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Rebuilding Science in Iraq, One Scientist at a Time
Daily news reports portray Baghdad as a city ripped by mortars, car bombs and kidnapping, but that was not Alex Dehgan's experience in the Iraqi capital. For five months this year, the AAAS Diplomacy Fellow was in the city working on a threat less visible, but no less urgent: Reviving the once-sophisticated science and technology culture that has been leveled by more than two decades of war, repression and economic sanctions.
It is not the sort of place one might expect to find a field biologist who has specialized in the lemurs of Madagascar. But Dehgan has a law degree, too, and a strong interest in global environment and science policy. For his fellowship, he was assigned to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and sent to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority. The mission was to help find work for hundreds of former weapons scientists-not building more weapons, but rebuilding the country.
Iraq's future depends on the success of efforts to bring science and engineering into a central role in a reconstruction effort that will last for years, Dehgan said in a recent interview, as the newest Science and Technology Fellows were in orientation sessions at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. In five months of sometimes harrowing work, he found the difficult process of creating trust and starting projects with the scientists beginning to yield hope for the future.
"The future of the country will depend on two things: the Iraqi leadership and Iraq's economic recovery. I think both of those depend on the scientists," Dehgan said. "The scientists have to be there to help with developing sources of support for the country, to give individual Iraqis an incentive to prevent the violence that renders apart the country….I think the worst thing that could happen to the country is if we have a loss of this intellectual capital. One is for security reasons, if these people go to certain rogue regimes where the information can be used-even against Iraq. The other is the loss of rationality in society and the loss of rationality in governance."
The 40-minute interview provided a detailed view into efforts underway by Iraqi scientists, with help from the U.S. government, to rehabilitate a culture of science and engineering that once provided innovation and leadership throughout the region. Much remains to be done, Dehgan said. Agriculture, the power grid, sanitation systems and the environment itself must be repaired or rebuilt. So must the infrastructure of science-schools and universities, technical centers, laboratories and libraries-that will provide the vision and expertise for that work.
Before beginning work under the AAAS Science and Technology Fellows program a year ago, Dehgan directed the Ranomafana Fragments Project in Madagascar as part of his doctoral research at the University of Chicago. He spent three years at remote camps in the country's southeastern rainforests, focusing on why certain animals go extinct locally while others are able to survive after habitat fragmentation. Earlier in his career, he advised the Russian Federation on environmental law and policy.
On arriving in the AAAS program, he expected to go to work at the Department of State for a year, concentrating on tropical forest conservation. But he was encouraged by State Department officials to go into the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, and by January 2004-roughly nine months after the fall of Saddam-he was en route to Iraq as special advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority for nonproliferation issues.
Though well-briefed, and though he's traveled to more than 60 countries worldwide, Dehgan didn't know exactly what to expect when he first landed in Iraq on 15 January. But the facts soon became clear: University laboratories were stripped. Collections at the Baghdad Natural History Museum had been looted or destroyed. A generation of science students was at risk of being lost. Hundreds of experienced weapons scientists were unemployed, but getting worrisome job offers from Iran and other nations.
His first visit lasted a couple of weeks; in February, he went back for a tour of service that lasted until 15 June. In that time, he and his colleagues worked to find Iraqi weapons scientists, engineers and technicians and bring them back to work in a constructive role. There were no typical days. They worked to cultivate relationships with the scientists and to bridge the various administrations and bureaucracies that were governing post-war Iraq. Some days they struggled just to find offices, furniture, transportation. There were also the risks of living in a war zone.
"What you do is take all the precautions to minimize risks you can control," Dehgan explained, "and you have to literally put aside fear of events you can't. You have to think like a scientist. The statistical chance of getting hit by a mortar or car bomb-the chances of that happening, those random risks, are pretty low. So you don't think about those things."
But Iraq as seen from thousands of miles away is in many ways different from the day-to-day reality of life there. A quiet, routine life goes on in much of Baghdad, he said, despite the struggles with electrical power and occasional bursts of violence. Similarly, many Americans wrongly believe that weapons scientists were uniformly and closely allied with Saddam.
"One of the mistakes people have made with regard to the Baath Party," Dehgan explained, "was that they compare it to the Nazis, rather than comparing it to the Communist Party, which I think is the more appropriate example. People joined the Baath Party for career advancement."
But even after the Baath Party fell, the old ways of coping in Saddam's system lingered and proved a challenge to Dehgan and his colleagues. "Under Saddam's system, if you had contact with foreigners, you were persecuted," he said. "And we had to overcome these barriers."
It's fair, Dehgan says, to wonder why the State Department would send a field biologist to get the program off the ground, rather than a Foreign Service officer or a military expert. "But actually it turned out really well," he said. "I think field biologists, particularly tropical field biologists, have certain qualities that were very applicable to Iraq. Working in a place like Madagascar, or South America, requires adaptability, creativity, an unhealthy desire, I would say, for complex challenges. An ability to deal with difficult conditions, isolation. And an ability to work with the local people, which I think is really necessary. And then I think there's a certain degree of bravado, courage and dementia-the Indiana Jones complex-that allows you to jump in a car and drive into a war zone to meet some scientists."
Now Dehgan is back at the State Department, extending his work as a AAAS Fellow. He hopes to get back to Iraqnot for the adventure, but for the chance to continue the promising work that is being carried out by a growing cadre of Iraqi scientists.
Edward W. Lempinen
7 September 2004Click here to read an interview with Alexander Deghan.