online: 1 November 2006; | doi:10.1038/444026a
Islam and Science: The data gap
Statistics on scientific investment
and performance are lacking across the Muslim world. Declan Butler analyses the
best of what is available.
Stretching from Indonesia to Morocco,
and from Uganda to Kazakhstan, countries with large Muslim populations are home
to some 1.3 billion people. The Islamic world encompasses remarkable diversity
in political systems, geography, history, language and culture (see
page 20). But science in these nations
is weak, with spending on research and development far lower than the global
average. This much is acknowledged to be true, but what of the details behind
the broad picture?
official statistics database of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)
reveals information on each of the 57 OIC nations on everything from arable land
per tractor to Internet users, but you won't find any data on research1.
Science indicators for OIC countries are also scarce among data collected by the
World Bank and United Nations agencies largely a reflection of many of these
countries' low level of interest in science.
To get a
more detailed picture of how OIC countries measure up on science and technology,
and of what patterns exist within OIC countries,
extracted science indicators from official sources and reanalysed them for the
OIC group as a whole, creating an overall picture of science and technology
indicators for OIC countries.
authorities such as UNESCO or the World Bank Development Indicators have few
reliable data on science spending in most OIC countries. But combining these
data for 20 OIC nations covering 19962003 gives the average annual spend on R&D
as 0.34% of GDP, much lower than the global average over the same period of
many OIC countries are among the world's poorest, with almost half being
developing countries, their spending is consistently less compared with the
national average across a range of income brackets. The exceptions are Malaysia
and Turkey, whose spending is comparable to other moderately wealthy nations.
Nowhere is the OIC deficit greater than in the oil-rich nations; Saudi Arabia
and Kuwait, for example, spend less proportionately on research than the poorest
OIC countries (see chart below, and
the explanation lies in spending priorities. Many OIC countries, particularly
the richest, spend more on armaments than on science, education or health3.
Six of the world's top ten military spenders as a share of public spending are
OIC countries: Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Oman (each
spending above 7% of GDP on arms in 2003). African OIC countries, in contrast,
tend to spend proportionately less on the military.
the science budgets of the OIC countries are all near the bottom of the world
league, their spending on education is more variable. Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and
Yemen's relative education budgets are among the world's highest. Morocco,
Tunisia and Iran also spend respectable sums on education. All six were among
the world's top 25 spenders on education in 2002 (ref.
countries' performance in education also varies more widely, according to the
World Bank's 'education index', suggesting that many have the human resources
that could exploit greater investment in science and technology3.
But of the
20 poorest performers on this score, 15 are OIC countries, including many
African nations, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The OIC countries' low investment in
science and technology is also reflected in a poor scientific output, including
low levels of scientific articles and numbers of researchers.
Development Indicators for 19962003 record numbers of researchers per million
people for 19 OIC countries3.
These OIC nations cluster at the bottom end of the global scale. The top global
performers (Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Japan) all have above 5,000 researchers
per million people. The highest scoring OIC country is Jordan, with 1,927
researchers per million people; the OIC average is 500.
Of the 28
lowest producers of scientific articles, as recorded by the US National Science
half are OIC countries. In 2003, the world average for production of articles
per million inhabitants was 137, whereas none of the 47 OIC countries for which
there were data achieved production above 107 per million inhabitants4.
The OIC average was just 13.
Moreover, over the past two decades
the number of papers produced by 24 OIC nations has remained flat or declined,
albeit with some striking exceptions4
(see chart, right). Turkey's publication rate per year has grown from around 500
in 1988 to more than 6,000 in 2003. The other rising star is Iran, which from a
low base of less than 100 articles per year a decade ago now produces nearly
2,000. Both countries have eclipsed Egypt, previously the most prolific of all
OIC states in scientific publishing, which grew only slowly between 1988 and
articles published by OIC countries show striking disciplinary and geographical
Health and social sciences get little attention except in south Asia and African
countries. Chemistry and physics papers make up greater shares of total output
in central Asian countries, life sciences in North Africa, Indonesia and
Malaysia, as well as Saudi Arabia, and engineering predominates in most Middle
Eastern and north African countries.
countries produce so few patents that they are invisible on a bar chart of
comparison with other countries3.
This lack of technological competitiveness translates into low rankings in terms
of high-tech exports as a percentage of total exports with one exception,
Malaysia, which ranks fifth worldwide with 58% high-tech exports, alongside
Singapore and the Philippines. Otherwise, Indonesia (14%) and Morocco (11%) are
the only OIC countries with high-tech exports greater than 10%.
diversity, it is hard to identify trends across the Islamic world as a whole.
But there are signs of hope when looking at the OIC's top and bottom performers.
for example, is not rich in oil, but is the most scientifically successful of
the Muslim states. Turkish intellectuals attribute this to the 1923 revolution,
which led to the creation of a constitutionally secular state.
decades, Turkey has aimed for membership of the European Union (EU); formal
negotiations began last year. Negotiations require even closer structural
alignment with EU member states, and since 2003 science funding has more than
Turkey grew from the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk,
Turkey's founder, was keen for his country to catch up with the West.
Universities switched from using Arabic to the Roman alphabet, ensuring easier
access to Western writings, and Ataturk initiated a nationwide campaign to raise
Kemalist legacy has fostered Western-style scientific organizations and
policies. But the insistence on removing religion from public life introduced
restrictions of its own. For example, women are banned from wearing headscarves
in government-funded universities something that may have to change if Turkey
joins the EU. Yet Turkey has respectable participation by women in academic life
higher than in some EU countries.
As for the
bottom performers, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 21 of the 57 OIC countries
and, with the exception of Cameroon and Gabon, are among the poorest.
ongoing economic recovery of sub-Saharan Africa is "one of the most remarkable
stories of the past five years", according to the 2006 World Bank Development
The latest available data, for 2004, show five years of growth, after two
decades of decline. Most was down to oil, but agriculture was also important.
Among the OIC countries, Chad's economy grew more than 10% per year and
overall economic levels remain poor, with growth rates usually far below the 7%
minimum considered necessary to begin meeting the Millennium Development Goals.
Several countries, including Cτte d'Ivoire and Gabon, still show negative
surprisingly, science is correspondingly weak, and although hard data are few,
Islamic countries in sub-Saharan Africa have about 20 researchers and engineers
per million people, compared with about 250 in Latin America. One potential
bright spot is Nigeria, which announced in July that it is considering ploughing
its oil revenues into a US$5-billion endowment fund for science and technology,
which would make it Africa's biggest science spender by far5.
follow where Turkey and Nigeria lead, these science indicators might look very
different in ten years' time. As a first step, more OIC governments need to
gather data on science, producing figures that are sufficiently reliable to
appear in international statistics databases.
Declan Butler is a
reporter for Nature based in Paris. Additional reporting by Ayla
Islam and Science special is available