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A scheme to support and protect Iraqi scientists will receive US$5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, matching a contribution already approved by the United States Congress.

Managed by the US-based International Institute of Education's Scholar Rescue Fund, the Iraq Scholar Rescue Project will award two-year fellowships to senior scientists identified by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research as having received specific death threats.

The programme will help evacuate scientists at risk, and set up and fund teaching and research positions at institutions in the Middle East and North Africa. They will work with displaced Iraqi students in the region and with their students in Iraq via long-distance learning.

The programme is set to start in the coming months, with Jordon most likely to take on the first scientists.

Over 300 Iraqi academics have been killed since the US-led invasion, according to the Brussels Tribunal, a group campaigning against the occupation in Iraq.

The remnants of Iraq's academic circles should be preserved for the same reasons that refuge was provided to European scientists before and during World War II, Nabil Al-Tikriti, an Iraqi assistant professor at the US-based University of Mary Washington, told SciDev.Net. 

"Their past and potential future contributions to human knowledge must be rescued first in order to be appreciated later," he added.

Malik Alasmar, an Iraqi researcher based at the University of Ghent in Belgium, told SciDev.Net, "This long-awaited programme for protecting Iraqi scientists could constitute one step on the hard road for science development in what was once one of the Arab world's strongest scientific communities."

Alasmar said Iraqi scientists should be allowed to apply directly to the programme instead of going through the government selection system, to avoid politically-motivated decisions and ensure fairness.

He added that relocating Iraqi scientists to Arab instead of Western countries will help knowledge transfer and workforce development, and combat brain drain in the Arab world.

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