A report recently published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) revealed that Iran has made significant progress towards a knowledge-based economy, powered by science and innovation. However, the report indicates that certain measures should be taken to fully harness the potential of the country.


In a 3-part article we will highlight the main findings of the 100 page report on Iran’s science, technology and innovation standing. The first part will focus on the human resource base of Iran. In the next two parts, infrastructure and the role of knowledge-based firms in the transition towards a knowledge-based economy will be discussed.

In recent years, Iran has been moving swiftly towards a more diverse economy that is less dependent on oil. Statistics show that the number of knowledge-based firms and S&T parks, and the amount of technology-based and knowledge-based exports have increased noticeably. These statistics indicate a national commitment to foster economic growth and sustainable development.


While not long age sanctions had almost left Iran no choice other than to opt a self-reliance strategy, recent political developments have provided grounds for Iran to collaborate internationally, exchange technology and know-how and engage in more innovative and scientific economic activities. Using the revenues from Oil and Gas to finance innovative endeavors and invest in other industrial sectors, Iran has been steadily moving away from an economy that was once almost solely dependent on oil.

The devotion of the country to develop a knowledge-based innovative economy has led to a strong human resource base. Iran has now one of the highest numbers of young educated adults. It ranks second globally in the number of engineering graduates per capita. Many well-educated and trained Iranians also live abroad as scientists and entrepreneurs, some of which are returning or plan to return to Iran following the optimism regarding the economy and politics of the country.

Iran’s science, technology and innovation standing - Source: UNCTAD
Iran’s science, technology and innovation standing – Source: UNCTAD

Iran has made significant progress in science; Higher education enrollment has almost doubled, the number of PhD students has tripled in the last 10 years, and the country is now ranked 16th globally and first in the middle east in terms of scientific publications, a significant improvement since 2005. New areas of research including nanotechnology, biotechnology and renewable energies have gained popularity among Iranian academics, ranking 15th in the world in 2016.

Despite these promising prospects, Iran still suffers from an illiteracy rate of around 13% among adults, an issue that the government should tackle. The unemployment rate among educated adults is twice the national average, which highlights the need to improve training and include vocational and technical education to deliver a better match between the skills of this group and industry needs.

The Human Development Index (HDI) shows Iran has moved from countries with low human development to countries with medium human development, from the 1980s to 2002. Women’s participation in higher education has now reached the position of near equality. Female students now account for more than half the student population in social and medical sciences and while the engineering sciences are still dominated by men, women account for 35% of the total engineering students.

The highly educated and skilled labour force in Iran is a major resource for economic development, however, to ensure a fast and reliable transition towards a knowledge-based economy policymakers should plan to fully leverage this valuable resource.

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