Science rules; we need more science

Today’s Financial Times has an — unintentionally — hilarious op ed by James Wilsdon of the think tank Demos, on how Muslim societies can invigorate science and innovation. Wilsdon correctly notes that, while “the history of Islamic science and innovation is one of a period of great flourishing followed by a steep and protracted decline,” this need not be a permanent state of things. However, his claim that “the picture is starting to change” seems premature considering the alleged advances he cites.

Across the Islamic world, the past 12 months have been punctuated by eye-catching announcements. In May 2007, the United Arab Emirates launched a $10bn foundation to create research centres in Arab universities. In Nigeria, the government has poured $5bn into a petroleum technology development fund to support research and education. In Qatar, a 2,500-acre education city has been constructed outside Doha and is home to international campuses of five of the world’s top universities. Earlier, in August 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia laid the foundation stone for a $2.6bn university devoted to science and technology in Taif. In December last year, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak launched a “decade of science of technology”.

Well, nothing makes something true quite like government announcing a program to make it happen and then throwing a ton of money at it! Even better is when groups of governments do this.

At a multilateral level, there is also a focus on science and innovation. In 2005, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference announced a 10-year action programme, which identifies targets for educational reform and proposes that by 2015, member states should aim to spend 1.2 per cent of GDP on R&D. Particular impetus is coming from oil-rich nations, which see innovation as the key to their long-term prosperity.

Ten years? Why not five?

Regurgitating governments’ and supra-governmental bodies’ PR — especially that of governments as opaque and corrupt as those of Egypt, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia — isn’t evidence of anything; and throwing money at something to make it work doesn’t mean that it will.

However, Wilsdon tempers his optimism.

A final and more fundamental question is whether societies that are often still resistant to democracy and open debate can genuinely become hotbeds of creativity and invention.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to simply answer that question, broadly, “No” — which Wilsdon does seem to suggest by closing with the following quote.

As Pervez Hoodbhoy, the leading Pakistani scientist, concludes in a recent article in Physics Today: “The struggle to usher in science will have to go side by side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy and pluralism.”

This is, of course, a tautaology, since science is part and parcel of “modern thought” and is inimical to “rigid orthodoxy.” (Is Hoodbhoy “the leading scientist” in all scientific disciplines?) Still, Hoodbhoy is right — nowhere does innovation flourish better than in an open society, and Wilsdon is right to quote him. So why does he give so much credence to grandiloquent announcements from notoriously incompetent governments?

If money were all that’s needed, who knows what frontiers SCIENCE could scale?