizens. Transforming universities into bastions of meritocracy for the benefit of society will require some fundamental re-engineering: empowering them to do so, holding them accountable and measuring and rewarding success.
Quality and merit should be the primary goals driving decision-making in universities and should apply to administrative as well as curricular and research.
Our universities must hire good faculty staff, fund and support their development as scientists, thinkers, teachers, and communicators, and foster the right values for all to thrive in a complex and competitive world.
The writer is the chair of the recently-released Report of the Zakri Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World, convened by the Muslim World Science Initiative, London and Islamabad