Note: This story, by Edward Lempinen of TWAS, has been edited for length and reprinted with permission. Please visit the TWAS Web site to read the full story .
Science diplomacy could help renew long-standing research and education networks linking nations Central Europe and North Africa, with broad potential benefits, high-ranking officials said at a roundtable in Budapest, Hungary, organized by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS).
Speakers at the event suggested that the regions are linked by common interests and common challenges, ranging from climate change to food production to research infrastructure. But a key question, they said, is how to adapt bonds that were strong during the Cold War to the needs and conditions of the 21st century.
“In the Mediterranean region as well as in parts of Europe, we are going through serious challenges related to climate change as well as food crisis and scarcity,” said Adel ElSayed Tawfik El-Beltagy, chair of the International Dryland Development Commission and president of Centre International des Hautes Etudes Agronomiques Méditerranéennes in Egypt. “We are going through a financial tsunami, which is hitting both Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean, as well as political and socio-economic changes the emerged following the Arab Spring. All of this is creating a complex and dynamic landscape where the problems are tightly coupled.
“If we don’t see that for Europe, the prosperity on the southern side of the Mediterranean is very important for its own security—if we don’t see the ‘we’—the future is bleak.”
Romain Murenzi, executive director of TWAS, noted that a core of countries worldwide, including some in the Southern Mediterranean, are being “left behind” as other developing nations begin to prosper.
“Central and Eastern Europe have a role to play,” Murenzi told a news conference during the roundtable. “They have a historical reputation for scientific excellence. During the Cold War era, you have received many science students from developing countries…I would like to see if there’s a possibility to develop a North-South network, just as many of us are building a South-South network.”
The roundtable brought together nearly 50 science and policy leaders from 12 nations: Algeria, Croatia, Hungary, Egypt, Italy, Libya, Morocco, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Tunisia, and the United States. They met on 8 April at the Italian Institute of Culture in Budapest, under the auspices of the 2013 Italo-Hungarian International Year of Culture and Science. Important support was provided by the Italian Embassy; the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization  (UNESCO); and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). IAP , the international network of more than 100 science academies, was represented at the roundtable by its co-chairman, Mohamed H.A. Hassan, who also serves as treasurer of TWAS.
Speakers included Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, who delivered a keynote address on the opening day, and Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, who chaired a session on women in science.
The day-long roundtable generated extensive news coverage in Italy and Hungary. Discussions at the event ranged broadly, from the challenges confronting women in science and engineering and the role of science academies in building research to weak governance and other obstacles encountered by less developed countries as they seek to build research capacity.
For UNESCO, the focus on Africa and on women are top priorities, said Katalin Bogyay, president of the UNESCO General Conference . “We feel the empowerment of women is a very important possibility for everyone in humanity,” she said. “We need to strengthen the rights of women because there are many places were they have to fight to go to school to study, to take part in a deeper sense in science and in science diplomacy as well.”
Science Diplomacy: Creating New Possibilities
In the day’s opening session, leaders in international science described the powerful potential of science diplomacy.
In his keynote address, Leshner noted that AAAS founded its influential Center for Science Diplomacy  nearly five years ago; in recent years, AAAS has led or joined science missions to East Africa, the Middle East, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and many other nations and regions.
Converging trends make science diplomacy a tool of great potential influence, he told the audience. Science is a facet of virtually every major issue in modern life, either as the cause, or as a possible cure—from energy, climate change and biodiversity to food security, poverty alleviation and job creation. And because many of those challenges are global, scientific research is becoming more global.
A key example: In Science, more than 50 percent of all research articles are now authored by multi-national teams. But, Leshner stressed, the world is not yet ready to bring its full research potential to bear on science-related challenges.
“If you want to solve global problems…you need to have the scientific community able to function in a global way,” he said. “A series of national scientific enterprises is not enough. We need a global one. It has to work together in a coherent way.”
But there remain too many different values, policies and practices among nations: on embryonic stem cell research, for example, or on codes of research integrity, or on research and development funding. And too many of the poorest nations are still struggling to develop their research capacity, to find their scientific footing.
“If we want to build a global science community,” Leshner urged, “we have to bring the emerging scientific nations into that community, and that’s a very difficult issue. The reason we want diversity is not because of equity. Equity is nice…[but] we want diversity because we want novel ideas. Novel ideas come from people who don’t come out of the longstanding traditions, but come from different traditions.”
“We have to help build the capacity that we’ve all been talking about in a way that allows people to be full, valued partners in the global scientific enterprise,” he said.
József Pálinkás, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, struck a similar note.
“Talent is spread in the world much more evenly than the output of scientific performance would have you believe,” Pálinkás said. “It is our task to provide this talent with a fertile ground to flourish and make it produce outstanding results in the field of science.”
He noted that Central and Eastern Europe, despite their historic strength in research, today face challenges similar to those of developing countries. “It is not a simple exercise to fight brain-drain or to ensure access to state-of-the-art research infrastructure,” he acknowledged. “But it is far from impossible. The example of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences proves that by focusing existing resources in the service of excellence, it is also possible for less developed countries to make significant progress.”
Science in a Post-Revolutionary Landscape
During the years of the Cold War, Eastern Europe contained several centers of excellence in science, mathematics, and related fields. Several speakers suggested that Eastern Europe’s experience under communism reinforced a deeply important relationship between science and the broader societies.
“In the times of communism and dictatorship,” said Gergely Pröhle, deputy state secretary for European bilateral relations and cultural diplomacy in Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “science and higher education were the most important export products of this country…. Higher education and science could save not just the image of country, but the internal situation, the domestic situation, the shape of the society. That was a real achievement of that time, and we have to be very much grateful to the scientists and professors of that time – they helped us to save the country.”
Piotr Salwa, director of the Scientific Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Rome, offered a similar perspective about the era of communist rule. “For many years, the academic world of Poland has profited from the openness that science cooperation has given us just to maintain contact with the Western world,” he said. “And these contacts also guaranteed circulation of ideas. I think that all the academic researchers of my age, or a bit older or a bit younger remember very well how important this openness has been to us.”
Today, a number of nations in the Southern Mediterranean region are dealing with the aftermath of revolution. But following years of autocratic governments, the hopes of the Arab Spring are giving way to economic and social instability and fears about a new generation of repressive political regimes.
Naeem Abdurrahman, a nuclear scientist and engineer who served as the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Libyan Transitional Government, described the underfunding and neglect of education and scientific research in his nation and some of its neighbors.
After many years of working in the United States, Abdurrahman returned to Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi and was “surprised at the magnitude of damage that has been done to the science education and infrastructure.” At a time of profound economic crisis, he added, it “is very difficult to convince public officials of the importance of science and to commit sufficient resources to education and scientific research.”
The damage also has a human dimension, Abdurrahman said. In the aftermath of revolution, one of the greatest challenges is to persuade young men to “put down their weapons and go back to their classrooms and pay attention to their studies.”
For Women, a Sometimes “Brutal” Work World
The challenges of social and political instability clearly affect women in the Southern Mediterranean. But they also face a spectrum of challenges shared by women throughout most of the world, speakers said in a session chaired by Malcom.
Put simply, the challenges are glass ceilings and sticky floors.
At Université des Sciences et de la Technologie Houari, women have made some dramatic gains, reported Khedidja Allia, the university’s research director. For example, the rate of enrolled women at the university increased from 21 percent a half-century ago to 59.1 percent in 2008-2009.
But, Allia said, when women graduate from school, they often find significant obstacles in their professional path. In many cases, she added, the conditions are “brutal.”
Among Algerian professors, about 20 percent are women; about one-third of laboratory directors are women. But, she reported, “their presence is nearly nonexistent” in positions of administrative responsibility: 3 percent of deans, about 1 percent of rectors, and no directors at university centers and grandes ecoles.
That carries over to economic and political realms, where women’s involvement in policymaking is at best “symbolic,” Allia said. “They are almost absent from decision-making spheres where women exert little influence, and even less on development policies that are related to science, sustainable development, energy [and] protection of environment.”
And yet Allia and others emphasized that addressing the grand challenges that confront a region, or the globe, requires the effective participation of all men and women. Physicist Zohra Ben Lakhdar of the Laboratoire de Spectroscopie Atomique Moléculaire et Applications in Tunisia said social change and progress on the world’s great challenges “cannot be achieved without engagement of all of us – women and men, at all levels, and of all ages.”
Networks for the Future
Education is a crucial part of the answer. So too with fellowship and exchange programs that expose scientists to other ways of thinking. Those are some of the values TWAS is seeking in its networks that span the South, and it’s why networks extending to Central and Eastern Europe could be of value.
Salwa, the Rome-based representative of the Polish Academy of Sciences, suggested that financing would be one of the challenges for initiatives with partners from the Southern Mediterranean region. The key, he said, would be to shape strong projects that would provide clear value to all nations involved.