Call for Science to empower the new Middle East
May 1 2011
In the New Scientist, the Nobel laureate and US Science Envoy Ahmed Zewali writes about the prospects for research in the Middle East. He identifies three steps that countries in the region can take and sketches the terms on which the West should provide assistance. The three steps are:
Increase participation by promoting literacy and female emancipation.
Institute reforms “to allow freedom of thought, reduce bureaucracy, minimise bureaucracy, reward merit, and create credible – and enforceable – legal codes”.
Create centres of excellence to show that “Muslims can compete in today’s globalised economy and to instill in the youth the desire for learning”.
The West should assist, first and foremost by creating partnerships. Aid is also a possibility, “but only under certain circumstances”. Rather than funding individual projects, “better results can be achieved by directing a significant fraction of the assistance to programmes of excellence selected to build up both infrastructure and human resources”. The West should also avoid giving support to undemocratic regimes; “in the long run it is far better to be on the side of the people, not on the side of a dictator”.
Zawali concludes his article by pointing out that “knowledge-based societies are better equipped to be part of the world economy. They will also contribute to progress and enlightenment, and hence peaceful coexistence and a more civilised and truly global humanity”.
There are indeed glittering prospects for science in the Middle East. The revolutionary mobilisation in Egypt and elsewhere looks very much like an attempt to describe the world accurately in societies that have been forced to pretend that two plus two is five decades. Dictatorship and science do not sit well together.
But science will only take off in any country now if the desire to know, to understand, and to improve our conditions in the here and now, is freed from the bonds of both state and corporate power. The assumptions and procedures of science in the West have long been shaped by military and commercial imperatives. The scientific establishment has accepted these shaping constraints, reluctantly or enthusiastically, but they have had little choice in the matter.
But it is now possible to sketch the outlines of a more thoroughly participatory science, in which the objectives of research, if not the details of method, are discussed openly by an interested public. I’ve described such a system in the New Scientist.
In Europe and the United States, an oligarchy of experts has managed science and governed the distribution of funds in accordance with the needs of powerful institutions. Science has delivered great public benefits – but it has been forced to concentrate on creating goods that can be sold for profit or weapons of ever more astonishing lethality.
Middle East potential
The Middle East has in its power to make science anew, as the conscious and rational means by which our desires for a safe and prosperous world can be realised. Learn from the West, certainly – but note that science here is silting up, becoming removed from any defensible account of what we need and want. The commodity and the crime of war engross our brightest minds and distract them from important business. There is another way, that takes decisions about the ends of science away from politicians and bureaucrats and gives them to the people as a whole.
If science is to serve the public then the public must take the power to determine its objectives. People will complain that the public do not know what they need. But does the Pentagon know? Does Pfizer know? And besides, power is a great teacher.
The aim of science should not be to create things that are expensive, but that people can be persuaded to buy. And science should not be the plaything of generals. Science must now seek to make the necessities of life as cheap as possible, to make them free, even, so that we can devote more of our time to the importance business of learning and having fun and being free. The alternative is a world of ever more opulence that fewer and fewer of us can afford, a nightmare of fictitious scarcity and very real violence.
The peoples of the Middle East are on the brink of a new era of discovery and intellectual excitement, perhaps. I hope very much that they are. There is youth there, and hope and the incipient genius that comes from the knowledge that they are right – that their regimes will have to change, that the truth will triumph at last over lies.
If that spirit takes them forward then it will do more than enable their countries “to compete in today’s globalised economy”. That spirit, the spirit we saw in Tahrir Square, that has said no dictatorship and no lies, may yet save the world.