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Technology Planning and Analysis

The state of science in Iran

Given the usual list of things that people in the West tend to associate with Iran—Sharia law, nuclear weapons, international sanctions, etc.—the unenlightened might be surprised that Iran’s rate of scientific research growth was relatively recently the highest in the world. To anyone who has thought enough about Iran’s nuclear program, this will be slightly less of a shock. The entire basis for that program is science—nuclear missiles aren’t built by peasants, after all. But much as the Western world stereotypes Iran for that particular science pursuit, they are making large gains across the board.

Every year, Scopus, an academic research portal, catalogs academic papers from every country in the world and publishes rankings based on output. As of 2013, Iran was in 17th place worldwide in terms of overall research production (1.69% of total production, says Iran’s deputy science minister), up from 20th in 2010 and 48th in 2000. Its scientific research growth rate in 2009 was 11 times that of the world average, and while it’s evened out in recent years, the fact that the number of papers published in peer-reviewed academic journals increased as much as it did is telling. In 2008 Iranian academics published 19,297 papers, a figure which rose to 29,331 in 2010, and a remarkable 38,800 in 2011. That’s an overall per-year increase of about 19,000 published academic papers in three years.

So Iran isn’t at quite the third-world technological level that some believe. But, referring back to a previous point, what if all that research is artificially raised by Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons? Perhaps Iran has nuclear research turned up to maximum strength and is just ignoring the rest of science. Or perhaps not: this year its medical research edged out engineering, physics, chemistry, and materials science for the top spot in papers published. There’s a fairly even spread of research in other fields as well, demonstrating a fairly high level of diversity.

This sort of meteoric rise to scientific prominence isn’t generally something that happens by accident, though—and even less so in Iran. The highly centralized economic and political systems of the country depend on the government for much of their operations. Currently the government provides 75% of science research funding, and is intertwined with most levels of both higher education and industry.

Fortunately for Iranian scientists, despite a host of other barriers—international sanctions, bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption etc.—the government has been giving research steadily more support. However, its record of following through on its promises is not the best, leaving many researchers frustrated at their inability to innovate due to lack of funding or the theocratic government’s limitations. Iran’s political elite widely support scientific research, with even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaking favorably of it, but translating that into practical terms is proving tricky.

One effort that shows promise for the future of Iranian science took off in 2006, when Khamenei reinterpreted a section of the constitution that had long been obstructing efforts to privatize Iranian industry. Subsequently, between 2005 and 2010, government shares in industry went down from roughly 80% to roughly 40%, and the process has continued steadily under the auspices of the government-run Iranian Privatization Organization. If it succeeds in its stated goals, a more productive economy could emerge, spurring competition and innovation and funding further scientific research.

Unfortunately, though the process has been going since the early 1990s, it is only now beginning to be done effectively. Hassan Rouhani, elected president of Iran in 2013, has been heavily revising the policies of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who “privatized” many government-held companies—but did so by selling them to non-private entities. A variety of corrupt and inefficient religious and public organizations were given preference to buy most of the state-owned industry. Actual private buyers, by some estimates, got as little as 13.5% of the sold properties.

It is precisely this sort of cronyism that has often held Iran back in the past. Rouhani, however, shows distinct signs of neoliberalism in his economic policies, which could mean that one of the biggest barriers to scientific research in Iran—the lack of competitive industry—is set to topple. Having demanded a dramatic restructuring of the privatization process to ensure that the “real private sector”—a new catchphrase among Iranian officials—is benefitting from the sales, the new administration’s policies are likely to encourage the growth of the upper and middle classes in Iran. With domestic markets strengthened, private industry will be much more capable of shouldering the research.

Iran’s scientific progress in the past few years has taken place under heavy international sanctions—which make it even more surprising. If Rouhani’s warmer policies towards the West succeed in diminishing sanctions (about $7 billion USD has already been lifted) and Iran manages to integrate itself into the world economy, Iran’s scientific industry may leap even further ahead. If an underfunded, underequipped research industry has managed to come this far, its potential with access to Western research equipment and a more lively economy is significant.

However, Iran is suffering from a multitude of ills that will need to be addressed. Politically, its progress towards the West and a more liberalized society is being impeded by hardline factions within its government. Economically, its unemployment rates, especially of young people, remain extremely high, which is leading to a “brain drain” of educated young Iranians to the US and Europe. There is simply no market for their skills in Iran—a problem which will have to get worse before it gets better, as Iran’s government-run industries tend to suffer from chronic overemployment due to past efforts to artificially lower jobless rates.

So what lies in store for Iran? Scientifically, its future looks bright—even with all the limitations, it has managed to make itself a world player, and it is unlikely to lose ground in that regard. Whether or not it can gain ground is largely up to the politicians in charge of privatization and international relations. Rouhani’s work so far has been encouraging, but Iran remains a centralized, theocratic state with all that this implies, and there are plenty of hardliners fighting the president at every turn.

Iran is far from being a third-world country, and it has made significant social progress since the 1980s, but it is still a fairly unstable nation with high poverty rates. Added to that, its tenuous international situation makes it a risky investment. Even as Iran eyes higher rankings in the scientific world, then, it has a lot of other situations to manage before it is likely to see the fruits of its research.

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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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