GIven everything that's happening across North Africa and the Middle East, I thought a quick geopolitical note might be in order. This is very far from being a world politics blog, but there is a connection to science.
Specifically, it's been notable for some time how under-performing these regions of the world are, scientifically. I last wrote about this topic here, with a link to this map. That's ten-year-old data, but the main changes would be shifts among the bigger players. From roughly the western border of India over to the Atlantic ocean, things haven't changed much - the only country in that swath that's made a serious R&D mark is Israel.
In some cases, that's perfectly understandable. No one expects a country at Afghanistan's level of development to have much of a research culture; they've got plenty of other priorities. But you hit some pretty gaudy GDP/per capita numbers when you cross the oil-rich regions, and that money has not been plowed into science and technology. That's in spite of the funding that Saudi Arabia, for one, has thrown into various King-This and Prince-That institutions. Maybe they're going for more applied training - I absolutely cannot recall seeing any notable research result out of the Saudi system. Examples welcomed in the comments, if there are any. And the other oil-rich states are even further out in the wilderness, scientifically. The UAE? Kuwait? You'd have to do some real digging to find much of anything, as far as I can tell. Science, research, and invention have just not been priorities for these places, and changing that isn't easy.
Then you hit countries like Egypt, which are in the broad and sad category of "countries that really should be doing better than they are". I'd put Iran on that list, too. Scientifically, nations in this category have some infrastructure, but it's usually not enough to produce anything noteworthy. Their expatriate scientists and engineers, though, have flourished. There's clearly a lot of talent going to waste inside these places. Algeria and Morocco, too? They don't look so bad, though, when opposed to the next category, the Syrias and Libyas of the world. There's some GDP in these places (although nowhere near as much as there could be), but scientifically, they're absolutely off the map.
So now we get to asking why this should be so. Some of it can be put down to development, as mentioned above, but even the countries in this region that are better developed still aren't making much of a mark. I realize that I may be coming across as culturally insensitive here, because I'm assuming that R&D is the sort of thing that any society with enough money and talent would choose to do. But I'm willing to defend that assumption. I think that these activities really are a key part of a modern economy, and provide a productive outlet for a lot of brainpower. Instead, we have countries that are too poor to even think about these things (Afghanistan), too occupied in keeping the boot pressed down (Syria), several that have decided to sit back and enjoy their money (the oil sheikdoms), and a few that would like to do this sort of thing but aren't getting so much out of their efforts, like Iran.
And that brings us to the volatile topic of religion. Most of the region we're talking about is Islamic, of course. And while it led the world for a good while in mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences, it's also been clear for a long time that it later adopted a different attitude towards homegrown advancements in science and engineering. And this could well have something to do with the religious character of society. The pursuit of secular knowledge can, in some religious environments, seem like at best a distraction from more important matters, and at worst an active source of evil and discord. The present-day countries have all sorts of varying amounts and styles of religious observance, but this is always going to be a factor to consider.
And now we have revolutions ongoing in a lot of these places, and you have to assume that there are more to come - if not right now, then eventually. My own interest in Iran leads me to think, for example, that the lid is going to come off there at some point - and the longer the wait is, the worse the boilover will be. The question that everyone has, though, is what will replace the former regimes, once the lids have blown off? I would like, naturally, to see an Egyptian Republic (for example) that has a chance to get its act together. But that's not going to be easy, to put it very mildly. There are a lot of problems to solve, and a shortage of people who've had to opportunity to try solving them under the former regime of the Big Boss Leader. I fear that the most likely result is the advent of a new boss - who may be wearing a uniform, or robes, or even a nice suit, but who has the same ideas in mind as the last guy. I very much hope I'm wrong about that. Doors are opening; let's hope that many of them don't just slam shut again.