Now is the time for science diplomacy in the Arab world

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Science cannot resolve political conflict. But scientific cooperation can have a key role in maximising post-conflict opportunities.

In his annual State of the Union address, delivered in Washington DC last month, US President Barack Obama spoke strongly about the need to promote science-based technologies to "protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people".

His words have significance not only for the United States, but also for the Arab world.

Arab countries are now beginning to look at how to promote political stability and revitalise their social institutions in the aftermath of the seismic political changes — partly prompted by high levels of youth unemployment — that have been sweeping across the region in the past few weeks.

There are good reasons to be optimistic that a shift from authoritarian to genuinely democratic rule in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia will help science to flourish.

Scientific communities in both nations have shown widespread support for the protestors’ demands. And Nobel Prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail has been appointed a member of the Committee of Wise Men, set up to negotiate on their behalf.

These countries now have the opportunity to use their full potential to build modern knowledge-based economies.

But they cannot achieve this on their own — more than ever, they need the support of the international community. And this is where science diplomacy, an idea that has gained support in recent years, could come into its own.

Ensuring real partnership

I have argued previously that science diplomacy — the use of scientific cooperation as a tool of international diplomacy — has a key weakness: despite what its supporters sometimes claim, it can never substitute for political initiatives.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the lack of any significant follow-through to, or indeed impact of, a speech given by Obama in Cairo in the summer of 2009, in which he publicly advocated the use of closer scientific contacts between the United States and Muslim countries as a form of "soft diplomacy".

But science diplomacy can be invaluable when it provides the basis for a genuine scientific partnership between two (or more) countries — and especially when such partnerships allow the sharing of skills and experience, for example through joint teaching or research projects.

The danger of this approach, of course, is that the stronger partner may come to dominate, for example in planning or implementing a research project.

And collaboration with developed country partners should not undermine attempts to create regional initiatives. North–South partnerships are often the only way to create the critical mass required to get a viable local research community off the ground, but are not a substitute for local capacity.

The virtue of scientific partnerships is that skill-sharing can help countries produce potentially valuable research results, and at the same time enhance their capacity to produce more results.

In turn, if skill-sharing takes place within a supportive environment, it strengthens the platform on which a vibrant knowledge economy can be built.

In everyone’s interest

Western countries could use scientific partnerships to help restore political stability to the countries of the Arab world in the months ahead.

Done in a genuine spirit of partnership, this can lay the groundwork for advancing science and innovation without developed countries being accused of doing so purely in their own interests — although undoubtedly this is a situation that can benefit both sides.

Governments in the developed world should support their universities and research institutions to form constructive links with similar institutions in Arab countries. The more support these countries receive, the stronger their position for building viable knowledge economies.

And the stronger such economies — as well their ability to deliver on social needs, including jobs — the better placed Arab countries will be to resist falling back into authoritarian or military dictatorships.

Such initiatives must not neglect the need to build capacity for science communication. This is an essential component of any strategy aiming to ensure that both scientific evidence and knowledge about science are effectively integrated into democratic decision-making.

A unique chance

Many observers have noted that much of the inspiration for the citizen-led protest movements that continue to rock the Arab world come from a little-known US-based scholar and pacifist, Gene Sharp. His writings have been widely read and adopted by young people, Egyptians and Tunisians in particular.

Less well known is that Sharp himself takes much of his inspiration from one of the earliest "science diplomats", the physicist Albert Einstein.

Einstein worked tirelessly towards the end of his life to find ways that science could help create a better world — and at the same time protect that world from some of science’s destructive products, such as nuclear weapons.

The prospect for effective science diplomacy to make a significant impact in the Arab world has never been stronger than now, when some countries find themselves in what might be described as a post-conflict situation.

It is now up to the world’s scientific community to seize this opportunity through better partnerships and collaboration.

If that opportunity is squandered, a unique chance to help secure the better world envisioned by Einstein may be lost — and efforts to achieve it will become more difficult than ever.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net