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Iranian Physicist Reza Mansouri Describes His Nation's Struggle for S&T Rebirth
Reza Mansouri, a top Iranian physics scholar and science policy expert, told a forum co-sponsored by AAAS that people in his nation see science as a top priority—and that many see a nuclear program as the apex of scientific practice.
Mansouri, who served from 2001 to 2005 as Iran's deputy science minister, told an audience at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that Iranian officials in recent years have come to recognize that they lag a half-century behind the West in scientific development and that top officials in the Islamic government have embraced a campaign to recapture the nation's scientific prestige. Indeed, he added, the scientific enterprise in Iran is showing new energy—great student interest, an increasing number of scholarly publications and renewed international collaborations.
Still, he told the audience, there is broad confusion in Iran about the nature of science, its methods and its aims, and science remains largely subservient to theology. And, he added, Iranians at many levels of society have come to see the nuclear program as an emblem of national pride—and one they would be reluctant to relinquish.
"I'm really sorry to say that it is the case that our people now believe that achieving nuclear technology is the top of the science that they could achieve," Mansouri said.
Mansouri spoke on 13 September to an audience convened by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy and NAS; the title of his talk was "Sustainable Development in the Muslim World Needs Excellence in Science and Technology: Iran as a Case Study."
Mansouri is a member of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world and professor of physics at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. A native of Iran, he earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna in 1972, and has since been honored with many international scientific awards, including the prestigious Abdus Salam Prize for Leadership in Islamic Thought and the Physical Sciences.
After receiving his Ph.D., he continued to work in Europe until the 1979, returning home after the revolution overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini to power.
He was appointed deputy science minister in 2001 under the government of Mohammad Khatami; he left the post in 2005, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran's ultra-conservative mayor, was elected president. Mansouri maintains extensive overseas contacts, and recently concluded a year in research at McGill University in Canada.
"I really believe in engagement as a strategy, using America's soft power," said Norman Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and a veteran of U.S. science diplomacy during the Cold War. "Dr. Mansouri presented both the challenge and opportunity for having a better relationship with Iran through science. But his visit symbolizes the kind of exchange we could have much more broadly. If we're trying to trying to encourage the people of the United States and Iran and other countries to understand each other, the more interchange we have, the better off we'll all be."
Over the course of an hour and forty minutes, Mansouri offered little direct talk of sustainability or of the volatile diplomatic standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Instead, he focused on the history of science in the Persian culture—its glories long ago, its struggles for the past several hundred years, and its recent efforts at renewal.
For years after the 1979 revolution, Mansouri said, Iranian leaders and the public assumed that they would catch up to the West, scientifically and technologically, within 10 years. Only recently has the consensus shifted to the belief that their nation may be 50 years behind the West.
But ambitious efforts are underway to accelerate the nation's S&T development, and the campaign is having an impact.
He cited several broad measure of Iran's ambition: Illiteracy before the revolution was around 50 percent, but it is 10 to 15 percent now. There were less than 200 books in Farsi published in Iran in the year before the revolution; now, almost 30,000 books of all sorts are being published annually. Before the revolution, there were fewer than 10 public libraries in the country; today, there are more than 2,000. Before the revolution, he said, there were 150,000 students in 14 or 15 universities; today, there are 2.8 million students in over 100 universities. And 62 percent of the students are women.
The impact is extending to science, technology and engineering, as well. While the number of scholarly papers published in most Muslim countries is stagnant, in Iran publications have increased 20-fold since the 1979 revolution, Mansouri said. Meanwhile, the nation is expanding and diversifying scientific collaborations with other nations. Since the turn of the century, Iran has founded one "technological city," 12 technology parks and 40 technology incubators. Some 3,500 Iranian university graduates have started 500 companies in those parks and incubators.
But beneath the success is a paradox, Mansouri said: While the early progress is a source of great pride for Iran, there remains a fundamental lack of understanding of science. Students generally assume that one becomes a scientist by reading extensively in a field, rather than by a hands-on program of research. In fact, he said, in Farsi there is no word for scientist; instead, the word describing scientists is the same word used to describe learned old men in seminaries.
That underscores a fundamental difference between the West and the Muslim world. "Science is surely subordinate to theology in any of our Muslim counties," he explained. "As a result, rationality in the Muslim world is not based on science, but on religion—you have to understand that. The culture and social values of the society are almost completely determined by religion....We could not accept the modern notion of science even though we have almost 200 years of influences from the West."
One striking example: Rationality, as viewed by the West, is heavily influenced by science. In the Muslim world, rationality is essentially theological.
Even in the 1950s, Mansouri explained, the vision for science education at Tehran University did not extend much beyond medical technology and road engineering.
A similar mindset shapes the Iranian respect for nuclear technology today. It is seen as the highest manifestation of scientific expertise, and few can even imagine a science that is more ambitious and more visionary. That has been compounded in recent years by the escalating tension between the United States and Europe on one side and the Muslim world on the other, he said.
Mansouri cited an October 2003 statement by the Physical Society of Iran that called for Iranian S&T policy to be governed by a new vision.
"Growth and development in nuclear sciences and technologies are essential for Iran's sustainable development," the statement reads. "This growth and the development of related sciences and technologies, which is the inalienable right of our nation, is not attainable unless modern rationality is introduced into decision making and into procedures leading to scientific decisions. Regrettably, there is evidence, however, that sometimes the procedures governing scientific decision-making are not based on rationality."
It continued: "Emphasizing the need for the financial and administrative investment in peaceful nuclear sciences and technologies, we declare that because of lack of modern rationality in previous scientific decisions, we are facing the danger of isolation in international relations; and we declare that the necessary infrastructures for peaceful nuclear sciences may not be developed in isolation. Our concern is the possible future blockage of all international roads to our scientific development.
"Our country, perhaps because of its hundreds of years of historical stagnation in the area of science and its strong feeling of under-development needs occasional achievements. But, these occasional achievements bring about false pride only, and slow down sustainable development."
It was a dramatic statement at a time of rising international tension, but inside Iran, it caused no controversy, Mansouri said. Now, though, the Iranian national mood has shifted so profoundly in support of the nuclear program that science groups could no longer even consider such a statement.
"Thanks to Mr. Bush, president of the U.S.A., this is the reaction of our people," he said. "It is very difficult for us at the Physical Society to publish any statement anymore. People say, 'You are crazy, you do not understand what science is. This is science!"
Mansouri predicted that Iran's commitment to education and science could bring it closer to the West in decades to come. But, he said, other Muslim nations, lacking such commitment, may pose a greater challenge for diplomacy.
Edward W. Lempinen
16 October 2006