Scientists and mathematicians from Morocco to Pakistan are taking significant steps to nurture the region’s next generation of researchers and develop new collaborations with regional and international colleagues, experts said at two recent meetings organized by AAAS.
The two conferences held in Amman, Jordan, promoted different goals for researchers in the Middle East and North Africa: One meeting discussed ways to identify and support math and science talent among pre-college students in the region, while the second meeting encouraged international collaboration in the biosciences. But participants at each conference were eager to build partnerships that will allow regional scientists to compete and collaborate with the global scientific community.
“We will seek collaborative opportunities with scientists and researchers in the developed world,” said Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan, president of the Royal Scientific Society, in her opening speech at the talent conference. “But before we make demands of them, we must demand from ourselves nothing less than an absolute commitment to excellence.”
The meetings represent the most recent efforts by AAAS in its engagement in the Middle East and Northern Africa region. In early 2007, AAAS helped organize a landmark meeting in Kuwait that brought 200 women scientists and engineers from the Arab world together with U.S. women who were leaders in science, business, education, and government. Norman P. Neureiter, then director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy, was part of a high-level delegation of scientists and engineers that visited Iran later that year. And in 2009, top AAAS officials joined a small, high-level delegation that visited Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad and others for discussions focused on science, education, and development.
“Science, mathematics, and technology will not provide all the answers,” Neureiter said at the talent conference, “but they are absolutely essential variables in the formula for success of each nation’s development plans.”
“Captivate Talent and…Nurture Entrepreneurship”
The science and math talent conference, co-organized by AAAS and Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society with support from the John Templeton Foundation, included more than 90 scientists and policymakers from 17 countries. Participants at the 27-29 September meeting discussed math and science enrichment programs, entry into the International Mathematics Olympiad, and barriers to identifying gifted youth in the region.
“Our goal must be to captivate talent and to nurture entrepreneurship, inquiry and skill,” said Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya. “We cannot afford to lose our future and, therefore, we must offer our young scientists nothing less than the complete nurturing environment that they deserve.”
The participants shared a broad range of initiatives from their home countries, from national youth associations to promote science and math participation to unique extracurricular programs held in shopping malls, planetariums, and robotics demonstrations.
“The spontaneous interaction among people who work with gifted young people in the region, most of whom had not known each other before, was really inspiring,” said Neureiter, now senior adviser for the AAAS Center on Science, Technology, and Security Policy. He spoke at the meeting with conference director Florence Fasanelli, associate program director in AAAS Education and Human Resources.
In comments collected after the conference, Fasanelli said, participants especially praised the meeting for creating a forum in which they could build new collaborations with their regional colleagues.
“We thought of joint research projects, site visit exchanges, sharing some data, and working together as a team,” said Abdullah Aljughaiman, the director of Saudi Arabia’s National Research Center for Giftedness and Creativity, after the meeting. “These actions would help all of us to better achieve our goals and better use of our resources.”
“We are hopeful that such an initiative can be sustained over the years for the benefit of all, stressing the message of our mutual commitment to promote science and technology as a cornerstone for a scientific culture and shared values,” added Hassen Akrout, president of the Tunisia Youth and Science Association, in a note sent to AAAS after the conference.
Building New Biosciences Networks
New partnerships were also forged in the AAAS conference on international collaboration in the biosciences, held just three days after the talent conference in Amman. While much of the biosciences conference focused on the barriers for collaboration in the region, the meeting itself was a success in breaking down some of those barriers.
It was “immediately apparent how much open dialogue between regional and international scientists was effective in establishing new networks for scientists in areas of training and research,” said Saied Jaradat, director of Her Royal Highness Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein Biotechnology Center at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and co-organizer of the conference.
The 2-6 October meeting was co-hosted by Jaradat and Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP). It drew more than 60 researchers, university administrators, and laboratory heads from 15 countries.. The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, was co-organized by Jaradat; Kavita Berger, CSTSP associate program director; and Gwenaële Coat, a CSTSP senior program associate. Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Congress, spoke in a session on communicating with policymakers.
“It was gratifying to see how engaged and interactive the regional participants were,” said Coat, who also attended the Amman meeting. “The dynamic of the group was exactly what we expected when we planned the workshop: Discussions were open and frank, and everybody in the room appreciated this honesty.”
In far-ranging talks about research standards, private-public research partnerships, and infectious disease projects, the participants identified a number of barriers to international and regional collaboration. Among them: disparate government investment, bureaucratic obstacles, and different regulatory environments.
The gap between scientists and policymakers in the region is another significant challenge, one that was “heavily discussed by the participants,” Jaradat said.
“In a time that U.S. scientists have the opportunity to testify, demand more research funding, and define the research priorities in front of their House of Representatives,” he noted, “it remains a dream for regional scientists [in the Middle East and North Africa] to be invited to their parliament to speak about the challenges they face.”
Small collaborative grants are available to the meeting participants, Epstein said, and AAAS will hold three additional meetings in the region to expand on the themes emerging from the conference and encourage expanded partnerships.
“Even within institutions in the region, there isn’t much history of collaboration,” Epstein noted. “But if internal and regional partnerships can be created, these institutions would be better positioned to collaborate internationally.”
Historical and Cultural Challenges
Despite the recent fragmentation of the region’s scientific community, participants at both conferences recalled the region’s rich history of scientific discovery. They urged modern-day researchers to take an unflinching look at the cultural and historical barriers that may keep the Middle East and North Africa from participating fully in the global scientific enterprise.
Scientists at the biosciences conference, Jaradat said, “shied away from speaking openly about cultural conflicts, regional wars, and the peace process as significant factors holding science back in the region and affecting the capacity for building research.”
In her speech at the talent conference, Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya suggested that many in the region are “forced to feel inadequate in a global knowledge economy.”
“However, it is in all our interests that these perceptions are tackled,” she said, “and that very real institutions and mechanisms are established to allow local, knowledge-based economies to flourish in our region, as indeed they have before.”
View presentations from the Science and Math Talent conference.
Read more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy.