Iran: Revolution and reform

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The decline of scientific knowledge in Persia, now Iran, began in the fifteenth century, as the entire Islamic world lost touch with its intellectual roots.


In the 1970s, the last Shah dynasty attempted to reverse the trend by building new universities and sending students abroad to do PhDs, after which many returned to teach and research in Iran. The number of scientific publications crept up from 125 in 1970 to nearly 400 in 1979, the year of the Islamic revolution.

The revolution halted this modest progress. Many of the scientific élite fled the country as the new regime closed universities and turned against 'Western science'. The Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s further drained resources, leaving little money for non-military education and research.

With peace, more public money became available and Islamic fervour moderated to accept the intrinsic value of science. Universities expanded again, and were allowed to award PhDs. The publication rate also rose, more sharply than in the 1970s: by 2003 the annual output of papers reached close to 2,000.

With the election last year of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline Islamist, every aspect of Iranian life — from its supreme leader, to the judiciary, and parliament — is now in religiously conservative hands. Iran's reformers have gone underground.

Many areas of science continue to be well funded, including stem-cell research. Iran was the first Middle East country to develop a human embryonic stem-cell line, using spare embryos from in vitro fertilization. And despite increasing restrictions on free speech, higher education continues to expand. Whether the new university presidents — all appointed by Ahmadinejad — will yield to conservative demands for greater controls at universities remains to be seen. Alison Abbott

Indonesia: Boom and bust

Asked the greatest achievement of his institute in the past five years, Sangkot Marzuki, director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, says: “Still being here.”

The 1990s were a boom time for Indonesian science. In 1993, the Eijkman Institute was resurrected after political, social and economic unrest closed its doors in 1965. But the Asian financial crisis of 1997 threatened to reverse the gains.

In 1998, following two years of social unrest and demonstrations, Indonesia's autocratic leader, General Suharto, stepped down, ushering in free elections and reform. Since 2004, the president has been freely elected. Religion does not seem to have the same link with power as in other predominantly Muslim countries. Nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslims, but neither of the main political parties is strongly linked with Islam. Still, opposition by many smaller Islamic parties was crucial in quashing the bid by a woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to retain her position as president in 2004.

Religious friction has hurt science by threatening international collaborations. Marzuki says that before 1998 his institute had six Australian scientists on three-year grants from the Australian government. “With the travel restrictions frequently issued, especially after the Bali bombing, no collaboration has been possible,” he says.

Islam itself is very flexible in relation to science, says Marzuki: “Our institute performs prenatal diagnosis against common genetic diseases, in particular thalassaemia. The government is against reproductive cloning but supportive of therapeutic cloning, a position adopted on the recommendation of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences.”

With stability, Indonesia could be a fertile ground for science. The government, when cash flow allows, supports research. But no one welcomes the misfortunes that have forced research in some fields — earthquakes, tsunami monitoring, avian influenza — on Indonesian scientists. David Cyranoski

Malaysia: High-tech hopes and fears

Malaysia has one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, thanks in part to its consumer-electronics industry. It outshines the rest of the Muslim world in high-tech exports, but is not resting on its laurels.

The government, led since the Malaysians received their independence in 1957 by the United Malays National Organisation, is keen to build on its successes in making semiconductor components and to develop new technologies. But government policies have driven away some of the country's best talent and kept Malaysia isolated from international science. Too often, pleasing the Islamic Malays, who make up the majority of the population, takes precedence over rewarding scientific merit.

Historic tensions between the Malays and the Chinese minority, who have long held the economic reins, explain some of these policies. In 1969, riots followed general elections in which Chinese parties made gains. The government has faced a difficult balancing act since then.

The most controversial policy is a university quota system that favours ethnic Malays (some 60% of the population), over Chinese (25%) and Indian (7–10%). Minority students, many of whom have top grades, struggle to get into the nation's best universities, and often end up going to the United States, Singapore or Australia. Such policies also inhibit interactions with the international community. And attempts to reverse a mainly Chinese brain drain have failed.

The government has long invested in large projects intended to benefit high-tech industry, but with little success. And ongoing privatization of government operations in various sectors, including roads, energy and technology, is slanted to help the Malays. Such 'Malay first' policies will fail to attract the best overseas talent and continue to leave Malaysia isolated. David Cyranoski

Pakistan: Tanks and technology

Pakistan's history of perpetual military coups is a disaster for democracy. But the men in tanks have been more generous than civilians when it comes to funding science and technology.

Pakistan's national biotechnology institute, for example, owes its existence to former President General Zia ul-Haq (military coup, 1977). In contrast, a decade of civilian rule after the general's death saw research funding drop to critically low levels — former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto did not even appoint a science minister. Credit for current science and technology funding — the highest it has ever been — goes to President General Pervez Musharraf (military coup, 1999).

Musharraf has handed the task of reorganizing research and higher education to Atta-ur-Rahman, a chemistry professor at the University of Karachi. Rahman's many reforms include increasing the number of universities and sending more students abroad to train. Schemes to attract foreign faculty members to work in Pakistan's universities, and performance-related pay for the country's own academics, have been more controversial.

Critics of the reforms include Pervez Hoodbhoy, physics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. He says that formerly cash-starved ministries lack the management capacity to spend their windfall wisely, and that the expanding university numbers have not been matched by a commitment to quality. Pakistani researchers, meanwhile, are unhappy that foreign faculty members get higher salaries for the same work.

Rahman says he understands the criticisms. But he is a man in a hurry. General Zia's life ended in a plane crash in 1988. There have already been two attempts on Musharraf's life. Rahman knows the boom will end when the general leaves office. Ehsan Masood

Saudi Arabia: Slow starter

A year after the birth of independent Saudi Arabia in 1932, the kingdom's rulers faced a problem with the public acceptance of technology. The dilemma was caused when US oil companies prospecting in the region requested permission to take aerial images of the desert.

Newly crowned King Ibn Saud, founder of the present Saudi dynasty, had two concerns. First, that indigenous tribes might shoot at something they considered to be extraterrestrial. Second, if religious authorities believed that the onboard cameras could glimpse the face of God, it would invite divine wrath.

This story, told in Oil, God, and Gold by Anthony Cave Brown, helps to explain why the world's largest oil producer still remains one of the world's lowest producers of scientific knowledge. It took 20 years for a ministry of education to be created. The country's science ministry did not emerge until 1977. Even today, Saudi Arabia spends just 0.25% of its gross domestic product on science and technology.

Despite this, there are some bright spots. The number of specialist science and engineering colleges has doubled to 64 in the past decade, and the number of students enrolled in related degrees has also doubled to 76,000.

Moreover, Saudi society has progressed considerably in its acceptance of new technology. According to Saleh Al Athel, president of the science ministry, genetic modification in agriculture is permitted within conventional biosafety limits. But pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is forbidden as it is seen as interfering with divine will. Ehsan Masood