News from the Foundation

The Thorny Path to Pastures New

Princess Sumaya (middle) opening the Humboldt Kolleg in Amman.
Princess Sumaya (middle) opening
the Humboldt Kolleg in Amman.

Foto: Humboldt Foundation

Researchers from the Near East and colleagues from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium in Amman to discuss regional perspectives for research and cooperation with Germany.

“I’ve conducted research abroad, but here I spend my whole time reading aloud to students from a textbook!” a young female physicist on the panel complains. Murmurs of agreement in the hall, a few people clap. The junior researchers from various Arab countries are the ones who identify most with their Jordanian colleague who has just been giving her country an eloquent ticking-off in impeccable English. During her research stay in England she had been treated like a researcher, supported and appreciated, but the response to her work at home was sceptical. “The national research agenda had changed yet again. Nobody was waiting for me and my project.” General agreement in the hall. The only one to comment under his breath is a professor from Germany: “Why does she wait around for someone to take her by the hand? If she were in my department, she’d have to take the initiative herself. That’s what I expect of young colleagues!”

This example of the difference between German and Arab perspectives featured at a German-Middle East conference which took place in Amman in May. It brought together some 200 researchers from the region and from Germany who were invited there by the Humboldt Foundation and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service. The main intention was to discuss potential collaborations and prospects for the future, but it was actually the somewhat sobering present that dominated the debate initially.

The example of the young physicist is typical. Many universities in the region are purely teaching institutions where little research takes place at all. Doctoral candidates are sent abroad to take their doctorates. Not all of them return, and those who do often experience a sharp decline in productivity at home. “We have to create a climate at our own universities which allows our talents to blossom and not to wither away,” a Lebanese researcher demands.

The problems are well-known. The Arab Human Development Report produced by the United Nations Development Programme in 2003 reveals a desolate research record with the Arab countries coming in last place by international standards on all scores: publications, patents, expenditure on research and development (an average of 0.2 % of the gross national product in comparison with a world average of 1.4 %) and the relatively small number of academics working in the field of research and development.

The German-Jordanian Humboldt Delegation visiting the Museum of Jordanian Heritage at Yarmouk University.
The German-Jordanian Humboldt
Delegation visiting the Museum of
Jordanian Heritage at Yarmouk

Foto: Humboldt Foundation

A recurrent theme in this report on the state of research, just as in the subsequent reports on democracy and women’s empowerment, is the demand for an open and critical analysis of their own strengths and weaknesses within the Arab world. The meeting in Amman demonstrates that progress has been made on just this point: There is certainly no lack of openness. Researchers from Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon call a spade a spade when discussing deficits in structure and mentality. To some extent, the wrong course was set in childhood, beginning with the literacy rate, which is still too low, through to the failure to encourage independent learning. The snag list continues in academic careers. Young researchers do not work independently enough; the research and publication performance of many professors is weak by international standards. Other points of criticism include a lack of cooperation between research and industry and poor management at universities.

A rather sobering analysis also comes from the Jordanian Science Minister and Princess Sumaya, a representative of Jordan’s ruling family and President of the Royal Scientific Society, which promotes research in Jordan: While a great deal had been achieved in the last few years, especially in Jordan, efforts to strengthen academic and scientific capacities needed to be intensified if the Arab world wanted to hold its own in the global contest for innovation and creativity. Countries like Jordan would have to increase investment in training junior academics and raise the status of this human capital. In this context, the government is putting its money on partnerships with other countries. Existing collaborations are supposed to be extended either through personal networks like that of the Humboldt Alumni in the country and region or by institutional partnerships like the German Jordanian University. Established in 2005, it offers practically-orientated training on the pattern of German universities of applied science (Fachhochschulen), thus responding to economic demands.

It is not only in Jordan that there is a major call for applied research. Medicine, renewable energies, and especially the efficient use of that scarce resource water are an important focus of applied research in the region. However, basic research is also a target for promotion, as demonstrated by the large-scale international SESAME project, located in Jordan: an electron storage ring which will provide a synchrotron radiation source for materials research in the most diverse disciplines. As well as Germany and Jordan, the Palestinian National Authority and countries like Israel, Pakistan, Turkey and Bahrain are involved in the project under the umbrella of UNESCO – an example for regional cooperation which ought to catch on, according to some participants. The countries in the region still tended to go it alone rather than working together. By intensifying multilateral debate on topics like quality management and examples of good practice, the Humboldt alumni in the region want to drive forward collaboration and bundle energies.

Just how difficult this can be is something the conference also revealed: the seats intended for the researchers invited from Israel and Iran remained empty. While the Israeli participants were deterred from visiting Jordan by a security warning, the Iranian researchers were refused visas by the Jordanian authorities.

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