People around the world celebrated World Science Day for Peace and Development on November 10 as they looked to scientific progress to bring forward social change. “Science, a human right” was chosen as this year’s theme by UNESCO to encourage people everywhere to engage with science.
The international focus on science drew attention to recent breakthroughs and achievements and highlighted concerns over science and technology in the Arab world, which lags far behind countries in the West.
Indeed, at a time when Arab nations need scientific progress more than ever, the region seems to be producing less of it and many of its top minds are leaving their homes for better opportunities in the West — a trend known as the “brain drain.”
While Arab thinkers have made significant contributions to science and technology, their work has largely been used in the West, not their home countries. Consider Andre Choulika, a Lebanese-born inventor of nuclease-based genome editing; or Eid Hourany, a French-Lebanese nuclear physicist who made major contributions to cluster decay theory; or Iraqi-American Professor Fakhri al-Bazzaz, who specialised in the study of plant community succession.
There is also Hassan Kamel al-Sabbah, a Lebanese-American serial inventor; Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American 1999 Nobel laureate in chemistry and Farouk el-Baz, a scientist for NASA who helped plan the Apollo moon landing.
The trend of bright Arab minds moving overseas reflects a startling one in the region: talented young people’s desire to pursue opportunities anywhere but home.
A Gallup poll in 2017 indicated that close to half of North Africans between ages 15-29 surveyed expressed a desire to emigrate, a 6% increase on the previous year.
The Tunisian agency Sigma Conseil said that 45% of young medical doctors who were registered in 2017 had left the country, and approximately 2,000 engineers had opted to emigrate. A staggering 90% of doctoral students studying abroad and receiving a state grant did not return to Tunisia, said Zied Ben Amor, coordinator of the Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers.
For Egyptians, the number of scientists working abroad is estimated at 86,000. With conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria, thousands of other scientists are thought to have left their countries to seek opportunities elsewhere.
So what other than conflict at home explains the massive exodus of Arab brains to Western countries, whether in Europe or North America?
Much of it boils down to culture. While Western societies are increasingly focused on cutting-edge science and technology, engaged in vigorous debates on how to further knowledge in fields such as medicine, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, Arab societies have largely stagnated, unable to reconcile modernity with tradition or religion with science.
It wasn’t always this way. Science in the Arab world has gone through periods of remarkable growth. From 900-1200AD, known as the Arab “Golden Age,” science flourished in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Cordoba. There were dramatic advances in medicine, agronomy, botany, mathematics, chemistry and optics. Arabs, along with their Asian counterparts, were viewed as the world’s scientific and intellectual leaders, with Europeans lagging behind.
Things started to go awry in the 13th century when political instability, religious intolerance and a series of invasion in the Arab world slowed scientific advancement to a standstill while an awakening began in Europe.