Jordan is a challenging place to survive and prosper. It has one of the lowest levels of water resource availability, per capita, in the world. It inhabits one of the world’s most politically turbulent regions, which it navigates politically through a relatively pragmatic and non-confrontational foreign policy. The neighbourhood has become even more difficult in recent years, with nearly 450,000 Syrians now registered as refugees residing in Jordan, according ot the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while the recent tragic events in Egypt have also caused great concern. Furthermore, unlike many of its oil-rich neighbours, Jordan has limited natural resources to support its growing population.
As might be expected, this poses a number of challenges for science and technology in Jordan, as a recently published study supported by the Royal Society and a number of other partners, part of a project looking at the prospects for science and innovation across the Islamic world, has found. Speaking at the high-profile launch of the report to a high-level audience of scientists, policymakers and business leaders, HRH Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President of the country’s Royal Scientific Society, acknowledged these difficulties but spoke of her determination to overcome them: “We are committed to strengthening our science, technology and innovation capabilities through investment in people and development of policy, despite our regional challenges and our scarce resources. […] We must challenge ourselves to work harder and with more unity for progress and development.” She went on to further highlight the importance of the report for monitoring progress and identifying weaknesses in Jordanian science and technology.
Jordan does not have the wealth to make the high-profile investments in science, technology and education of the kind seen in Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and it must therefore use its limited resources sparingly. The report, led by INSEAD Business School’s Director of Innovation and Policy, Dr Sami Mahroum, shows there is plenty of room for improvement here. Jordan’s national innovation system is described as a ‘traffic jam’ of organisations characterised by duplication and dilution of effort (although this problem is not unique to Jordan – previous studies from the same project have identified similar problems in Malaysia and Egypt). Furthermore, it currently lacks both a national science and innovation policy and durable high level leadership in this field.
However, Jordan’s recent experience in relatively non-confrontational international relations has also presented a number of opportunities, particularly in the are of science diplomacy, in which the Royal Society has always had a major interest. Jordan is host to what the BBC’s science editor David Shukman has described as “the world’s most impossible science project”, SESAME. This initiative, which is led by Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith FRS, involves the construction of CERN-style particle accelerator, the region’s first major international research centre, 30 kilometres outside of the capital, Amman. Incredibly, scientists from Iran, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Bahrain, Pakistan and Egypt are working together on the project despite the many hostilities and difficult relations between some of their countries.
There is also an increasing recognition that collaboration in the region is imperative in order to address existential threats such as food, water and energy security, as Princess Sumaya argued in a recent article in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal Science and Diplomacy.
We will be following further developments in Jordan with interest. As the Society’s Executive Director, Dr Julie Maxton, said at the report’s launch, “It is our hope that the report will be of great use to scientists and policymakers in and beyond Jordan in furthering the development of science, technology and innovation in the country and the region.”