Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

International Science Collaboration with the Middle East and North Africa

Science and Technology Attachés Can Help Deepen Ties and Promote Stability

SOURCE: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus Libyan rebels jubilate after taking the city of Ajdabiya, aided by coalition air strikes on Saturday, March 26, 2011. While bombs continue to fall on Libya, science diplomacy remains an unrecognized opportunity for long term peaceful collaboration in the Middle East and North Africa.

This is the second in our series of contributions on the topic of science diplomacy, the first installment can be found here. Dr. Farouk El-Baz believes that reviving the science attaché program can help the U.S. overcome barriers to collaboration with the Middle East and help bring about change while furthering diplomatic interests.

The recent turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and even the conflict in Libya should remind Americans that even under the most repressive, authoritarian regimes, the fundamental freedoms we have long treasured in this country are aspirations shared by all people. With political transitions underway in so many countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa—and others perhaps not too far behind—we have an important opportunity to strengthen our partnerships with local populations at the same time that we seek to rebuild our image by adjusting our approach to engaging these new governments.

Science diplomacy has the potential to act as a stabilizing force in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, by bolstering economic development and fostering friendly, cross-border collaboration. Science and technology can help address the region’s urgent food, water, and energy needs. To achieve any of these objectives, however, an overhaul of science and technology, or S&T, education in MENA is badly needed. Western governments can play a role in achieving this by expanding diplomatic efforts that promote international science capacity building and collaboration.

Egypt: A stark example of the need for science, technology, and education to strengthen economies

Egypt serves as a prime example of the sentiments felt in much of the Arab world. Given recent events, it is clear the young generation will no longer tolerate an economic and political environment that fosters an ongoing slip into poverty. This generation is ripe to harness creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship—all critical concepts which must be integrated into their educational curriculum.

Sixty years ago, Egypt’s revolution of 1952 was successful in establishing free university education for all. While this model remains in Egypt as well as other nations in the region, it has proven ineffective. These countries have grown in population rapidly but, without corresponding economic growth, education budgets have remained flat and employment options scarce. Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and others in MENA face similar challenges. Young people are graduating with university degrees but are not properly trained to compete for the small number of available jobs in the workforce.

According to a 2004 study by Cairo’s Gulf Centre for Strategic Studies, the Arab world accounts for about a third of the brain drain from developing countries. Arab countries lose half of all new medical doctors, 23 percent of engineers, and 15 percent of scientists. Some scientists of my generation migrated to the West but many who stayed in the region were “swallowed” by the inefficiency of state bureaucracy. While some researchers who remained were successful, the Egyptian government and others like it have undervalued their work and have been ineffective in creating an environment conducive to moving scientific research to markets.

According to recent International Monetary Fund data, Egypt’s overall unemployment is 8.9 percent. A quarter of those younger than 25 are unemployed and high school graduates account for 42 percent of the workforce, yet 80 percent of them are unemployed. It’s important to note that youths comprise 60 percent of the population in the MENA region. While unacceptable, these numbers are not surprising when you consider that Egypt spends only 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of its GDP on research—a fraction of the developed world’s relative budgets. Political leaders in the Arab world do not recognize the economic value of education, especially S&T education.

For example, I participated in NASA’s Apollo Program. Upon its completion, I was invited by the Department of State to lecture on the scientific results of lunar exploration in the Arabian Gulf region. I met all the heads of state, and nearly all would ask me why we ought to spend money on space exploration while the funds could be spent on the poor. They didn’t understand the fundamental correlation between science, innovation, and economic development.

Contrast this with the United States where NASA tasked its Office of Technology Utilization with one sole purpose: to summarize and publish results of research for the benefit of all citizens and corporations. Thanks to these efforts, the NASA lunar program didn’t just put a man on the moon; it helped create and commercialize new technologies as diverse as solar panels, memory foam, fuel cell technology, and crucial imaging equipment used today in digital cameras, webcams, and cell phones. Over the years countless new industries, businesses, and jobs have grown up around these and other technologies originally developed for the space program.

NASA is just one example of how innovation and economic development can connect to improve people’s quality of life. Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate for his research on innovation economics, and other economists have suggested that new technology is responsible for a large majority of economic growth in the United States and around the world. Cultivating this can help set transitional economies in MENA and around the world on a path toward increasing standards of living.

The impetus for science diplomacy in the Middle East and North Africa

Since the publication of the State Department’s “Science and Foreign Relations” report in 1950, it has been clear that science has joined economics as a “practical factor” to be reckoned with in the international arena. Today, international science collaboration is a proven way to foster science education and innovation around the world. But while globally relevant, science diplomacy holds particular economic and diplomatic value in the MENA region, where its benefits could help alleviate economic stagnation, improve cultural ties, decrease anti-Americanism, and increase stability during this time of political turmoil.

Science collaboration in the Middle East and North Africa is a win-win for the United States and for host nations in the region. On the one hand, helping develop science education and technology innovation systems can help address pressing challenges and support long-term economic growth and job creation in host countries—trends that will further support awakening democracy movements. On the other hand, international science collaboration supports on-the-ground, people-to-people cultural exchange which is critical for the United States to repair its tainted image in the region.

Part of the power of scientific collaboration in MENA is its unique ability to transcend political barriers. As Cathy Campbell, CEO of CRDF Global, mentioned in “Send in the Scientists,” America’s science and technology leadership is the most respected aspect of its culture by citizens of Muslim-majority nations. Muslim and Arab scientists and political leaders see this cooperation with U.S. scientists as beneficial to themselves and their people. Even former President Mubarak himself pursued collaboration with U.S. scientists, technologists, and business leaders in 1994 during the Mubarak-Gore free trade talks, and since then, successive Egyptian ministers of higher education have requested formally that the United States initiate new opportunities for science cooperation. The United States should leverage this genuine desire for peaceful cooperation and capitalize on the diplomatic opportunity is represents.

Such science partnerships can give Arab researchers the expertise needed to solve their problems and help bolster educational systems. Many researchers are working with scientists and engineers of the developing world to help them build their economies and inspire their people. CRDF Global is one key organization seeking to promote peace and prosperity by facilitating this kind of international collaboration.

There are many noteworthy examples of international science collaboration between the countries of the West and countries in the Arab and Muslim worlds:

  • The Pakistan-U.S. Bilateral Science and Technology Agreement has generated ongoing research to utilize the skills of both partners on a range of topics important to Pakistani development, including water, energy, agriculture, and human and animal health.
  • The U.S. and Iranian national science academies have conducted workshops on earthquake hazards, efficient water use, health, and science ethics.
  • The European Union (and secondarily, the United States) funds the Tempus projects to modernize higher education in many regions globally.
  • The Egyptian government and some European countries created the Science and Technology Development Fund,which disburses the equivalent of $34 million annually in competitive grant proposals.
  • Most recently, President Obama appointed six science envoys to Muslim-majority countries.

While these initiatives are promising, there is much more potential for science diplomacy between the United States and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Science and technology attachés: Deepening ties with MENA nations

The appointment of science envoys to Muslim-majority countries is a big step forward but the initiative will require sustained support, which can best be provided by the addition of science and technology attachés in relevant U.S. embassies.

Many U.S. embassies had such attachés in the past. During my 10 years (starting in 1973) at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the services of science attachés were a great advantage. In Moscow, an attaché assisted our U.S. government delegation throughout bilateral discussions about joint production of a lunar surface feature chart, as well as earth photography on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of July 1975. In Egypt, a science attaché facilitated my team’s work in studying its vast deserts, including securing field permits and shipping samples to the United States. And in India, the science attaché paved the way for a U.S. team to conduct research on the origin of landform in the Rajasthan Desert.

Such U.S. embassy officials maintained contact with many researchers and institutions, leaving open the doors for future cooperative projects. Unfortunately, the science attaché position was abolished two decades ago due to budget cuts. Despite the serious fiscal constraints we are under again today, however, such appointments are needed more than ever as we work to rebuild our partnerships with governments and populations in the region.

In addition to helping partner countries develop science and technology capacity, increasing outreach to MENA countries through science attachés can help boost the United States’ reputation as well. Science attachés in U.S. embassies would underscore what many people all over the world greatly respect about America: its first-rate science research and technology innovation. Science attachés stationed in embassies in the Middle East could serve as a vital support system to the science envoy program by helping engage with local constituencies to ensure that projects truly address the real-world needs of host countries. Attachés and envoys working together could produce striking results, securing the longevity of a new science diplomacy strategy to the long-term benefit of the United States and its partners.

If science doesn’t help now, we have failed

Now is the time to reach out and deepen ties with the nations of the Middle East and North Africa through science diplomacy. I’ve referred to my contemporaries in Egypt as a “Generation of Failure.” Many of us were educated in great high schools and universities during the 1950s and 1960s but despite our dedication we failed to meet the expectations of our people. The main reason for this was that we elevated the institutions above the individuals. State institutions focused more on securing their own future than on carrying out the work of the people. Corruption spread and lip service was paid to imaginary achievements, which kept people disillusioned.

There was no chance of progress under such circumstances. My generation must acknowledge its mistakes so future generations may continue to follow new directions.

In the face of ongoing U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya, our leaders must send a clear message that we are ready to extend the open hand of cooperation, not only the closed fist of coercion. With many Western researchers available to collaborate and exchange skills, science diplomacy has great potential as a tool in international development and cultural exchange. Our leaders should seize this opportunity to help promote peace and cooperative diplomacy in the Middle East and around the world.

Dr. Farouk El-Baz is research professor and director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, Boston, MA, and adjunct professor of geology at the Faculty of Science, Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the Board of Directors of CRDF Global.

Tags: , ,

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.