Assistant Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Muhammad Naeem Khan says the Islamic world has outlined a 10-year plan to solve its science deficit
For far too long, Muslim-majority countries have lagged behind the rest of the world in science and technology. On average, Muslim-majority countries spend less than 0.5 per cent of their GDP on research and development, compared with five times that in developed economies. In the developed world, for every thousand residents, there are 140 scientists, engineers and technicians. Globally, the average is 40. But in the Islamic world, we have even less – just ten.
Yes, there has been important progress. The past decade or so has seen the tripling of scientific publications and researchers, and major investments by several OIC countries in education and scientific infrastructure.
But this is a drop in the ocean. Three years ago, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) partnered with The Royal Society to conduct the first major analysis of the science crisis facing the Islamic world. Despite collectively holding nearly a quarter of the world’s population, the report found that OIC countries account for just 2.4 per cent of its research expenditure, 1.6 per cent of its patents and 6 per cent of its publications.
According to the 2016 Global Innovation Index (GII), the majority of the OIC countries are below the world average of 36.9. In terms of High Technology Exports (HTE), such as aerospace, computers, software, pharmaceuticals and electrical machinery, the share of the OIC countries in 2014 was only 3.3 per cent of the total world HTE market of US$2.34 trillion.
This scientific deficit has undoubtedly held the Islamic world back from driving innovations essential to compete in the global economy. It has also left many OIC countries struggling in the face of newly emerging threats from climate change, water scarcity and food insecurity, due to a lack of viable science-based solutions.
To tackle this challenge head-on, the OIC held its first Science and Technology Summit in Kazakhstan in early September. The summit aimed to generate a consensus among our 57 member-states on key reforms that could revitalise science and technology across the Islamic world.
This led to several ground-breaking proposals being adopted by member-states, including some uncompromisingly ambitious policy goals calling for universal access to water, healthcare and education, for both men and women.
More concretely, OIC countries agreed to consider increasing science spending by 2025: those spending less than 0.3 per cent of their GDP on scientific infrastructure have been encouraged to double their investments; and more advanced OIC members are pledged to lift their spending to 2 per cent of GDP.
OIC member-states also agreed to some tangible new targets, aiming within the next ten years to double the share of member states in global scientific output; double the number of scientific workers per million people; and aim for increasing the share of high technology goods and services in the economies and trade of member states to 10 per cent.
Among the most ambitious proposals were to create Centres for Space Technologies that may lead to an Inter-Islamic Space Agency, and to connect OIC Member States through secure, high speed, fibre-optic land and sea based networks and satellite links.
However, the major concern was to improve the lives of average OIC citizens. That is why the OIC urged member-states to consider raising government health spending to a minimum of 10 per cent of national budgets.
Ultimately, though, for these targets to be realistically achieved requires a major cultural shift across the Islamic world to recognise the value of scientific inquiry. This, in turn, demands environments of critical investigation and informed-debate.
For this reason, another key element agreed at the summit was to revitalise wider educational infrastructures. In practical terms, member-states signed up to increase spending on all tiers of education to around 8 per cent of national budgets in accordance with the relevant national legislation in each member state. The OIC also called on member-states to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics key priorities.
A parallel challenge, of course, is to ensure a direct route from a more easily available, and affordable, high quality science education, straight into viable employment. Member-states thus adopted a new target of minimum 20 per cent enrollment of 15- to 19-year-olds in technical and vocational education.
By elevating the scientific educational resources available to our young people, we hope to foster a new culture of innovation and inquiry across the Islamic world.
This may seem like a herculean task, but we must remember that science was once the province of Islam. Over a thousand years ago, algebra, astronomy, geography, medicine and industrial chemistry were all pioneered across the Islamic world for nearly half a millennium.
Far from being an alien doctrine, the scientific spirit of open inquiry has always been integral to Islamic civilisation. Islam lays special importance on seeking knowledge and the Quran’s first injunction was to ‘Read’. References are frequently made in the Quran to the importance of studying the wonders of nature, whether on land, sea or even space.
The challenge ahead, then, will be to reawaken the Islamic world to the fact that science has always been our own.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was established in 1969 and its General Secretariat is headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The OIC is at the forefront of championing Islamic interests around the world and offers a unique platform for Islamic states to engage in constructive dialogue. With 57 Member States representing a total population of 1.5 billion, the OIC is the second largest international organisation, behind the United Nations.