February 20. "Nanotechnology could aid the future of development of the Arab region," says Mohamed H.A. Hassan, executive director of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, and president of the African Academy of Sciences. Hassan made his remarks at a panel session, "Re-emergence of Science, Technology and Education as Priorities in the Arab World," taking place at the AAAS's annual meeting in San Diego.
"The Arab region, home to some 300 million people, faces a host of daunting development challenges," Hassan notes. "Three of the most fundamental involve ensuring adequate supplies of water, energy and food." Advances in nanotechnology, he says, "could help achieve progress by helping to address each of these challenges."
For example, he notes that nano-filters could enhance the efficiency of desalinization plants, helping to ensure adequate supplies of water in the region. Similarly, nanotechnology could improve the capacity of solar panels. More abundant supplies of water and energy, Hassan adds, "would boost irrigation and help increase agricultural output."
But none of this is likely to take place, he cautions, "without a strong commitment to training the next generation of scientists." The Arab region has some inherent demographic advantages when seeking to address human resource issues related to scientific capacity building. "Sixty percent of the population is less than 25 years old," he says.
"Yet, the region has some glaring weaknesses as well," he says. "Arab countries spend just 0.3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on science and technology, compared to 1% in a growing number of developing countries and 2% to 3% in many developed countries. Scientists in the region publish less than 1% of the world's peer-reviewed scientific articles.
Hassan points to some encouraging recent signs, however. "A growing number of countries have invested in high-profile projects designed to quickly build scientific capacity in critical areas of science and technology." He cites, for example, the opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) for post-graduate studies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar's Science and Technology Park (QSTP).
But much more will need to be done, he says. To boost science, he calls on each Arab country "to create at least one world-class university" and "build at least one world-class state-of-the-art science centre." Hassan also believes the national merit-based academies in the region should become more engaged in their societies and stronger advocates for science education and science-based development.
He readily acknowledges that "with so many immediate challenges facing the region, it's difficult for governments to engage in long-term strategies for development." But he says that "unless countries within the Arab region make a sustained effort to build scientific capacity, they will find themselves unable to overcome the 'knowledge-deficit' obstacles that have impeded economic development for far too long."
"Nanotechnology may not be the first thing that comes to mind in discussions dealing with strategies to address the Arab region's most pressing challenges," Hassan concludes. But such investments in science and technology could be a key to the region's future."
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