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Science & Diplomacy: U.S.-Iranian Collaborations Promote Public Health

Despite the complex and often adversarial relationship between the governments of Iran and the United States, the countries’ scientists have found opportunities to cooperate on important public health projects. Irene Jillson, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, describes the fruits of these efforts in an article in the latest edition of Science & Diplomacy.

Historically, Persia, now Iran, has been a rich center for advances in biomedicine and the dissemination of medical knowledge. As early as the ninth century, for example, Ali Ibn Rabban Tabari wrote an early medical “encyclopedia,” a compendium of traditions in medicine known at the time. And, medical discoveries and developments in the 10th and 11th centuries helped set a foundation for modern advances in organ transplantation, neuroscience and biomedical engineering, according to Jillson.


Irene Jillson on a visit to Iran. | Credit: Irene Jillson



In this century, Iranian scientists, clinicians and other health experts have collaborated with their U.S. counterparts through partnerships fostered by AAAS, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institutes of Health and others, on topics such as food-borne diseases, neuroscience and drug abuse, noncommunicable diseases, health disparities and bioethics.

“This sort of contact is very desirable and useful, and I think it should be continued,” said Norman Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and acting director for the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. Neureiter visited Tehran in June 2012 as part of a small delegation that delivered a series of lectures and met with Iranian science leaders, researchers and students.

Given the current tensions between the two countries regarding Iran’s nuclear program, “we do not get into the really sensitive issues that keep us apart. However, there are lots of neutral, very non-sensitive, non-defense-related issues that you can talk about in science and technology that continue holding us together,” Neureiter said. “Iranian and U.S. scientists get along quite well together.”

In her article, Jillson describes several examples of U.S.-Iranian collaborations in the medical and health sciences. An interdisciplinary U.S. team, for example, has studied the Iranian “health house” model and has implemented a similar approach in the Mississippi delta region. This system is made up of primary-care centers in rural areas, where community health workers provide a wide range of free, integrated health services. Key health indicators for rural Iranians, such as immunization coverage and primary healthcare access, have improved substantially since this system was put into place, Jillson reports.

The NIH-supported initiative to study and emulate this model shows that science diplomacy “is not just about bench lab science, but it’s also about health services delivery. We can’t continue to make the assumption that everyone can learn from us,” Jillson said. “In this example, the NIH, which is often considered the pinnacle of health research in the U.S., said ‘this is an important thing to do. We can learn from [the Iranians'] experience.’”

Iranian and U.S. scientists have also collaborated on drug abuse research for more than a decade, according to Jillson. This research has contributed to knowledge about pathways of drug abuse in both countries, including an understanding of women and drug abuse, which can inform prevention and treatment programs. It has also led to co-authored articles and to participation by Americans on the boards of Iranian health research journals.

Researchers from Mississippi and trainers in a health house near Shiraz, Iran. | Credit: Mohammad Shahbazi

Jillson joined this effort in 2008, when she gave a week-long course on health science at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences, which led to a research project on women and drug abuse proposed by her Iranian colleagues. During the same visit, she gave two lectures at an international conference on bioethics. She has returned to address another bioethics conference in Tehran, to lecture at academic institutions in Qom and to continue collaborative research and academic pursuits. Jillson said that U.S. and Iranian researchers tend to continue communicating even after a specific project ends.

“I think people have an extraordinary capacity to relate to one another on a kind of parallel basis. You and I are both scientists, ethicists, researchers—whatever brings us together. It’s that vantage point from which we will relate, which is the reason I think there’s so much hope in science diplomacy,” she said.

Jillson’s article appears in the March 2013 Science & Diplomacy, the quarterly journal’s fifth issue. Other articles in the issue discuss science engagement in Palestine and Israel, within Japan, and between the United States and Europe. An editorial by Editor-in-Chief Vaughan Turekian argues that addressing societal challenges faced by the world’s young people should be a priority for Science & Diplomacy.

The journal has recently added two new members to its board. Esther Dyson is Chairman of EDventure and is also an investor and philanthropist. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan is President of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and El Hassan Science City, and Chairman of Princess Sumaya University for Technology.


Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.