Middle East ‘science-peace’ group to focus on water

Irrigation in Syria: the new task force will promote collaborative research on water resources Copyright: FAO / Faidutti

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Scientists from the Middle East have formed a task force to promote research on water resources, and have agreed to create an online forum to improve science education in the region.

The plans were announced at a conference held on the Mediterranean island of Malta from 5-10 November. Its purpose was to encourage scientific collaboration and promote peace between nations.

“We are trying to bring chemists from the region together in an atmosphere that encourages interaction,” says Roald Hoffmann, who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry and is based at Cornell University, United States.

The meeting — dubbed Malta-2 — was a follow-up to one held on the island in December 2003. Last month’s event attracted twice as many delegates as its predecessor— including six Nobel laureates and another 67 scientists.

Hoffman told SciDev.Net that, on peace, individuals or groups can only achieve small things, but “the world moves as a sum of such small efforts”.

Zafra Lerman, chair of the organising committee, says the newly-formed task force will encourage scientific collaborations seeking to protect existing water resources. In addition, it will promote efforts to develop technologies for desalinating seawater and reusing wastewater.

The meeting’s participants will also create an Internet-based forum for exchanging information and ideas in an effort to improve science education in the Middle East.

Lerman, who heads the Institute for Science Education and Science Communication at Columbia College Chicago, United States, told SciDev.Net that the participants agreed to hold a follow-up meeting on nanotechnology, and to run three workshops for postdoctoral researchers and young faculty members.

Aaron Ciechanover of Technion — the Israel Institute of Technology — and winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry, says he hopes to see students travelling to different countries in the Middle East, and scientists being invited to conferences in ‘hostile’ countries.

He offered to give lectures in Egypt on cancer research and to find funds to support researchers coming to work in his laboratory in Israel.

Yuan Lee, who won the same Nobel Prize in 1986 and works at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, offered to host three scientists with full scholarships.

“Scientists have much more responsibility in our world than they are normally aware of,” says Richard Ernst of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,.another Nobel winning chemist who attended the meeting.

“They are supposed to have the foresight to shape our common future, and they have the liberty to express themselves freely without any concerns for their personal position, which is not true for politicians nor for business people,” Ernst told SciDev.Net.

“For this reason, scientists, not knowing any national borders, are obliged to meet and discuss how to save our world,” he says.