Albert Einstein is suspected to have had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder that affects language and social interaction abilities. ImageForum / AFP
Albert Einstein is suspected to have had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism spectrum disorder that affects language and social interaction abilities. ImageForum / AFP

Economics 101: Are there many 'lost Einsteins' in the Arab world?

When we examine the lives of geniuses, it often seems that, in addition to their raw brain power, they benefited from fortunate circumstances: being spotted by the right mentor, or going to the right school.

Inevitably, this leaves us wondering how many potential geniuses never realised their potential because they were unlucky. This is a particularly pressing question for the Arab countries, because they seemingly produce fewer geniuses than the rest of the world. What is holding them back?

Many scholars have sought to tackle this vexing issue, and with the economic turmoil in the region rising, the stakes have become higher than ever. Economists investigating innovation have tended to focus on the big picture: what are the determinants of innovation at the level of the economy, and why do countries like South Korea produce so much more cutting-edge research than ethnically similar neighbours, such as North Korea?

These studies have emphasised a variety of macroeconomic factors, such as the legal and regulatory environment; the educational system; colonial heritage; and cultural attitudes toward innovation. Rarely have economists dug deeper into what traits generational innovators - or geniuses -possess, and the specifics of the environments they grow up in, primarily because of a lack of accurate data.

By obtaining highly detailed data on more than one million American inventors, a recent study by Alex Bell (Harvard University), Raj Chetty (Stanford University), Xavier Jaravel (London School of Economics), Neviana Petkova (US Treasury), and John Van Reenen (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) sheds light on the genesis of these innovators, furnishing policymakers all over the world with insights on how to nurture the next batch of Einsteins.

The researchers’ first major finding is an unsurprising one: inventors and innovators tend to be high-ability people, as measured by standardised tests in mathematics and science. However, being high ability is far from sufficient, as many other factors play an important role. This is especially true of women and minorities, who are systematically underrepresented in the ranks of leading innovators, even when they exhibit the requisite innate abilities.

The second major finding is the most illuminating: growing up in close physical proximity to other innovators, in an environment of innovation, is a very strong contributing factor to becoming an innovator. This is reflected even in the domain of the innovation: for example, if you grew up surrounded by people who develop telephone technology, then you are much more likely to become a telephone technology innovator, rather than just a generic one. The researchers deduced this by exploiting highly detailed data on the locations in which these innovators grew up.


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From the perspective of the Arab countries, this suggests that being locked in a negative cycle may be part of the problem that they face. Once a country is able to create pockets of innovation, they can become self-sustaining, by automatically producing the next generation of innovators, often in the very same fields. Conversely, by failing to create effective innovation clusters, especially ones where citizens are the ones doing the innovation and are immersed in it (unlike many of the technology clusters in the Arabian Gulf that are manned by foreign experts), the Arab countries have given the new generation of innovators a much steeper hill to climb to achieve what their global counterparts do.

What does the study imply for policymakers? There are two important takeaways.

First, the study underlines the importance of detecting high-ability people as early as possible, so that they can be furnished with the sort of support that helps them realise their potential. Such schemes definitely exist in the Arab world, but sometimes they are structured around interventions that happen too late in the developmental process. For example, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulla Scholarship Programme is offered to the bright lights at the conclusion of their secondary education when, ideally, those thousands of dollars would have been better spent prior to the applicants’ tenth birthdays.

Second, the interventions should place higher emphasis on exposure to innovation, rather than simply focusing on the traditional disciplines. This is especially true of women, both on egalitarian grounds and also because they represent one of the Arab world’s most under-deployed resources. While the researchers are unable to definitively point to specific programmes that deliver the desired results, they speculate that mentoring by current inventors and internships at local companies are likely to be effective tools for transforming potential Einsteins into actual ones.

During Islam’s Golden Era, when innovation was omnipresent across the Middle East, Europe suffered a protracted period of relative intellectual stagnation, termed the “Dark Ages”. Its emergence from this quagmire, and eventual transition into one of the greatest drivers of innovation in human history, was not down to any biological transformation. Instead, it was caused by changes in the way society made use of the human resources available.

Middle Eastern societies need to remind themselves that intelligent systems for getting the best out of their people are all that stands between them and more Nobel prizes.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.

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