A Review of Scientific and Technological Potential of Iran

مروری بر ظرفیت‌های علم و فناوری ایران

The latest report issued by the Global Innovation Index (GII) acknowledges Iran as a regional leader in innovation. The annual report evaluates and ranks the innovation performance of close to 130 economies worldwide. According to the 2018 edition, the Islamic Republic of Iran ranked 65th in the world. Having ranked 75th in the previous year, Iran's jump of 10 places puts the country among the three fastest-growing economies in the field of innovation. Notably, the 2014 GII report had ranked Iran as 120. Iran, along with India and Kyrgyzstan, are currently considered the top innovation leaders in South and Central Asia.

With continuous infrastructural developments, human resource growth, and new financing mechanisms, a suitable foundation has been laid for entrepreneurial ecosystems and startup enterprises to thrive. As a result, the Islamic Republic of Iran was also among the top 5 economies worldwide in terms of growth of entrepreneurial ventures in 2018. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Index (GEI), Iran registered a score of 0.99 in startup skills, a remarkable figure compared to the average in the region (0.45) and the world (0.4). With a 0.59 score in networking, Iran still performed well in comparison with the regional and global averages of 0.56 and 0.39, respectively. The same situation exists in technology absorption, with Iran scoring 0.49 comparing to the regional and global averages, both standing at 0.36. Moreover, Iran's overall ranking of 72 in the 2018 report indicates a 13-place leap compared to the previous year. In the following sections, some of the most significant factors contributing to the country's growing international standing will be introduced.


  1. Development of Academic Education and Human Resource Potential

In recent years, the country's considerable potential in terms of educated human resources and specialists in various fields has drawn international interest. According to the Global Innovation Index (GII) report, human resource indicators (e.g. number of tertiary enrolments, graduates in science and engineering, etc.) are one of Iran's main strengths.

Development of tertiary education in Iran has helped create a strong base of educated manpower and contributed to the significant increase of the country's overall academic output. The number and diversity of universities and higher education institutions have also experienced exponential growth. In 2017, over 2700 officially registered higher education institutions existed in Iran, including those affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology and the Ministry of Health and Medical Education; Payame Noor University; the University of Applied Science and Technology; the Technical and Vocational University; Farhangian University; Azad University and other non-governmental institutions.

The growth, however, is not restricted to the number of institutions only. Iranian universities have earned respectable positions on global university rankings. For instance, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, one of the most reliable and prestigious of its kind, has included 29 Iranian universities among the best in the world. According to this ranking, the top 10 Iranian universities are Babol Noshirvani University of Technology, Amirkabir University of Technology, University of Kashan, Iran University of Science and Technology, Isfahan University of Technology, Mashhad University of Medical Sciences, Sharif University of Technology, Shiraz University of Technology, University of Tabriz, and University of Tehran.

Consequently, the country's technological output has also undergone a remarkable growth over the past decades. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Iran has become one of the top 20 countries with the highest number of resident patent filings per million population.


  1. Growth of Scientific Publications

Iran's position in global rankings of scientific publications has improved in recent years, having climbed to 16th place worldwide according to a 2018 report on Web of Science. The website further describes Iran as the 9th highest-ranked country for the number of scientific publications in emerging fields. For instance, Iran ranks 4th and 13th worldwide for the number of scientific papers published on nanotechnology and biotechnology, respectively. According to the SCImago Journal Rank, Iran has made consistent progress in this regard, especially over the past three decades: reaching as high as 16th place worldwide in 2017, having been ranked 51st in 1997. Between 1980 and 2010, the growth rate of the country's scientific output was the highest in the world, more than 11 times as much as the global average. Based on the data provided by the Islamic World Science Citation Database (ISC), in terms of the number of scientific publications, Iran has ranked 12th worldwide in engineering, 11th in materials science, 12th in chemistry, and 14th in mathematics over the past ten years. Furthermore, the country has been the most prolific publisher among the Islamic countries in chemistry, materials science, physics, mathematics, pharmacology, toxicology, computer science, geology, microbiology, and space science.


  1. Development of Research Institutes

In 1978, some 83 licensed research institutes were operating in Iran, a figure that reached 686 by 2016, of which 350 were state-run. One of the most crucial elements in scientific and technological progress is the existence of strong laboratory networks able to coordinate laboratory services and facilitate the researchers' work. At the moment, there are two major laboratory networks in the country: Iran's scientific laboratories network, and the strategic technologies laboratory network.


  1. Development of Knowledge-based Companies and Growth Centers

The Islamic Republic of Iran has also created the largest startup ecosystem in the region and, with over 4000 knowledge-based companies having been registered thus far, it has considerably increased knowledge-based enterprises' share of the country's production and export. Relatively recent laws, such as "the Law on the Protection of Enterprises and Knowledge Based Organizations and the Commercialization of Innovations and Inventions" (passed Oct. 2010) in addition to support mechanisms and initiatives such as development of growth centers, science and technology parks, science and technology corridors, research and technology funds, and venture capital funds, have all contributed to the advancement and evolution of sciences, technologies, and innovations in Iran.

Following the enactment of this law, most of the aforementioned knowledge-based companies have been granted various financial and non-financial facilities since 2016. These enterprises have created 300,000 new jobs and their annual sales have reached over 14.25 billion dollars. Notably, Iranian knowledge-based companies exported 428 million dollars' worth of goods in 2017 alone. On the other hand, growth centers have greatly helped emerging tech companies and facilitated domestic and regional economic development. These centers have drawn the interest of governments across the world and are now considered an integral component in the growth of sciences, technology, and innovation in Iran. Most growth centers function as subsidiaries to universities or science and technology parks. As of November 2018, 196 growth centers are operating in different provinces.

According to a report compiled by the Research Center of Islamic legislative Assembly, there were 36 science and technology parks in Iran in 2018. Some of these serve general purposes while the rest specialize in the fields of agriculture, aerospace, information and communications technology (ICT), pharmaceuticals, mining, biotechnology, nanotechnology, soft technologies, and cultural (a.k.a. creative) industries.


  1. Financing of Technological Activities

The financial resources required for development purposes represent another key element in the field of science, technology, and innovation, and has garnered particular attention since the Law of the Third Development Plan (in the post-Islamic Revolution era) was passed in 2000. In this five-year plan, strong emphasis was placed on starting specialized research and technology funds. There are currently 44 such funds operating in Iran, six of which established entirely by the private sector.

Private venture capital funds are another emerging actor in the country's innovation ecosystem which, in 2017, invested a total of 71 million dollars in technology and innovation companies. The Iran National Innovation Fund (INIF), established in 2013, has thus far donated 260 million dollars to knowledge-based projects.


  1. Establishment of Strategic Technologies Development Headquarters

Iran is currently considered a leading country in terms of new technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and aerospace. The Vice-Presidency for Science and Technology aims to support the development and application of prioritized sciences and technologies throughout the idea-to-wealth-creation chain. To this end, the Vide-Presidency seeks to repeat the successful example of the Nanotechnology Development Headquarters and form the Strategic Technologies Development Headquarters with an agile and flexible organizational structure. These tech-development HQs are regarded as pathways toward a knowledge-based economy and are expected to facilitate the departure from the country's traditionally oil-based economy by promoting advanced and applicable technologies.

The activities of these HQs over the past few years have led to remarkable achievements in the field of strategic technologies, such as gaining top rankings in scientific productions in nanotechnology (4th place worldwide), biotechnology (13th place), and stem cells and regenerative medicine (14th place). Increased strategic technologies-related sales and exports are another achievement in this regard. By way of example, in 2017 the sales and export of nanotechnology products reached 332 and 62 million dollars, respectively. As for stem cells, more than 80 types of cell products have thus far been commercialized by 105 stem cell companies.


  1. Conclusion

Considering the current state of affairs, Iran appears to have excellent characteristics and conditions for development of startup ecosystems. A young and educated population, the adequate penetration rate of ICT, and a large domestic market, make the country quite suitable for this purpose. Additionally, Iran's promising scientific, technological, and innovatory capacities point to a bright future for the country's entrepreneurship and innovation sectors. The valuable experiences created by the entrepreneurship ecosystem of Iran in recent years could reinforce the nation's longstanding economic and cultural influence on the region. This very point has been emphasized by Article 8 of the Comprehensive Document on the International Relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran (passed Mar. 2018)[1] as an upstream reference. However, this strategic decision and the potential capacities cited in this chapter have thus far failed to attract internationally renowned specialists and entrepreneurs to Iran. In the following chapters, we shall trace the underlying reasons for this issue.


[1] Development of mechanisms to recruit, grant residence, and utilized in regulated ways the capacities, abilities, and knowledge of foreign scientists, researchers, technologists, and students.

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