President Obama's offer of scientific collaboration with the Muslim World has a long way to go, says Athar Osama.
When US President Barrack Obama spoke at Cairo University in June 2009, Muslims around the world listened intently.
Obama's historic speech — widely received with a positive but cautious response —acknowledged the glorious history of Muslim civilisation, and stretched out a hand of friendship and reconciliation. And the speech also made a commitment to assist Muslim nations with education, economic development, and science and technology.
To follow up on its promises, the White House appointed three science envoys to the Islamic World last February, with a further three announced last month. It hosted an Entrepreneurship Summit in April this year, and issued a 'fact sheet' of activities in June.
But beyond these largely symbolic gestures, real progress has been slow (apart from a clutch of programmes for Indonesia). Although it is still very early days, as yet there is no evidence of a positive self-reinforcing momentum, supported by adequate resources.
The proposed suite of science diplomacy initiatives will have dual objectives within the scientific and the diplomatic realms, namely, helping with scientific or socioeconomic development, and boosting America's image in the Muslim world. Ensuring the right emphasis on each objective — and an appropriate balance between the two — will be crucial to their success.
Getting the mix right
So what should the initiative's architects do to make it a success? First, the United States must build on effective bilateral science collaborations.
A successful example is the research programme under the Pakistan-United States Bilateral Science and Technology Agreement. Another is the very useful interaction between the US and Iranian national science academies. These have resulted in workshops on issues such as earthquake hazards, efficient water use, public health, and science ethics.
Second, while bilateral collaboration is essential, the Obama science initiative must also go further to create flexible multilateral structures, such as the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy or research partnerships such as CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and SESAME (the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East — currently under construction).
Open to all countries, these promote inclusiveness and have a broad reach. There is a danger that proposed centres of excellence will become too restrictive and exclusive, and open to only those that either already have good relations to the United States, or the financial resources to invest in them.
Muslim countries may not see themselves as natural partners. However the United States can provide the impetus to bring them together top back this type of project.
Science, not politics
Third, the science initiative must focus on important and urgent socio-economic problems that affect populations within the Islamic world. For example, it should mobilise funding for research on perennial problems such as maternal and child health, clean drinking water, clean energy, and disease. A proposed biodiversity centre in Indonesia is a step in right direction.
Fourth, creating employment through the application of entrepreneurial skills and the commercialisation of scientific research is clearly something America does well, and Muslim countries could benefit immensely from doing the same.
In addition, the United States is in a unique position to leverage diaspora populations from the Muslim world to engage constructively with communities at home.
Finally, science diplomacy initiatives must be housed somewhere that has credibility within the Islamic world (i.e. not too closely linked with the US government's political agenda), and implemented through mechanisms as close to the market as possible, but also through organisations with high scientific credibility.
In addition, Congress must back the Obama science initiative with serious money. And that money must come with no strings attached, even if it demands a degree of co-financing.
Above all, the scientific and practical benefits of engagement — appropriately publicised — will need to be compelling if they are to deliver a "diplomacy premium".
Will Obama deliver?
As John Boright, the Director of International Programmes at the US National Academies, notes, successful science diplomacy programmes must "be about science rather than be political". Science must take centre stage in science diplomacy — not the other way round.
However, science and diplomacy may not always fit easily together. Science collaboration initiatives, unless specifically created to influence public opinion, may involve too narrow a set of constituents to make a discernable impact on public perceptions.
So with his popularity plummeting at home, can Obama deliver? Cathleen Campbell, chief executive officer of CRDF Global (the Civilian Research and Development Foundation) in Washington DC, thinks bipartisan support for "initiatives that promote economic growth, achieve collateral security benefits, and improve relations" exists on Capitol Hill.
Others are less optimistic, given the prospects of Republican gains in November's mid-term Congressional elections.
Should political and financial support for Obama's Cairo commitment dry up, it would be difficult for Washington to create this great scientific dream of our times on a shoestring budget. And the United States risks a backlash if it ends up inviting its hospitable Muslim hosts to a feast, and then asking them to foot the bill.