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[CAIRO] The United States' commitment to science diplomacy in parts of the developing world assumed a firmer shape yesterday (4 June) when its president, Barack Obama, outlined a science plan during his landmark speech at Cairo University in Egypt.

Obama's speech, which tackled the United States' relationship with Muslim communities around the world, included several pledges to develop science and technology initiatives as part of his vision for promoting peaceful relations.

He pledged to start a new fund to support science and technology development in Muslim-majority countries to help transfer ideas to the marketplace and create jobs.

He said he would also open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia and appoint "science envoys" to collaborate on programmes to develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitise records, clean up water and grow new crops.

Educational exchange will also play a role in what he called a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world".

"On education, we will expand exchange programmes and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America, while encouraging more Americans to study in Muslim communities," Obama said.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of the Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Alexandria, Egypt, welcomed the plan as an "important step in the long road to establish a science-based US–Islamic world partnership".

He said he hopes to see an easing of the "unprecedented" scrutiny faced by students from Muslim countries wanting to study in the United States.

He added that since the attacks by al-Qaeda on New York City on September 11, 2001, many potential Muslim students and researchers have not been able to secure visas to study in the United States.

Athar Osama, science innovation specialist and founder of Muslim-Science.Com, said: "This is definitely an important step in the right direction but probably only half a step. Those who know the US political appropriations and policy processes will know that these are only intentions at this point".

"The US government now has the challenge to back this up with sincere will to implement, to do so without attaching it with excessive ideological baggage, and to appropriate the money to make it possible."

"If and when that happens, it would be in the interest of Muslim-majority countries to reciprocate by working with the United States — and with each other — to maximise the impact these initiatives may have on the Muslim world." 

In Malaysia, Hassanuddeen Abdul Aziz, of the International Islamic University, said that a study of trends in international mathematics and science, published in December 2008, shows that Islamic states are lagging behind industrialised countries in the teaching of mathematics and science to young students.

"The setting up of an online learning network within the new US-Islamic world educational partnership will have a positive effect on science education," he said. "Especially because the Arabian Gulf education sector appears to be eager to emulate the American model of science and technology higher education in pursuit of the observed success of knowledge economies."

David Dickson's blog from the New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy 2009 conference