Jordan stakes its future on science
When the World Science Forum kicks off on the shore of the Dead Sea in November, it will be the latest jewel in the crown for one of Jordan’s biggest champions of science. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan successfully lured the high-profile biennial conference to the Middle East for the first time — part of Jordan’s ongoing push to transform itself into a regional research powerhouse. The country hopes to emphasize the power of science to transcend politics and war in the increasingly volatile Middle East.
It’s a tall order, but there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off for Jordan, which created its first national science fund in 2005. In February, the country cemented plans for a reticular-chemistry foundry, the world’s first. And in May, the Middle East’s first synchrotron, SESAME, opened near Amman with the backing of seven nations and the Palestinian Authority.
Jordan’s leaders see science, engineering and technology as an engine of economic growth for their 71-year-old country, which lacks the oil resources of many neighbouring states. The nation’s political stability and central location have aided these ambitions. So has its diplomacy: Jordan is one of the only places in the Middle East where scientists from Israel and Arab countries can meet. “We are all in the region facing issues with energy, water and the environment,” El Hassan says. “A bird with avian flu does not know whether there is a peace accord between Israel and Jordan, it just flies across the border.”
The princess did not set out to be an architect of Jordan’s science ambitions, however. In 1994, her father — the brother of King Hussein — asked the then-24-year-old art-school graduate to lead the board of trustees for an information technology college in Amman (now the Princess Sumaya University for Technology). El Hassan initially declined the job, but relented on the condition that she would first earn a computer-science diploma from the school.
Through that experience, El Hassan says, “I came to see science as a tool for human dignity. I began to see myself as a science enabler.” In 2006, she became president of the Royal Scientific Society, an applied-science institution in Amman that also facilitates research collaborations across Jordan.
The country has focused its science efforts on areas that could improve daily life for its citizens, such as energy development. “The country was dependent on oil in Iraq, and then natural gas from Egypt,” says Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. “The problem with these sole sources is that we were subjected to political changes, like the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Egyptian government.” Now, he says, Jordan is looking to exploit its uranium resources to include nuclear power, and it is exploring the potential of solar and wind energy.
The Jordanian government is also looking for ways to cope with one of the lowest levels of water availability in the world — a problem that has intensified with the recent influx of an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Some help could come from a partnership that the Royal Scientific Society announced in February with the University of California, Berkeley, to build a reticular-chemistry foundry. Reticular chemistry involves making porous crystals. It was pioneered by Jordanian chemist Omar Yaghi, who heads the Berkeley Global Science Institute and has developed materials that can harvest water from the atmosphere.
Still, Jordan faces a long climb to fulfil its scientific ambitions. The country spent just over 0.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. That beats its wealthy neighbour Saudi Arabia (0.07% of GDP), but Jordan lags behind some nearby countries, such as Turkey. And although Jordan nearly doubled its yearly output of scientific publications between 2005 and 2014, from 641 to 1,093, the overall number remains small.
To help build research capacity, the government set up the Jordanian Scientific Research Support Fund in 2005. The fund was initially supported by a law that required all companies in Jordan to pay 1% of their profits into the fund. By 2012, when that statute was overturned, the fund had acquired US$85 million. It is now kept afloat by Jordan’s universities, which must spend 3% of their annual budgets on research or contributions to the fund. Between 2008 and 2016, the foundation gave a total of $35 million to 325 projects, mainly in the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural sciences.
Abeer Al Bawab, a chemist who in March became minister of higher education and director of the fund, is thinking deeply about how to monitor its success. “The oldest university in the country is only 55 years old, and the support fund has just been around for ten years,” she notes. Because Jordan is still building its culture of science, Al Bawab says that metrics such as the rate of scientific publications are not by themselves the best indicators of progress. She hopes to quantify the intersections between academic research, science policy and the private sector.
In the meantime, El Hassan hopes that the World Science Forum will help to raise the profile of science in the eyes of the Jordanian public. “A generation of analytical thinkers and risk takers,” she says, “is something I’d like to see.”