The Next Golden Age? Using History to Inspire Science Today

by Natalie Day Published on: 4th August 2010

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[Proceedings of the conference 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World organised by FSTC, London, 25-26 May 2010]. This presentation will reflect on the modern state of science in the Islamic-world and the potential of a new 'golden age' of Islamic world science. It will highlight a number of eye-catching developments and trends that reinforce the potential for a wider shift in the science and innovation capabilities of the Islamic world, whilst also considering some of the challenges and barriers to success. How might more effective inspiration be drawn from the rich history of scientific endeavour?


Dr. Natalie Day

Figure 1-2: Dr. Natalie Day presenting her lecture in the “1001 Inventions” conference. © FSTC 2010.


On behalf of Lord Rees and the Royal Society, it is my great privilege to speak today at this important forum – celebrating the enormous historical contribution of the Islamic world to modern day science. Looking back 800 years to the golden age of Islamic world science, there are a plethora of exceptional individuals from whom to draw inspiration. The 1001 Inventions exhibition is a truly remarkable achievement in terms of promoting a deeper understand of the contributions of these individuals to the very basic foundations of science as we know it today. Whilst Lord Rees regrets that he was unable to join us today due to other commitments, he was keen for me to express his congratulations and personal thanks to Professor Salim Al-Hassani for his passion and commitment to this event and the 1001 Inventions exhibition more generally.

This is the Royal Society’s 350th year, yet in the context of the historical period we are to consider today, we are quite a young organisation. My address today, however, will be taking a slightly different perspective to the other speakers. I will talk about what we refer to as a potential new renaissance in science, technology and innovation across the Islamic world today, and what lessons or inspiration might be draw from the Golden Age. In particularly, I wanted to alert you all to a new and exciting project which the Society has embarked upon with the Organisation of Islamic Conference and a number of other partners, exploring this changing landscape of science and innovation across the Islamic world. The project – The Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation – is something I will come to in more detail shortly, but firstly let me take you on a quick tour of some of the changes across the Islamic world.

Figure 3: Recent analysis in the news of the theme Islam and science from the perspective of science and innovation across the contemporary Islamic world.

Islam and Science

This slide (fig. 1) depicts a special edition of Nature which was produced in November 2006 – which drew much needed attention to some of the recent ambitions, and also some of the challenges facing science in the Islamic-world.

Eye catching developments in several countries suggest the potential for a wider renaissance in the science and innovation capacities of the Islamic world. Understanding these changes and the opportunities for, and constraints to, further progress is an important task for the international scientific community. Just as China, India and Brazil emerged over the past 20 years as significant players in international research, so countries like Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are now investing at such a scale that their future contribution to global science deserves serious and sustained attention.

Let’s look at some of these investments in more detail.

Looking to Saudi Arabia

This is a picture (fig. 2) from the recent opening of the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I had the good fortune of visiting this university last month and it is difficult not to feel inspired by an experiment on such a scale. With an endowment of around US$20 billion, KAUST is attracting faculty and postgraduate students from across the world. As a graduate-only institution, it aims to rival the California Institute of Technology for prestige within 20 years.

Figure 4: View from the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

KAUST is fascinating for other reasons as well. In a country where women’s rights are tightly restricted, the campus is uniquely co-educational, women are allowed to drive and many choose not to wear the veil.

The success of this university and its capacity to influence the broader STI landscape within Saudi Arabia is yet to be seen, but it is certainly an important institution to watch.

UAE & The World’s First Sustainable City

Moving on to one of Saudi’s neighbours, this is a picture taken from the Masdar Initiative in Abu Dhabi, within the United Arab Emirates. Due to open later this year, Masdar aims to be the world’s first fully sustainable city and innovation hub. It will eventually house 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses focused on renewable energy and sustainable technologies.

Figure 5: Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The project is not without its critics. Some argue that Masdar is a token investment made by a government flush with cash as a concession to environmental pressures. Critics like to point out that Masdar’s carbon-neutral targets only apply from the moment it goes into full operation and not during construction.

However, the fact remains that few countries have the capacity to invest so substantially in clean technologies. Masdar’s targets are ambitious, but the entire world and not just the Gulf region will benefit if they are achieved.

Promise on the Peninsula

And staying in that same neighbourhood, Qatar – whilst far smaller in terms of geography and population – shares similar levels of ambition and investment. This is a picture of Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned and Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society. We were very honoured to host Her Highness during her recent visit to London in April and I’m pleased to report that the Qatar Foundation have now come on board as a partners in our Atlas project, which I will come to in more detail shortly.

Figure 6: Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned and Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society.

Led by the efforts of the Sheikha, Qatar aims to spend an impressive 2.8% of its GDP on research by 2015 – which equates to approximately US$1.4 billion.

Beyond the Gulf States

Whilst we do not have time today to go through the numerous examples of investments elsewhere, it is important to also stress that this renewed ambition and investment in science is not isolated to the richer Gulf States. Among the African states that are members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Nigeria has been one of the most active. In 2006, it created a National Council for Research and Development, and invested US$5 billion in its Petroleum Technology Development Fund which aims to encourage more research and training.

Figure 7: A view of Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

These are all encouraging signs. But it is not to say that the path to a more innovative Islamic world is not without challenges or barriers. The bricks and mortar are arguably the simple part of any educational or scientific investment. If we take the pulse of science today across the 57 countries of the OIC, R&D spend averages just 0.38% of GDP compared with a global average of 1.7%. There is a long way to go. The capacity of countries, where rote learning is commonplace and the questioning of authority is often taboo, to engender an innovative and curious culture is also questionable.

Despite these challenges, it is important to understand how science and innovation is changing and how some of these barriers might be overcome.

Perhaps more importantly, through the promotion of collaboration and exchange, science provides avenues for rebuilding trust and understanding between the Islamic world, Europe and the United States, after a period in which relations have sometimes been strained.

This is where the Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation project comes in.

The Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation

Inspired by signs of renewed ambition and investment in education, science and innovation, this three year project aims to explore the changing landscape of science and innovation across a diverse selection of countries with large Muslim populations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Looking in detail at fifteen economically and geographically diverse countries, including Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Qatar, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal and Azerbaijan, the project will chart the delicate interplay between science, innovation, culture and politics. It will explore new opportunities for partnership and exchange with the wider world.

It is a project of many partners – from across the Islamic-world, Europe and North America, including the British Council, the International Development Research Centre of Canada, the Qatar Foundation, Nature, the Royal Society and the five family institutions of the OIC. Jointly managed by the Royal Society and the OIC, this project is overseen by a Joint Management Team made up of all partners and chaired by Professor Ihsanoglu, whom we heard some opening remarks from today.

Detailed country studies, to be released over the next two years, will provide an insightful overview of science and innovation in fifteen countries. This will include an independent and authoritative assessment of how capabilities are changing, and analysis of the opportunities and barriers to further progress.

Another important feature of the project is the role of in-country partners. By working closely with national research partners, national governments, universities and other stakeholders throughout the process, our aim will be to build up a cadre of trained research analysts in each country studied who can then take forward the learning and recommendations of the project.

We have only just begun. Country studies are now underway in Malaysia, Qatar, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt, with national research partners including the University of Malaya, the Lahore University of Management Studies, the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar, and the Princess Sumaya University of Science and Technology in Jordan. Starting with the release of the Malaysia case study at the OIC Meeting of Higher Education and Scientific Research Ministers in Kuala Lumpur in October this year, a steady flow of country reports will then be released throughout 2011 and early 2012.

Countries in Focus

As mentioned, this project will consider 15 geographically and economically diverse countries including:

From the Middle East and North Africa:
Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

From Sub-Saharan Africa:

From Europe and Central Asia:

From South and East Asia and Pacific:

Lessons from the Past

For organisations like the Royal Society and other international partners, this project is important because it engages a range of countries that have been largely ignored by international science and innovation policy. As a result, there is a substantial gap in knowledge and awareness of how far and fast things may be changing.

As one of the oldest scientific academies in the world, a priority of the Royal Society since 1660 has been to map and make sense of international developments in science and innovation. Today, the Islamic world represents one of the most important arenas within which to undertake this task. This project, therefore, has great potential to bridge the knowledge gap that has grown, to support new collaborations, and to improve learning about what constitutes effective policy for science and innovation between OIC countries, and between the OIC and the wider world.

But there is a range of question that I am interested in exploring with this prestigious audience today, based on your own expertise in the historical golden age of Islamic science.

1. What will it take to bring the Islamic world back to the Golden Age of Science and Innovation?
2. How can we more effectively use the historical achievements across the Islamic-World to:
– Stimulate interest?
– Instill confidence?
– Provide positive role models for science and innovation?
– Challenge some perceptions about the Islamic World?
3. What role do you think science can play in rebuilding trust and promoting greater understanding both between the Islamic world and the rest of the world.

Understanding and learning from the history is integral to the success of the Atlas project and I look forward to engaging with you all as our project evolves.

Thank you once again for the opportunity to reflect on the current context of science and innovation in the Islamic world and I am sure that over the course of today’s conference there will be much for me to learn and draw from for the Atlas project.

Thank you also to Professor Al-Hassani and on behalf of the Royal Society, we wish the conference and the 1001 Inventions exhibition every success.

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