Iraqi Science: Who Cares?

As my intrepid colleague Sam Jaffe reports in this issue (Rebuilding Iraqi Science), Iraqi science is on its knees. Following two-and-a-half decades of a brutal dictatorship, it's been pummeled by sanctions, halted in its tracks by war, and ransacked in the postwar chaos. We probably can add to this list a deep malaise, which appears to be affecting the entire country as it awaits reconstruction. While reading his report, several questions struck me: Just how worthwhile would it be to reconst

Jul 14, 2003
Richard Gallagher

As my intrepid colleague Sam Jaffe reports in this issue (Rebuilding Iraqi Science), Iraqi science is on its knees. Following two-and-a-half decades of a brutal dictatorship, it's been pummeled by sanctions, halted in its tracks by war, and ransacked in the postwar chaos. We probably can add to this list a deep malaise, which appears to be affecting the entire country as it awaits reconstruction.

While reading his report, several questions struck me: Just how worthwhile would it be to reconstruct the Iraqi science base? Who would benefit? And how might aid be provided quickly?

Obviously, the estimated 10,000 PhD researchers in Iraq would welcome the effort to rebuild their scientific community. This is a substantial body of scientists, particularly so for this region of the world, and one that could be put to good use.

For example, Iraq's education system was one of the region's best prior to 1991, when United Nations' economic sanctions, imposed in response to the invasion of Kuwait, began to bite. The country had enjoyed high levels of literacy among both men and women, and its "Higher Education [system], especially the scientific and technological institutions, were of an international standard, staffed by high-quality personnel."1 While time will not have dulled the talent and determination of these personnel, they will need much assistance to bridge the 12-year chasm and to restore Iraqi education to its former glory. Such a goal strikes me as a prerequisite to the long-term success of rebuilding the country, and it requires a flourishing academic research base.

The societal dimension of science is also relevant. A prominent Iraqi research community will help bridge the information gap to the general population, support an international outlook, and along with other professional groups, help to dampen radical political sentiment. These are essential if the people of Iraq are to control their own destiny.

Other diverse benefits include the economic return on investment in science and technology, something that many countries, from Iceland to India, are discovering. And, a sophisticated research community in the Middle East could make a useful contribution to solving problems that confront us on a global scale.

The case for supporting Iraqi science seems, therefore, to be strong. But its rebuilding will be an expensive and (likely) bureaucratic process. It will span many years, if not decades.

Is it possible that we in the scientific community can provide a short-term fillip to our beleaguered colleagues? The sidebar in Rebuilding Iraqi Science offers a number of suggestions as to how readers of The Scientist might get involved, by offering sabbaticals, paying conference fees, or supplying old journals and lab equipment to colleagues in Iraq.

Our contribution is to offer The Scientist as a conduit between those offering support and those who would benefit from it. We have set up an E-mail account (Iraqiscience@the-scientist.com) to which we invite readers to send offers of sabbaticals or support for attendance to scientific meetings; we will work with Iraqi agencies and scientific organizations to identify researchers who will benefit. We're also working to find agencies prepared to deliver journals and lab equipment.

We think it's a good way of saying, "Welcome back to the community."

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

1. "UNESCO and education in Iraq fact sheet," available online at portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php
@URL_ID=11216&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

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