To­ward a new Is­lamic Golden Age

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The Mus­lim world’s past con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence and education were ex­tra­or­di­nary. The Is­lamic “golden age” – dur­ing which schol­ar­ship and learn­ing flour­ished across the Mus­lim world – lasted many cen­turies, and in­cluded the es­tab­lish­ment of the world’s first univer­si­ties. To­day, how­ever, Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries lag well be­hind the rest of the world in terms of education and re­search. This must change if the re­gion is to pro­vide mod­ern jobs and bet­ter lives to its boom­ing pop­u­la­tion and keep up with global de­vel­op­ment.

As it stands, only one univer­sity from the Mus­lim world – Turkey’s Middle East Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity – makes the top 100 in an in­ter­na­tional rank­ing, and only a dozen or so can be found in the top 400 in var­i­ous other lists. While there are no in­ter­na­tional stan­dard­ised tests in sci­ence and math at the univer­sity level, fourth-, eighth-, and ten­th­grade stu­dents in the Mus­lim world test below the global av­er­age in th­ese sub­jects, ac­cord­ing to the Trends in In­ter­na­tional Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence Study and the Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment. And the gap with stu­dents else­where is widen­ing.

More­over, re­search out­put – as mea­sured by pub­li­ca­tions and ci­ta­tions in in­ter­na­tional jour­nals, as well as pa­tents – is dis­pro­por­tion­ately low rel­a­tive to pop­u­la­tion and fi­nan­cial ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Mus­lim coun­tries spend, on av­er­age, only about 0.5% of their GDP on re­search and de­vel­op­ment, com­pared to the global av­er­age of 1.78% of GDP and the OECD av­er­age of above 2%. The num­ber of peo­ple work­ing in sci­ence fields in the Mus­lim world is also well below the global av­er­age.

Eigh­teen months ago, a non­govern­men­tal, non­par­ti­san task force of in­ter­na­tional ex­perts – con­vened by the Mus­lim World Sci­ence Ini­tia­tive and the Malaysian In­dus­try-Govern­ment Group for High Tech­nol­ogy, and co­or­di­nated by me – set out to ex­plore the sorry state of sci­ence in the Mus­lim world and de­ter­mine how univer­si­ties could help to i mprove the sit­u­a­tion. A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the var­i­ous is­sues and pos­si­ble reme­dies could en­able sci­ence to flour­ish again in the Mus­lim world, with far-reach­ing ben­e­fits for its economies and so­ci­eties.

Our re­view of the state of sci­ence at univer­si­ties in the Mus­lim world took into ac­count not just bud­gets and re­search, but also is­sues like the sta­tus of women in sci­ence stud­ies and ca­reers. More­over, we con­ducted a thor­ough re­view – the first of its kind – of how sci­ence is taught at univer­si­ties in the Mus­lim world, in­clud­ing ped­a­gog­i­cal meth­ods, text­books, lan­guage of in­struc­tion, cen­sor­ship of “con­tro­ver­sial” top­ics (such as the the­ory of evo­lu­tion), and the role of re­li­gion in sci­ence classes.

In a just-re­leased re­port, the task force con­cludes that, though the over­all state of sci­ence in the Mus­lim world re­mains poor, much can be done to im­prove it ef­fec­tively and ef­fi­ciently. The task force of­fers spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions for aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ing stake­hold­ers, such as in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tions, or­gan­i­sa­tions.

For aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, one ma­jor goal should be to build stu­dents’ ca­pac­ity for cre­ative think­ing and crit­i­cal in­quiry. To this end, the task force rec­om­mends broad­en­ing the education of sci­ence-fo­cused stu­dents to in­clude hu­man­i­ties, so­cial sci­ences, lan­guages, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. At the same time, it calls for the adop­tion of in­ter­na­tion­ally tried and true teach­ing meth­ods, par­tic­u­larly “in­quiry-based” and “ac­tive-learn­ing” ap­proaches. Of course, such a shift would re­quire pro­fes­sors to re­ceive train­ing in th­ese meth­ods.

Pro­fes­sors should also be en­cour­aged to ded­i­cate them­selves to writ­ing text­books and con­duct­ing sci­ence out­reach, not just pub­lish­ing more pa­pers. This rec­om­men­da­tion may be sur­pris­ing, given the Mus­lim world’s low re­search pro­duc­tiv­ity. But the re­al­ity is that such ef­forts will pro­duce more real-world ben­e­fits than a sin­gle-minded fo­cus on pub­li­ca­tion, which can in­ad­ver­tently en­cour­age pla­gia­rism and junk sci­ence.

The task force has rec­om­mended that na­tional pol­i­cy­mak­ing bod­ies grant univer­si­ties more space to in­no­vate (es­pe­cially in cur­ric­ula) and evolve (in re­search pro­grams and col­lab­o­ra­tions), each in its own way, ac­cord­ing to its strengths and weak­nesses. And it has called on all in­sti­tu­tions to em­brace mer­i­toc­racy and shun gim­micks likes pay­ing for “col­lab­o­ra­tions” to boost pub­li­ca­tions. A quick rank­ings boost is never worth the risk of rep­u­ta­tional dam­age in the longer term. bod­ies, and other sci­ence acad­e­mies,

and civil-so­ci­ety

Th­ese steps re­quire a bot­tom-up pro­gram of change. That is why the task force has now put out an open call for univer­si­ties across the Mus­lim world to join a vol­un­tary Net­work of Ex­cel­lence of Univer­si­ties for Sci­ence (NEXUS). Over­seen by the task force, this self-se­lected peer group – com­pris­ing univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors and fac­ulty who rec­og­nize that change must start from within – will im­ple­ment the steps that the task force has de­vised.

The hope is that once the first group of univer­si­ties’ ef­forts be­gin to bear fruit, more in­sti­tu­tions will join. The re­sult­ing mo­men­tum will cre­ate pres­sure for min­istries, reg­u­la­tors, and other pol­i­cy­mak­ing bod­ies – which may be the most re­sis­tant to change – to take com­ple­men­tary steps.

Univer­si­ties are hubs of re­search, crit­i­cal think­ing, and lively de­bate, where the next gen­er­a­tion is not only ex­posed to es­tab­lished facts and the­o­ries, but also learns to dis­sect ideas, pin­point flaws, and help en­rich and ex­pand our knowl­edge base. At a time when the Mus­lim world is fac­ing un­prece­dented chal­lenges, the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing a healthy aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment can­not be over­stated.

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