Rebuilding Iraqi Science
Alternating pavement stones at the entrance to Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad bear a bas-relief image of Saddam Hussein's face, minus his eyes: somebody chipped them out of each brick. Political banners drape the iron fence that surrounds the campus, seemingly unnoticed by the crowd of buzzing students as they race to class.
Some banners proclaim the virtues of a new Kurdish party. Others announce the arrival of a new Shiite Imam from exile in Iran. One poster, signed by the Muslim Students' League, demands that students and faculty refuse to cooperate with American soldiers and say nothing to American journalists. At the bottom, it chillingly reads, "You are being watched. If you defy this proclamation, your family will be informed."
This isn't your average university campus. That fact becomes even more apparent at the entrance to the science building. A month after the war ended, paper ash was still floating in the air. All the lobby furniture is missing. Black blooms scar the walls, evidence of the fire set by arsonists that raged after the US-led war ended. On the second floor of this vast structure, in the biology section, the scene is one of complete decimation. Looters stole everything not bolted down; what remained was burned beyond recognition. Gouges pock the walls where looters extracted electrical wires, looking for copper. Intact light bulbs were stolen, along with the light fixtures and even the wall switches. The building has been deconstructed down to its concrete structural beams.
Iraqi science, along with the rest of the country, suffered a trifecta of sanctions, war, and perhaps worst of all, a month-long looting spree. Today, Iraqi scientists at Mustansiriyah and other universities and institutes are picking up the pieces, preparing for the moment for which they've waited 12 years: reconstruction. It's a vast task.
But in the midst of the ruin, plenty of reasons exist for the world to be optimistic about Iraqi science. Saddam Hussein's government trained more than 10,000 Iraqis who hold PhDs in the life sciences, chemistry, or physics. Of those, about a thousand had some involvement in developing weapons of mass destruction, according to the United Nations. But to cloak his weapons programs, Saddam created a vast science community that now can be a powerful force in reconstructing all of Iraq. "There is so much potential there," says Jonathan Tucker, a biological weapons expert who has analyzed the capabilities of Iraqi scientists for the last decade. "If the resources are brought to bear and the reconstruction of the Iraqi science infrastructure is executed intelligently, it could have an enormous impact on the future of Iraq and the Middle East."
The house of wisdom
Besides the important role that Iraqi science can play in the region's peaceful future, another reason persists for why scientists in the United States and Europe should be concerned about the state of science in Iraq: The historical debt owed to the region. During Europe's Dark Ages, the Abbasid emperors Harun al Rashid and al Mamun, his son, encouraged the translation of classical Greek texts into Arabic. Modern-day Mustansiriyah University traces its roots to the House of Wisdom, founded by Mamun, where Mohammed al Khwarzimi created algebra, Mohammed ar Razi pioneered the field of pediatrics, and Hunayn bin Ishaq translated Aristotle.
Restoring that legacy is a tall order. Once the physical infrastructure is rebuilt, the human aspect must be addressed. Iraqi scientists have had almost no contact with the outside world since the first Gulf War in 1991, when sanctions were first imposed. A.N. Ali, the director of Iraq's Natural History Museum, fingers a three-page handwritten document, which he prepared for US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) officials. It's a laundry list of equipment he needs to rebuild the museum's research labs. It starts with fluorescent light bulbs, moves on to office furniture, and then gets into more science-specific equipment such as microscopes, pH meters, and glassware. When asked if the list requests Internet access, he shakes his head. "I don't see any scientific reason for Internet access," says Ali, unaware that it would allow him to instantaneously communicate with colleagues worldwide. When told about the extent to which Western scientists have become dependent on the Internet in the last 10 years, Ali shrugs and says, "First we need light bulbs. Later we can talk about computers."
The impact of sanctions
More than the Internet has bypassed Iraqi scientists. During the sanction years, researchers were forbidden to buy biology-related journals. Some were able to smuggle in old copies of Science and Nature, but most libraries ended their collections at August 1990, the month of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Thus, most Iraqi scientists are unaware of the advances in their fields.
It took a lot of creativity and inventiveness to continue practicing research during those years. The United Nations, which oversaw the sanctions, forbade the importation of scientific instruments or supplies, such as mass spectrometers or reagents, because of their potential use in the production of biological weapons. Consequently, Iraqi scientists had to improvise. Assam F. Alwan, the director of the Baghdad [formerly known as Saddam] Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Institute at Baghdad University, entirely changed his research focus. An enzymologist, he switched to studying bacillus bacteria. "Because it's a white-type bacterium, it doesn't need cooling chambers. We could work with it at room temperature," Alwan says. He couldn't import a growth medium, so he went to the local market instead and made his own from potatoes and flour. Even with such a jury-rigged operation, he managed to publish several papers a year, mostly in Iraqi journals, but some in Egyptian journals also.
The war itself, relatively speaking, had little impact on Iraqi scientists. Only one bomb was known to have fallen on a university; it hit a women's education building at Mustansiriyah. "We're sure it was a mistake. There were no military targets there. The building was empty anyway," says Rajwan Hassan Issa, a biology professor at Mustansiriyah. Nevertheless, the powerful percussion of faraway bombs shattered most of the university's windows. Looters were responsible for the remaining destruction.
The war did come to the Ipa Agricultural Institute, based literally next door to a huge Republican Guard base at Abu Ghreib, outside of Baghdad. "Every day we would hear dozens of bombs go off at the army camp, but not a single one fell on our grounds, except for the two missiles that hit the tanks," says Abdul Razak Alawi, the head of animal operations at Ipa. Two Iraqi tanks still sit at the entrance to the Institute, their turrets ripped from their bodies by the force of US bombs.
Ipa suffered far worse from the month-long looting spree that shook the country after the shooting stopped. Within the first day of looting, every animal was taken, including 3,000 sheep, 800 goats and more than 80 head of cattle. However, the greatest tragedy, says Alawi, was the complete loss of the purebred Faw-Bro chickens, a breed specifically designed to thrive in Iraq's climate. "It took us more than a decade to breed that chicken. Now we've lost every one." Alawi says that he spent days searching local markets, hoping to find looters selling live Faw-Bro. "I only found birds that were already slaughtered."
Likewise, the institute's seed bank was cleaned out. "Some faculty took some seeds home with them before the war, just in case," says institute director Majsire Jarjees. "But everything else is gone. We had entire storerooms of seeds and hundreds of seed lines. It's all gone." Like most of the looting, the theft was senseless: "These weren't farmers stealing the seeds to plant them," says Jarjees, who got his doctorate at Kansas State University. "They just stole for the sake of stealing."
Now Jarjees concentrates on reconstruction. ORHA officials asked for a list of items needed to get the Institute up and running, for which ORHA will pay. But no promises have been made in regards to buying expensive scientific equipment. "Right now, we're just worried about getting the lights to work," he says. "It will take at least two years to rebuild this place in order to do more science."
An Iraqi tank that was
Thanks to the quick placement of US troops at Baghdad University, that institution avoided widespread looting; however, due to the effect of sanctions and no government funding, its needs are just as great. The laboratory of Ekram Al Hayat, a 56-year-old entomologist, consists of one microscope and some samples submerged in formaldehyde. "We've been teaching from 30-year-old textbooks," Al Hayat says. "Our needs are very simple. We need everything."
That's hardly an understatement. Money and time are obviously the most necessary resources right now. ORHA's adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Andrew Erdman, says he's got enough of both to rebuild the basic infrastructure in a year or two. "But it's going to take much more than that to bring Iraqi scientists back into the global fold," he says. "It's not just the sanctions that ruined this place. There was a systematic neglect of academic research that increased with time. Military research crowded out academics until there was nothing left at the end."
Erdman says the ORHA is debating the course of a more complete reconstruction plan, which will include restocking libraries and providing funding for training. "But right now our priority is providing security and paying salaries so that we can make it through the end of the school year in July." One such longer-term plan is the creation of academic institutes for former weapons researchers to keep them from going to other rogue states to continue their weapons research. "I think it has a good chance of happening, but someone has to find the funds," Erdman says.
One plan that has stalled and looks dead is a bill before Congress sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) that automatically would provide visas for any Iraqi scientist who cooperates with coalition efforts to find weapons of mass destruction. The Senate passed the bill, but it has languished in committee in the House of Representatives, and will probably die a slow death there. If passed, it could spur a mass migration of Iraqi scientists during a time when their country desperately needs them. "I don't want to leave Iraq," says Issa of Mustansiriyah. "My country needs me now. Maybe in five years I can go overseas, but now I want to rebuild my country."
That's not to say that Iraqi scientists won't turn down an offer to travel temporarily overseas. "I want to go to America, if only to just visit labs. I want to see what they are doing and what we need to do," says Assam Alawi of the Biotechnology Institute. Other scientists proclaim a profound interest in going to scientific meetings, but they can't imagine where they would get funds for such trips.
Now that Iraq's borders are open and sanctions have ended, one fear is that a massive brain drain will occur. Erdman disagrees. "I foresee the opposite," he says. "So many Iraqi scientists left in the last 10 years, and most with whom I've talked want to return. I see a reverse brain drain as things get fixed here, assuming the security situation improves."
Sam Jaffe can be contacted at [email protected].
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of The Scientist