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Money counts but merit and freedom count even more

In too many developing countries, educational systems are poor, opportunities limited, pay inadequate and the quality of life wanting. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that scientists in developing countries often seek their future elsewhere. Science, after all, is an international enterprise that rewards performance, and scientists are bound to go where the prospects for success — both professional and personal — are the brightest. Yet, we now know that things can change quickly. South Korea, an impoverished nation virtually without science in the mid 1960s, has grown into a scientific powerhouse with the world's thirteenth largest economy. China, an emerging economic power, is building its future on a strong foundation in science and technology. So, too, are India, Brazil and a growing number of other nations, including Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Countries in the Persian Gulf have embarked on ambitious programmes to reform education and expand scientific and technological infrastructures. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has forged partnerships with some of the world's most respected universities, including Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and Cornell Medical College. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have launched new initiatives for the reform of education and research. Saudi Arabia has broken ground for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and has granted it a US$10 billion endowment. Egypt has renewed discussions to construct a world-class university focusing on science and technology. There is no reason why the Arab and Muslim world, which has yet to participate fully in our world of knowledge, cannot develop the means to do so. It requires an emphasis on merit, sustained financial support and a commitment to freedom of thought. That is easier said than done — but that does not mean it cannot be done. The current situation is undoubtedly difficult in many developing countries, both for science and society. But I am optimistic by nature. I believe in the power of the human mind, and that means forward-looking change is possible.

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Zewail, A. Money counts but merit and freedom count even more. Nature 456, 11 (2008).

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