Monday, April 16, 2012

Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Nature Middle East is a Cairo-based portal, one which is devoted to promoting and exploring science and research in the region. It is part of Nature, the institution which is most famous for its premiere journal of science, but which also has recently produced a series of specialized publications (Nature Biotechnology, Nature Nanotechnology, Nature Photonics, and many others), regional portals (Nature India, Nature Europe/Germany, Nature Asia-Pacific, and Nature Middle East), blogs, and other projects and endeavors.
Nature Middle East, which has existed for the past three years or so, has been quite active, regularly publishing original research, commentaries, and interviews, and also advertising and reporting on scientific meetings, announcing job openings, and keeping a regular blog (House of Wisdom) by its young editor, Mohammed Yahia, a blog which I recommend keeping an eye on. Oh, and most importantly, Nature Middle East publishes quality science articles in both English and Arabic (sometimes providing Arabic translations of articles that were originally submitted and published in English); this question of science and publication in English versus the local language is an important one, which I plan to comment on sometime in the future.
I am happy to advertise for an article of mine that was published at Nature Middle East a week ago. Titled ‘Does the Arab world (not) need basic science?’, it addresses the question of whether basic research should at all be pursued and supported in a region like the Arab world where, many argue, research should be in fields and topics that can directly and immediately benefit society. Indeed, nowadays when one hears of the importance of research or even of science itself in the media and in the pronouncements of officials, it is almost invariably in relation to applied research. All examples are taken from fields of direct relevance to daily life and problems which need to be solved, and where science is called to the rescue.

In this article, I first argue that basic research cannot be dissociated from applied research; this is the classic argument that what appears to be purely “basic” today can find very rich applications tomorrow. I cite well-known examples, such as: radiation therapy, positron emission tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, DNA and genetic engineering, and even "pure mathematics", in relation to Einstein's general relativity, which in turn found applications in GPS technology, etc.
But then I explain the limitations of this argument. And, more importantly (in my view), I insist that science is not solely, or even primarily, a human endeavor aiming at improving lifestyles (that has come as bi-product); science is about exploration and discovery, and it leads to human progress. I write:
Science, alongside other important human disciplines (religion, art, etc.), allows us to understand and appreciate the world that we have been placed in and entrusted with. Human history has shown that science, more than any other field, leads to a renewed and sometimes transformed understanding of our own nature and our place and role in the cosmos. That is why, even though people are often briefly attracted to the latest technological innovations – everyone is fascinated by every new astronomical discovery. Furthermore, the last few decades have shown that countries which do not have a strong basic science program in both education and discovery can pursue "research and development", but their scientific and intellectual progress will remain modest.
I then go on to explore the situation (basic versus applied research) in the world in general (the data is quite interesting) and in the Arab world, where data is extremely scarce, but one can draw some tentative conclusions from various observations and secondary indicators.
I conclude with the following statements:
And while joint ventures are forged with European and other partners, it is important that a balance be recognized and articulated between "priority areas" (e.g. water, energy, agriculture, new technologies) and between the educational, cultural, and social importance of basic science.
Bob Wilson, the first Director of the Fermilab accelerator centre, was once asked by a congressional committee "what will your lab contribute to the defense of the US?" He replied "nothing, but it will make it worth defending."
I encourage you to read the article here.

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