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Science Diplomacy

U.S. science envoys highlight science education as a high-impact area for U.S. aid to Muslim nations

by David J. Hanson
August 9, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 32

Credit: Courtesy of Betty Alberts
Alberts met with many enthusiastic young scientists during his visit to Indonesia as a U.S. science envoy.
Credit: Courtesy of Betty Alberts
Alberts met with many enthusiastic young scientists during his visit to Indonesia as a U.S. science envoy.

The three science envoys President Barack Obama appointed last year to represent U.S. science in an outreach effort to Muslim nations recently described their early experiences to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST). The prominent scientists identified areas where the U.S. could perform a positive role in assisting the development of these nations, and they made some recommendations for continued progress of such efforts.

“These nations no longer see science and technology as a luxury. They all see science as essential to their future,” Elias A. Zerhouni told the panel at a July 16 meeting in Washington, D.C. Zerhouni, senior adviser to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and former director of the National Institutes of Health, visited Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and other nations as a U.S. science envoy. “And the U.S. science system is seen as the example to follow in this pursuit.”

Credit: NIH
Credit: NIH

The other envoys—Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, and Ahmed Zewail, professor of chemical physics at California Institute of Technology and the 1999 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—said that people who are hopeful for a better future greeted their visits with enthusiasm.

Alberts, who traveled to Indonesia, noted that the science envoys enjoyed an advantage in the Muslim nations because they traveled as volunteers and scientists, not as politicians. “This enabled us to speak without any conflicting allegiances” when working to improve U.S. relationships with Muslim leaders in science and technology, he told PCAST.

Credit: Douglas A. Lockhard Photography
Credit: Douglas A. Lockhard Photography

The science envoy program came into being after a major speech Obama gave in June 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, calling for a renewed engagement with the Muslim world (C&EN, Dec. 7, 2009, page 38). Since then, the U.S. has started a number of productive exchanges between federal agencies and their counterparts in Muslim communities, according to John P. Holdren, PCAST cochair and head of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

Among the topics the envoys frequently mentioned at the meeting was the state of education in the nations they visited. “Unfortunately, education systems in these countries are not up to world standards,” Zewail noted. During his travels he visited Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and Dubai. “But these nations recognize this, and they want to do something about it,” he said.

It is in the best interest of the U.S. to help improve education in Muslim nations, especially in science and technology, Zewail contends. “We need to form new kinds of partnerships to help build these institutions,” he told PCAST. U.S. efforts don’t have to be big programs, he said, but they could be small projects that focus on specific needs in the Muslim nations and show that the U.S. is serious about its long-term participation.

Alberts told the committee that his trip focused on capacity building of Indonesian institutions and individuals in areas of science and technology, with an emphasis on establishing relationships among the next generation of science leaders in both countries. Since his trip, Alberts said, the State Department has announced some U.S. funds supporting new university exchanges with Indonesia, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has set a meeting in its Frontiers of Science program that will pair 40 Indonesian scientists with 40 young U.S. science leaders.

In the Muslim nations the envoys visited, Zerhouni noted, science education problems don’t just exist at universities, but at all levels, including the equivalent of K–12. “I initially thought the needs would be at the high end of education,” he said, “yet I found that every country has a huge need for better science education at all levels. All educational structures are taxed.”

The envoys criticized past U.S. actions to help Muslim nations’ education systems. “Too often, it is the perception and the reality that U.S. efforts are fragmented and not predictable,” Zerhouni said. “These cultural exchanges have to be based on trust.”

Recipients of U.S. aid for education suffer from “MoU fatigue,” Zerhouni said, referring to the many memorandums of understanding that the U.S. has signed with Muslim countries but never followed up with practical projects. “There is still an underlying concern in the Muslim nations that the envoy initiative was being done for the headlines and for the press,” he noted. “We have had positive reactions from these nations, but have we created some expectations where there is not going to be any follow-through?” he asked.

The envoys also discussed problems beyond education. For instance, many researchers in the visited Muslim nations have difficulties accessing the latest scientific information, either from the literature or through conferences, the envoys said.

And a frequent complaint the envoys heard is that scientists from Muslim nations have enormous difficulty obtaining visas or scholarships to the U.S. “This is a tremendous obstacle to these students, and they should be our best ambassadors,” Zewail said. “It seems that we need to increase, not decrease, the availability of scholarships. The bureaucracy around trying to get them is just not acceptable.”

It has become tougher than ever for foreign scientists to get U.S. visas since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Zerhouni said. As a result, he explained, scientists from Muslim nations have forged closer scientific and technological ties and collaborations with Asia and Europe than with the U.S.

Zerhouni also called for increasing information exchanges. “We need to have more user-friendly mechanisms for sharing knowledge,” he told the council. “We need to take this opportunity to make more than just technical connections.”

How science is performed in the visited Muslim nations was another issue the envoys discussed. Hindrances from government interference are serious problems, they said. Alberts noted “the need for a merit-based culture in science and engineering.” In his meetings with the president of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, he said, they discussed exactly this issue.

To help improve science in the countries visited, the envoys suggested, each U.S. research-funding agency could designate a small fraction of its research budget to support international research efforts. Requiring a set amount each year would ensure that such efforts would be funded every year and that scientists in those countries could rely on the support. Such predictability is critical, the envoys said.

Finally, the envoys commented on the state of scientific expertise at U.S. embassies in the countries they visited. “I was quite surprised by the lack of a strong science base at the embassies, especially since this is what the U.S. is known for,” Zewail said. He wondered whether a culture change needs to happen at the U.S. Department of State, which, he observed, seems to view science diplomacy as a side job and not a primary function. This is not the case for other nations, he said.

All the envoys stated that the connections they made during their international visits increased the goodwill between the U.S. and Muslim science communities and that the science envoy program should be continued and even expanded. “A major challenge will be finding the way to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program,” Alberts said. “One of my personal goals is to convince skeptics of the program that there needs to be science envoys in all countries.”

Zewail, who called Obama’s Cairo speech historic and commented on how well received it was by the citizens in the Muslim nations, pleaded for quick action on the part of the U.S. government. “The U.S. has an opportunity here” to do some real good for the people of Muslim nations, he said. “After the June 2009 speech by Obama, the expectations were very high, so quite frankly the people would like to see some action. Time is running out.”



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