What’s Going On In Iran’s Presidential Sci-Tech Office?

What’s Going On In Iran's Presidential Sci-Tech Office?

Iran’s government has established an office to boost science and technology companies, while it has been disrupting access to the Internet, harming the sector.

An article published by Aftab News in Tehran on December 10 shed some light on some of the activities of the center, which received a handsome budget by Iranian standards after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last year called on officials to promote science-based companies.

Usually, Khamenei hears something from his advisors and issues some general and vague instructions to the country’s authorities to strengthen an industry or a certain sector of the economy. Such remarks are then interpreted as unquestionable orders and officials or factions start competing for a piece of the budget. Promoting knowledge-based firms and start-ups is among these contentious issues.

While the achievements of traditional government departments are more measurable, knowledge-based outfits have no touchstone to be measured against because such activities are new for the bureaucracy and authorities do not clearly know what to expect from them.

The actions of the Presidential Office of Science and Technology with a budget of nearly 30,000 billion rials (about $7.5 million in today’s exchange rates – much more last year) and numerous credit lines, is not out in the open and subject to scrutiny for the public, unlike for instance the ministries of energy, health or education. Therefore, few people are aware of how such an astronomical budget in rials is spent.

Since Khamenei included the adjective “knowledge-based” in the motto of the current Iranian year (which started March 21), the most important thing that occurred is that many companies redesigned or reintroduced themselves as such to take advantage of loans and incentives available from the government.

According to a UNESCO report, by 2020, 49 innovation accelerators had been established in Iran with private equity and 113 innovation centers had been set up in partnership with science parks and major universities.

According to Aftab News, Vice President for Science and Technology Rouhollah Dehghani Firouzabadi has recently toured Sharif Science and Technology Park, where it is supposed to be housing nearly 600 companies, 19 accelerators, 15 investment funds, and 10 innovation centers. But the situation is not like the start-up atmosphere at all. Instead, there are a lot of empty halls with many computers and no operators. The hub, which was boastfully presented as the beating heart of Tehran in the field of technology and innovation ecosystem, looks like an abandoned and bankrupt business center.

Vice President for Science and Technology Rouhollah Dehghani Firouzabadi

Vice President for Science and Technology Rouhollah Dehghani Firouzabadi

Firouzabadi, appointed in September, said the country’s problems will be resolved if decision-makers are chosen from among the scientific elite, adding that “I believe I need to delegate powers to managers because a specialized manager will be more knowledgeable about his field than I am.”

Currently, more than 7,900 knowledge-based companies are registered but, according to people in the sector, most of them are not active or are doing something different from what they were supposed to do.

The presidential outfit, which has recently rebranded itself with a longer title to include science-based economy, has even outsourced its most important job to companies from the private sector. Its most important task used to be identifying whether a company is science-based or not, and now this task is carried out by contractors.

Companies that seek to apply to be registered as knowledge-based – to be able to use its advantages — should be evaluated in terms of product and corporate frameworks. Now, there are a large number of evaluators and brokers from the private sector. It is not clear how such contractors are selected or if they are connected to government insiders. Such a system is prone to nepotism and corruption and there is no supervision over it.

One of the noteworthy activities of the center is organizing the so-called science and technology tours to countries like Turkey and France. While many start-ups and tech companies as well as people active in such fields are emigrating in the last 18 months due to inflationary stagnation and widespread poverty in Iran, such luxurious tours aimed at “connecting the researchers of the Islamic world” seem suspicious, says Aftab News.

Another way that the center is spending its extravagant budget is holding online workshops and seminars, which are usually held with only a handful of participants because the instructors are chosen based on their close connections to the authorities and not based on their expertise.

There is also an inherent contradiction in promoting new technologies, while at the same time restricting internet access to the public to control the flow of information about the current wave of antigovernment protests.

On Monday, Mojtaba Tavangar, the chairman of the Digital Economy Committee of the parliament, wrote to Raisi asking him to restore access to the Internet and to establish a fund to compensate for the damage caused to businesses. New figures show that due to extensive internet and social network restrictions, 20 percent of people in Iran have lost their online jobs in the past four months.

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