Iran and Turkey Closing in on Israel When It Comes to Science

A new study indicates that Middle Eastern countries have been heavily investing in research and university budgets in recent years, writes Yerach Tal. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and especially Iran have shown remarkable scientific growth while Israel has whittled down government support for science, engineering and math.

al-monitor China's ZTE Corp, which recently sold Iran's largest telecommunications firm a powerful surveillance system, later agreed to ship to Iran millions of dollars worth of embargoed US computer equipment, documents show.  Photo by REUTERS/Tyrone Siu.

Topics covered

universities, turkey, science, research, israel, iran

Oct 31, 2012

The Iranian hacker cyber attack on American computer banks, which led American Secretary of Defense [Leon Panetta] to issue a warning of a “cyber-war Pearl Harbor attack,” is part of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last decade, in the field of scientific R&D in Islamic Middle East countries including Iran. While governmental research budgets for scientific R&D in Israel have eroded in the past decade, Arab and Islamic countries have increased their investments by tens of billions of dollars.

A report published by the Thomson Reuters Corporation reveals that this process is mainly taking place in five countries: Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research in the [Israeli Institute of Technology] Technion took the report’s data and conducted a comparative analysis of the development processes of scientific and technological research that have taken place in Israel and in these Middle East countries. The following quantitative indicators were used: the index of scientific publications, the average number of citations per publication, and the number of US patents registered by inventors from Israel and from other Middle Eastern countries. The research team — Prof. Uri Kirsch, Dr. Daphne Getz and Yair Even-Zohar — indicate the substantial and rapid progress of Iran and Turkey in many spheres, relative to Israel’s moderate progress (and sometimes even regression) in these same fields.

While Israel still leads in the number of patents it registers in the US, the last two indexes that were checked reveal that the gaps between Israel and Iran and Turkey are narrowing. The Technion researchers warn that if this trend continues, Iran and Turkey are expected to close the gap within a few years.

The researchers note that the rapid progress in the Middle Eastern countries is the result of high investments, new initiatives to construct research centers, collaboration with high-quality universities of developed countries and more. Thus, for example, Saudi Arabia recently inaugurated a science and technology university with an investment of $20 billion. In Qatar, an “education city” was built on an expanse of 14 square kilometers — the size of [Israeli city of] Kfar Saba — boasting six branches of leading universities from all over the world. Not far from there, an $8 billion research center will be inaugurated this year. In Abu Dhabi, renewable energy [and sustainability] research is being studied with the cooperation of leading American universities.

But the highest scientific research activity rate is to be found in Iran. According to the Thomson Reuters report, the scope of Iran’s research activity is growing at a yearly rate that is 11 times greater than the rest of the world’s countries. According to the report, impressive progress exists in 14 Middle Eastern countries (except for Israel that was not tested). These countries include: Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In 2000-2009 research output grew in these countries, and the number of articles they publish now constitute four percent of the world output, compared to two percent of the output a decade ago. This represents a larger scientific research growth rate than anywhere else in the world.

According to the Thomson Reuters data, the quality of the research in Arab and Muslim countries has also risen. A significant improvement in the quality of mathematics research in Egypt and Saudi Arabia has occurred; today, it surpasses the world’s average. The same is true for engineering research in Turkey.

According to the researchers, the scientific research gap between Israel and Arab countries has narrowed due to (in part) Israel’s retrenchment policy instituted throughout the last 10 years — “the lost decade.” The cutbacks [in funding] led to: reductions in the number of academic faculty members; increase in their average ages; the emigration of young, as well as renowned scientists abroad; the closing of [university] departments and more. It should be noted that a long time period is needed to achieve research excellence. Investments in research only bear fruit after many long years, and current achievements — such as Nobel prizes — reflect the fruits of past labors and investments. Therefore, the [cutbacks] instituted in Israel in recent years, will be felt in all their severity only in a few more years.

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