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A chain reaction for peace

by Zafra Lerman & Ben Margolin
January 22, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 4

This is a guest editorial by Zafra Lerman, president of the Malta Conferences Foundation, and Ben Margolin, a volunteer writer for the Malta Conferences Foundation.

Given the tumultuous political situation in the Middle East, it is important—perhaps now more than ever—to foster new grassroots collaborations in the region. Imagine a room with Israeli, Palestinian, and Syrian scientists collaborating on regional issues while also building friendships. For many, this seems impossible. At the Malta Conferences, this is the norm.

The eighth Malta Conference (Malta VIII) was held Dec. 10–15, 2017, in Malta. Malta VIII had workshops that focused on chemical, biological, and nuclear security; air and water quality; sustainability of energy and materials resources; medicinal chemistry, organic and biochemistry, biophysics and biotechnology; science and technology education at all levels; and entrepreneurship and innovation. A total of 26 oral and 39 poster presentations were given in the workshop sessions by participants from the Middle East and Morocco. During the workshop on entrepreneurship and innovation, participants dove in and envisioned companies that would require cross-border collaboration. For example, Israeli and Gazan participants developed the concept of a start-up company, Every Drop Counts, for the conservation of water resources. Every two years since 2003, top scientists from throughout the Middle East have come together to tackle regional issues

despite the hostility among their governments. At the Malta Conferences, the goal is to create a critical mass of scientists to start a chain reaction for peace, to stop demonizing the unknown other, and to resolve regional problems. More than 600 Middle East scientists and 15 Nobel laureates are now in the network.

Politicians see national boundaries; the environment does not. Many aquifers in the Middle East are shared, and pollution knows only one sky. Therefore, no matter how polarized politics can get, there are many environmental issues that one nation alone cannot solve—only regional collaboration can truly have an impact.

So at this year’s conference, a resolution concerning water quality in Gaza was drafted and approved overwhelmingly by the participants from the Middle East. This resolution, coauthored by scientists from Israel and Gaza, addressed the most critical aspects of the humanitarian water crisis in Gaza while calling on “the international community to establish a task force that will be able to overcome the political difficulties and will enable professional treatment of the water and environment.” As a result of the relationships developed at the conference, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians were able to work together toward a common goal.

An Israeli participant said, “Do you know what it means for us to spend five days talking to scientists from countries that otherwise we would never have a chance to meet? We develop friendships and collaborations. Where else can we do it?”

The Malta Conferences continue to face a number of logistical challenges. One of the toughest is finding a host country that will issue a visa to all participants. There are scientists coming from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the Palestinian Authority, and Morocco.For Malta VIII, I [Lerman] was up at 3 AM before the conference began to ensure that Iranian and Syrian scientists would be able to attend. At the end, all invited participants received a visa. Other obstacles include securing all the funding needed for each conference and dealing with the lack of money to employ paid staff. All the fundraising and the organizing of the conference is done by volunteers who serve on the Malta Conferences Foundation Board of Directors.

Despite all obstacles and against all odds, the Malta Conferences continue to play a crucial role for science diplomacy in the Middle East.

Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.


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