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Science Careers Blog

January 25, 2013

Scientific Opportunity in the Muslim World

Some time back, Science Careers reported on the push by Qatar, the tiny but hugely wealthy Persian Gulf emirate, to achieve scientific eminence. In that article we also noted the similarly vigorous ambitions of Qatar's nearby and equally mega-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to do likewise. And we mentioned how these efforts can spell real opportunity for scientists around the world who are willing and able to live and work in technologically advanced but socially conservative Muslim countries.

The opportunities in the Muslim world are even broader than we initially thought, suggests the 26 January edition of The Economist, because these two Arabian oil states are not the only Muslim-majority nations making rapid advances in building up science.

Jordan has a CERN-style particle physics laboratory, complete with particle accelerator, where an international array of scientists including Israelis, Iranians, and Palestinians work together. Turkish scientists' production of published papers more than quadrupled over the first decade of this century. Turkey, which is also enjoying rapid (though not petroleum-fueled) economic growth, saw annual increases in research spending of 10% from 2005 to 2010, and its spending is now double that of Norway. 

Indeed, "a Muslim scientific awakening is under way," The Economist declares. Given the leading role that Muslim scientists, physicians, and mathematicians played in centuries past and the vast resources now available to at least some Muslim countries, this should come as no surprise. We don't call our digits "Arabic numerals" for nothing, after all, nor is the Arabic name of algebra an accident. As The Economist notes, a traveling museum exhibit highlighting "1001 Inventions" from the Muslim world is currently attracting visitors in Washington, D.C.

Also notable are the expatriate scientists from Western countries and elsewhere who have gone to work in the Muslim world. I met several during the visit to Doha I described in 2011.  The economist mentions another notable arrival: the prominent French chemist Jean Fréchet, now at Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, an institution whose $20 billion endowment dwarfs some American titans of research.

Like all cultural settings, Muslim countries may not provide living situations congenial to everyone. But for able scientists who can adapt to the milieu, the burgeoning Muslim research scene could provide welcome new scientific opportunities.

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