Inspiring children to tackle the Middle East’s science deficit

Inspiring children to tackle the Middle East’s science deficit

An illustration depicting a group of Neanderthals hunting with non-projectile weapons. (AP Photo)

A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary called “Neanderthal Apocalypse.” The documentary interviewed scientists and experts that explained recent genetic and archaeological discoveries that proved Neanderthals were not less intelligent than Homo Sapiens. It also showcased a team of scientists, stationed at the summit camp research center in Greenland at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The team analyzed 90,000 year old ice core samples. Gases and sediments suggested that a volcano that erupted at the same time could be the reason behind the Neanderthals’ disappearance.  

What struck me most about the documentary was not so much the scientific discovery, but the people behind it. I was intrigued by their specializations, and by their intricate expertise in the fields of geology and archeology. The researchers were supported by universities and research centers that dedicated time, budgets and other necessary resources to carry this expedition. In many cases, these expeditions require teams to be working in remote locations, in freezing temperatures, years on end, just to be able to confirm one theory.

A few days later, and while playing an animal show with my son, we watched as young individuals studying and working in zoos and sanctuaries explained the quirky mannerisms of animals like penguins, meer cats and sloths. I could not help but wonder, when was the last time I came across a researcher from the Gulf region studying the behavior of octopuses, or early remains of human beings, or even trees and algae.  

A quick google search of Arab scientists will produce a list of painted images — not photographs — of the most influential scientists from the golden age, including Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Al-Nafis, and Al-Kindi. We have all studied them in our history books as exemplary figures of Arab scientists. But if we’re asked about prominent researchers currently practicing then we will most likely struggle to find an answer.

The subject of the status of scientific research in the Arab world has been discussed and explored far too many times. The percentage of scientists and researchers from the total population is insignificant. The Arab world counts 371 researchers per million people, compared to a world average of 1,081 (OECD, 2010)

We are not debating the relative importance of research in the Arab context. We understand there is a problem, but very little seems to change. We have identified many causes, including lack of interest in science research throughout education, the absence of a fostering environment, and lack of necessary financial and human resources. In fact, and according to Strategy&, research and development spending in the UAE amounts to 0.9 percent of GDP, and just 0.1 percent of GDP in Bahrain. 

We are not debating the relative importance of research in the Arab context. We understand there is a problem, but very little seems to change.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

Brian Whitaker, author and journalist, went as far as to claim in his book “What is really wrong with the Middle East” that the “knowledge deficit” goes back to the way children are taught in school and raised at home. He explains that from a very young age, children are discouraged from asking questions, exploration and taking initiative. Schooling continues this process in that “knowledge is objectified so as to hold incontestable facts.”

Recently, and while we have noticed an increasing interest and investment in scientific research, funding and attention is almost exclusively geared towards hot fields like space, innovation, medicine, nuclear science and artificial intelligence (AI). We hardly see experts in botany, entomology or zoology. The unfortunate reality is that our children start to develop interests in dinosaurs, animals, oceans and stars. However somewhere along the way, they lose that passion and curiosity and instead follow the classic study fields of business, political science and engineering.

To cater to the challenges of the future, the educational focus will be in the fields of AI, robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality, big data, data analysis and alternative energy.

We must give priority to the fields of tomorrow, however, we should also encourage the basic sciences in the neglected fields. Researchers should feel encouraged to explore all paths and passions, including the ones that are not typically popular. We must foster their curiosity from an early stage and not force them into pre-existing molds.

For how long are we going to make reference to the “golden age” of Arab science? How many times will we boast of our role in Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment? Isn’t it time we take the lead in uncommon fields? Why can’t we encourage our kids to pursue their childhood obsession of dinosaurs into paleontology, to follow the stars into astronomy? Is it not time for us to rediscover discovery?

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
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