Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “golden age of learning” under the leadership of the visionary King Abdullah, according to the famous medical academic and scientist, Professor Dr. Sultan Ayoub Meo. In an exclusive interview with Abdul Hannan Tago of Arab News, he emphasizes the Saudi government’s massive education spending and predicts the country will become a future global hub for research and science and technology.
How did the Muslim World contribute to learning?
The Muslim world covers a vast area of the globe, comprising 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) with a total population of about 1.62 billion people, approximately one-fourth of the world population. Muslim scholars, especially from the Arab world, have made tremendous contributions towards science. From 750 to 1258 CE, the world of Islam was at the peak of the Golden Age of Enlightenment as most of history’s eminent scientists originated from its ranks. Muslim scientists have made (many) modern scientific discoveries and did great in medicine, surgery, physics, astronomy, mathematics, chemistry and geography.
Are there sufficient universities and research institutes in the Muslim world?
There are approximately 1,900 universities and degree-awarding institutes in the Muslim world. However, in the wealthy Muslim Middle East countries, the number of universities and research institutes are not enough in comparison to the size of their economies. There are 564 universities and degree-awarding institutes in the Muslim Middle East countries. This is a small figure, keeping in mind the large population of the Muslim world.
Quite a few educational institutions in the Muslim world have initiated indigenous research programs. A number of Saudi universities, for example, have become renowned for their endeavors, and have climbed (up the) world rankings. What do you think about this?
You’re right. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, has recognized the importance of research, and recently a large number of new universities were established in science and technology and medicine. A few universities in Saudi Arabia including King Saud University-Riyadh, King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals-Dammam, King Abdulaziz University-Jeddah and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology-Thuwal received reputable positions in the world in both academia and research. As per the Shanghai ranking, KSU-Riyadh is ranked first among Muslim countries.
Are Muslim universities and research institutes producing reputable scientists?
Despite housing a quarter of the global population, Muslim countries have generated few scientists of international repute. Only two scientists — one from Pakistan and another from Egypt — have become Nobel laureates. Our countries have less than one percent of the world scientists, generate about 11 percent of its science, and hardly make 0.1 percent of the world’s original research discoveries. They have a negligible percentage of patent registrations in the US. However, currently Saudi universities are producing excellent, shared research.
What is the situation on Research and Development (R&D) spending in the Muslim world today?
Nature has blessed a number of Muslim states with invaluable natural resources including petrochemical reserves and mineral wealth. Most of them have enviably high per capita incomes, but regrettably allocate very little in their budgets to R&D. A World Bank report shows that over the last five years the mean annual spending on R&D in Muslim countries is just 0.36 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) compared to the world average of 2.6 percent.
It is a sad fact that the GDP of all the 57 Muslim states put together is almost equal to Japan and China. However, a few Muslim countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Bahrain, UAE and Turkey spend comparatively more on research and development (as a percentage of) their respective GDPs. Moreover, among Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia currently has the largest budget for education. The allocation was $ 45.18 billion in 2012, a 16.57 percent increase from 2011.
In addition, in May 2012, a supplementary allocation was made of $ 21.8 billion to establish new universities, research labs and scholarship programs for higher education. Saudi Arabia increased its allocation from 0.05 percent in 2007 to 0.08 percent in 2009 and the figure is swiftly approaching 1 percent. Moreover, Turkey’s expenditure in 2003 was 0.48 percent of its GDP; they hiked it to 0.85 percent in 2011. Among the Muslim states, Qatar is on top with 3.4 percent of their GDP.
One criterion for assessing research outcomes is research publications. How many publications are coming from the Muslim world?
As per a Web of Science report, a few OIC member states have recently increased their research publications. Over the last 10 years, Turkey has produced 222,968 research publications; Iran 141,943; Egypt 51,535; Malaysia 52,081; Pakistan 34,077; Saudi Arabia 32,595; Nigeria 19,843; Tunisia 24,196; Morocco 14,516 and Algeria 15,302. Moreover, in only 2012, Turkey produced 25,833 research publications; Iran 23,769; Malaysia 9,418; Saudi Arabia 7,298; Egypt 7,178 and Pakistan 5,668. If we compare these publications with the rest of the world, our research outcome is only about 10 percent of what the others have achieved. According to a SCImago Research Group report, Turkey rose to 21st position in the world rankings for the number of its scientific publications and its H-index reached 193. Saudi Arabia’s H-Index is equal to Malaysia and Iran.
In general, the Muslim world contributes less than 0.5 percent of the scientific research papers that appear in the 200 leading medical journals. Furthermore, the number of publications, original writings and translations per million people is around 0.05 in the Arab world compared with an average of 0.15 worldwide and 0.6 in industrialized countries.
How many scientists are conducting research in the Muslim world?
The situation here, too, leaves a lot to be desired. The Muslim world has scientists, engineers, and technicians in a single digit per thousand of its population whereas the rest of the world has an average of 41, and 139 scholars per thousand for countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The availability of qualified researchers in our countries is 649 compared to the global average of 2,539 per million. Moreover, we lack research technicians, as technicians are the main assists in research labs. This indicates that we are currently suffering a famine of enlightenment.
How many scientific journals are there in the Muslim world?
As the per the report of the Institute of Scientific Information (ISI) Journal Citation Reports (Thomson Reuters) 2011, the scientific journals from the Muslim world are fewer in number while many of them have no on-line access; nor are they indexed on major popular scientific databases. The few countries in the Muslim world with a number of ISI indexed journals are Turkey (54), Iran (39), Pakistan (13), United Arab Emirates (12), Malaysia (10), Saudi Arabia (6), Kuwait (3), Bahrain (2), and Egypt (2). These figures of ISI indexed journals are very small. A majority of ISI indexed journals from Muslim countries rotates around the impact factor of 0.01 to 0.8; only a few journals exceed the impact factor of 2.
Does this mean that Muslim scientists lack the caliber required to conduct research and generate innovative ideas?
Not at all. A large number of scientists, researchers, physicians and engineers from Muslim countries have made their careers in the West. They are producing and crediting the western universities and research institutes with some novel ideas. The problem isn’t the lack of talent, knowledge or skills; rather there has been a lack of appreciation, reward and failure to comprehend the role and place of science in our society. These factors have caused a brain drain from Muslim countries. Other major impediments are the unfriendly environment, unsupportive culture, and lack of institutional appreciation. They fail to sustain creativity and curiosity. The non-scientific environment is not only forcing the scientists to leave their places of birth but also depreciating science itself.
How many patents have recently come from the Muslim world?
More recently, in Sept 2012, one of the studies published in the Scientometric journal, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), reported that patents from the Muslim world are low. However, Saudi Arabia produced a total of 521 utility patents by 2011, with 245 patents cited in scientific articles.
The 245 utility patents are distributed in 14 fields among the 16 fields that are matched by the IPC. These patents are in the areas of bio-medical sciences (35 percent) and analysis, measurement and control technology (17 percent). However, the science intensity in both areas is quite low compared with pharmaceuticals (14.19 percent) and semiconductors (27.10 percent).
Having lived here for more than 10 years, what do you think of the era of King Abdullah and how has the number of educational institutions increased during his reign?
The era of King Abdullah is certainly the golden age of learning for Saudi Arabia. This is also an exemplary model for the entire Muslim world. King Abdullah has had a commendable vision towards the educational sector. Over the last six years, the Saudi government’s budget has increased markedly. It was $ 28.12 billion in 2008, $ 32.62 billion in 2009, $ 36.63 billion in 2010, $ 40.10 billion in 2011, and to the highest-ever level of $ 54.54 billion in 2012. The allocation of such a large budget to the education sector reflects the determination to develop education, science and technology.
According to the World Association of Universities, Saudi Arabia has about 64 universities and degree-awarding institutes. In the first week of May 2012, his Royal Highness inaugurated various new campuses, universities, and educational cities, and also allocated US$ 21.79 billion for their construction.
King Saud University in Riyadh and King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) in Dammam have achieved distinguished positions in the global university rankings. Moreover, a world-class university, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) has also been established with the main objective to produce research postgraduate students and Ph.D scholars in the fields of science and technology.
I must add here that since 2005, Saudi Arabia has been allocating huge budgetary amounts for education. In the fiscal year 2011/2012, the country dedicated 25.9 percent of its national budget on education and training alone. This fund supports the educational infrastructure including the building of new colleges, universities and research labs, and funding scholarship programs for higher education abroad.
Why are you confident that Saudi Arabia will become a hub of science and technology in the near future?
The vision of His majesty, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, is very clear, he recognized the importance of education, research, science and technology in social and economic transformation. Over the last six years, Saudi Arabia has been increasing funding for education, research, science and technology and promoting a culture of science and technology.
He established a large number of universities, research labs and scholarship programs for higher education. The network of universities and technical institutes has broken the metropolitan boundaries and has been extended to far-flung corners of the country. In addition to the students enrolled at these universities, the King Abdullah scholarship program was started in 2005 at a hefty cost of $ 2.4 billion each year.
Under this program, approximately 120,000 Saudi students are pursuing higher education at about 500 universities around the world. A total of 69 percent of the students are male and 31 percent female, 44.67 percent are pursuing bachelor degrees, 21.08 percent masters degrees, 4.74 percent completing their Ph.Ds, and the rest are involved in other subjects. A total of 26 percent of students are enrolled in business administration, 14 percent in computer science and information technology, 15 percent in medicine, 10 percent in engineering and the remaining in other subjects. I believe that within a few years Saudi Arabia will become a hub of education, science and technology.
What in your view has been impeding the progress of the Muslim world?
The major barrier in the progress of science in Muslim countries is the absence of a culture based on scientific research. There are no established research strategies, poor institutional support and insufficient integration among science-rich communities. Appointments and promotions in faculties must be based on merit. Muslim countries must create a merit-based structure that fosters academic freedom and promotes scholarships. We must reverse the process of the brain drain of Muslim scientists and attract the best and brightest minds to our region.
— Meo is a medical graduate MBBS, with an M.Phil and Ph.D in Physiology, a Masters in Medical Education and four fellowships (FRCP) from the Royal College of Physicians of London, Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh. He currently works at the College of Medicine at King Saud University in Riyadh. He has produced 8 books and 75 research papers.