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Building Science, Building Trust

[The following commentary was published 8 January 2007 in the Kuwait Times, at the opening of the three-day International Conference on Women Leaders in Science, Technology & Engineering in Kuwait. AAAS was a co-organizer of the event, with the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research; the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science; the U.S. Department of State; and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The commentary was written by Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the journal Science, and Farkhonda Hassan, a professor of geology at the American University in Cairo, a member of the Egyptian Parliament, and secretary-general for the National Council for Women in Egypt.]

Farkhonda Hassan

In an era of uncertainty and tension, scientists and engineers in the United States and the Arab world have worked, often unofficially, to maintain relations across a gulf that sometimes seems to widen by the day. Their efforts rarely generate news coverage, but taken together, they make critical diplomatic contributions by encouraging communication and trust between nations and cultures.

Increasingly, though, a conviction has coalesced among many Arab and U.S. science advocates that the current moment in history requires a deeper, more urgent sense of engagement. Some of them have helped organize an ambitious initiative that will bring women scientists from some 20 Muslim countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa to Kuwait in January for three days of dialogue with U.S. scientists, business leaders and diplomats.

The agenda will be comparable, in many respects, to a routine scientific meeting that might be held anywhere in the world. Participants will discuss career management, science education and strategies for cultivating women as leaders; young scientists will make presentations about their research.

But this meeting also is intended as a first step toward building stronger long-term partnerships between Western and Arab science, and that elevates its significance.

Science diplomacy is hardly a new idea. A thousand years ago, emissaries passing through the capitals of Turkish and Arab culture gleaned revolutionary insights into algebra, astronomy and medicine. More recently, two scientists were among the earliest American diplomats—Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. During the Cold War, scientific and technological engagements between United States and the Soviet Union, and later with China, helped smooth the way to détente.

Alan I. Leshner

The Kuwait conference comes at a particularly challenging time. While public opinion polls in the Arab world reflect deep disenchantment with the United States, they also show admiration for U.S. science and technology. A June 2004 Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arab American Institute found that only 11 percent of Moroccans surveyed had a favorable overall view of the United States—but 90 percent had a positive view of U.S. science and technology. Only 15 percent of Jordanians had a positive overall view, but 83 percent registered admiration for U.S. science and technology. Among people under 30, attitudes toward U.S. science tended to be even more positive.

Such respect for science and technology should not be a surprise. People of the Middle East and Northern Africa, like people in most every culture, understand the benefits science and technology can bring—clean water, better health care, more effective farming practices, improved energy efficiency, a more robust economy. These are values that transcend national and cultural boundaries.

The Kuwait conference has the immediate prospect of allowing leaders to develop professional relationships, share experiences and examine ways to build scientific and technological strength by encouraging more women to enter the fields. In the long-term, this conference and others like it can help dissolve cross-cultural misconceptions and guide us to new understanding of each other.

In the West, it is often assumed that Islam is hostile to science, but in fact the Holy Prophet of Islam asserted that “the quest for knowledge and science is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman.”

It also is often assumed that women are an underclass throughout Arab lands. While it is true that women face social barriers, as they do in much of the world, young women nonetheless comprise more than half of undergraduate enrollment in some science, technology and medical courses at major Arab universities. In 2005, the Arab Women in Science and Technology organization issued a declaration in Cairo urging governments in the region to take further steps to support women in these fields—and found many leaders receptive to the message.

Though the motives of the United States are sometimes considered suspect in the current climate, we believe that professional, interpersonal engagement will help to demonstrate that most U.S. research leaders are committed to using science and technology to promote friendship and peace.

Almost inevitably, the Kuwait conference will reinforce the notion that in a world growing ever-smaller, no single nation, no region or culture, owns science. While researchers may speak many languages, they share a common dedication to science as a rational process of problem-solving that holds enormous promise for the well-being and advancement of all humanity.

Across the Middle East, timeless prayers and proverbs celebrate the planting of olive trees—though they grow slowly, the trees can help to nourish generations far into the future. Our times may be challenging, but scientists both in the West and the Islamic world, when guided by that spirit, can play a vital role in easing conflicts and building trust.