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Science, Peace, and Understanding

I have two Iraqi friends, both scientists, both wonderfully witty people. One of them is perhaps the kindest, gentlest, best-humored man I've ever known; I was honored to serve as his best man when he married a Cumbernauld girl of Polish descent. Such Iraqi/Scots-Polish liaisons might often occur in the melting-pot of the US, but in late-1980s Dublin this was quite an exotic event. Unfortunately, no one from the Iraqi side of the family was permitted to be present. A couple of years earlier,

By | February 10, 2003

I have two Iraqi friends, both scientists, both wonderfully witty people. One of them is perhaps the kindest, gentlest, best-humored man I've ever known; I was honored to serve as his best man when he married a Cumbernauld girl of Polish descent. Such Iraqi/Scots-Polish liaisons might often occur in the melting-pot of the US, but in late-1980s Dublin this was quite an exotic event. Unfortunately, no one from the Iraqi side of the family was permitted to be present.

A couple of years earlier, while I was a PhD student in Glasgow, I ran my one and only marathon. On days when they were taking it easy, I'd train with a couple of Libyan students who were in the same department. It astonished me that they could run 12 miles in the heat of the day during Ramadan and wait six or seven hours more before drinking anything at all. It astonished them that I'd be off for a couple of dehydrating beers after the run. They jist couldnae git their heeds 'roon the macho Glesga' trainin' prograhm. Ah telt them that the really macho guys hud their beers afore the run, no' efter it.

These personal glimpses illustrate that science is a global, integrative activity, arguably like no other. As we've all got connections planet-wide, maybe it's time we considered how to use them for the common good.

Let me explain.

What I'd originally intended for this slot was a diatribe against the hijacking of science for political ends, to wit, "homeland security." The target was to be new funding focuses, research constraints, muzzling of academic freedom, and so forth. While these remain concerns, I found, to my initial discomfort, that the practical scientific measures being recommended to prevent and respond to a terrorist attack are not just reasonable, they are pretty well obligatory.

Fine, treating the symptoms, I thought, but no one is addressing the causes. Wrong again. A thoughtful National Research Council (NRC) document1 provides a clear agenda for research into the nature and determinants of terrorism. This is something I'd heard little about, perhaps because it doesn't sit comfortably with the current political posturing and therefore hasn't been given a lot of play, or perhaps because of my tendency, common among natural scientists, to be a little suspicious of the behavioral and social sciences.

This attitude has changed. Says the NRC report on the causes of terrorism, "... factors influencing contemporary terrorism are a blend of historic, economic, political, cultural, motivational, and technological factors ...."

Here's the common-good point: Can the universality of science, our personal connectedness, be harnessed over the long term to help resolve some of these factors?

Exactly what form this intervention would take isn't clear to me. And scientists do not have a track record as political activists, as Daniel Greenberg's essay on page 60 makes clear. But we have here a cause of sufficient importance and urgency to galvanize the scientific community into action.

Richard Gallagher, Editor (rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

1. "Bioterrorism. Perspectives from the behavioral and social sciences," National Research Council, 2002.
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