I was scheduled to visit Paris just one week after the deadly Nov. 13 attacks. My plan was to stop on the way back from a conference in Morocco to see members of the French chemistry community. Because of the dreadful events in Paris, it seemed more crucial to meet with them and offer my support, even though the French borders had been closed. So I refused to omit the Paris portion of my trip.
While in Morocco, I had been attending the conference “Malta VII, Frontiers of Science: Research & Education in the Middle East, a Bridge to Peace.” This biennial gathering convened scientists from 15 countries representing the Middle East and Morocco and for many provided their only opportunity to exchange scientific ideas, build collaborations and international partnerships, and discuss common problems in the region. The conference mood and discussions, juxtaposed with the news from Paris, confused expectations: Paris is more typically associated with thoughts of romance rather than conflict, and the violence it witnessed contrasted with the conference’s goals of peace. Conversely, expectations of Morocco are often influenced by the movie “Casablanca,” which presented the country as an occupied desert area. In reality, it is friendly and almost tropical.
Preparing to travel to Paris, I listened to news of the attacks and thought of France’s fundamental commitment to “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Their admirable and deliberate openness can also bring vulnerability and reminded me of the openness traditional to our science and how this might also render it vulnerable. Would terrorism impact science and can science impact terrorism? This was answered in a Nov. 19 article by Alain Fuchs, president of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). The following excerpt summarizes sentiments shared by many in the scientific community: “Following the attacks perpetrated in Paris last week, the CNRS makes a strong appeal for new multidisciplinary research projects capable of exploring all the potential issues and challenges that surround these tragic events, paving the way for durable solutions. … Research and politics are distinct. But I believe this is a rare opportunity for researchers to express a form of solidarity with all those who, directly or indirectly, have been affected by the terrible events which, as we all know, can happen again.”
Obviously science diplomacy has a role in making the world more secure. One example of best practice combines professional activities with student education. For instance, as the use of dangerous chemicals became more routine, not only did chemists practice greater safety, but also chemical safety was increasingly introduced to students via basic university training. Following this precedent, chemical security and science diplomacy should be similarly enhanced at both levels: Not only should we increase awareness of these in the chemical community, but also we should introduce them to students at an early stage. Promoting codes of conduct and of ethics among scientists and students will lead by example and build trust among scientists.
Comments of conference attendees in Morocco echoed Fuchs’s hopes:
“Scientists have a responsibility to help solve or prevent these problems. By defending human values, by educating our students to talk freely, and by inspiring them also to act responsibly, we will help.”
“Science diplomacy is a way to influence minds that think similarly to have hearts that feel similarly, in order to make a better future.”
“To start a heterogeneous crystallization process, nuclei (seed crystals) must initiate the process. Our conference in Morocco can be one of those seeds that helps strengthen and accelerate the peace process and cooperation among young scientists mainly from the Middle East region. It is a long journey, with ups and downs, but the journey has started. We should continue and never give up for an essential reason: The young generation in the Middle East deserves a better future.”
These sentiments were also supported by the French chemists I met in Paris, one of whom said:
“Recent events showed that … a strike could happen again in a society as open as the French’s. I don’t think one can be comfortable when talking about such immeasurable events; however life goes on, luckily, and you can say by chance, because it is just random. No one in my personal surroundings is missing.”
Life—and science—must go on.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.