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Does the ‘Arab Spring’ Herald a Renaissance in Science and Open Inquiry?

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Kendrick Frazier

July 13, 2011

SKEPTICAL INQUIRER editor Kendrick Frazier reports from Doha, Qatar

Is the “Arab Spring” that is sweeping nations across northern Africa and the Middle East a liberating force for science and open inquiry?

Kendrick Frazier

The links among democracy, freedom, openness, and science were frequent themes at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar, as prominent scientists and science policy leaders spoke to 700 of the globe’s assembled science journalists.

“What happened in Egypt on January 25 has extended the geopolitical boundaries of Tahrir Square to every corner of the Arab world,” Mohammad Saoud, president of the Qatar Foundation, said in his welcoming words. He affirmed “strong support to what happened in Egypt” and its connections to “freedom throughout the whole Arab world.”

That the conference was being held in Qatar was a direct result of the events in Cairo. The 2011 conference was to have been in Cairo. Planning had been under way for two years by organizers in Egypt, the United States, and the Arab world. But the public uprising in January that ousted the Mubarek government and opened a new sense of freedom and possibility also created instabilities and uncertainties not resolved in time to ensure the conference could safely go ahead there. Qatar, a small, modern country on the Arabian Peninsula, and its well-funded Qatar Foundation, which supports science, education, and community development, offered the conference a home in Doha, its capital city. So the conference quickly gained a second home, and the long-sought goal of holding it for the first time in the Arab world was met. Journalists from ninety countries attended.

Arab nations are proud of the fact that Muslim and Arab scientists are credited with keeping alive learning and scholarship from the ninth through the twelfth centuries CE. The subsequent decline and loss of that role is painful to them. But in their view, something similar has begun to happen in the past fifteen years, as a burgeoning sense of possibility sweeps the more progressive parts of the Arab world. Renewed research programs are underway, said Saoud, to “regain some of what we offered the world.”

“There is no ceiling to our aspirations,” he said, referring to the foundation’s intention to bring to Qatar some of the best minds from all over the world. “We want to reverse the brain drain. We want to achieve a ‘brain gain’ in Qatar and across the Arab world.… We want to play a leading role in that Renaissance.”

In fact, the Qatar Foundation’s newspaper shortly before the conference headlined the goal bluntly: “QF Leads Drive to Revive Arab Golden Age of Science.”

Core to that purpose, Saoud said, is “the wisdom to support a genuine and sustainable research community.” The Foundation is pursuing a practical model based on attracting international partners from top institutions throughout the world. (Campuses of Carnegie Mellon and Georgetown Universities, located within sprawling modern multicomplexes of the Foundation outside of Doha, were sites of some conference social sessions. Four other U.S. universities also have campuses there.)

Saoud referred to quality of programs, students, environment, and facilities as key ingredients of a vision that is “bold and far-reaching.” He foresees having “20,000 scientists partnering with us or relocating to Qatar.”

“Diffusing access to science and technology will help people become responsible citizens,” Professor Abdelhamid El-Zoheiry of Egypt’s Ministry of Scientific Research and Technology told the conference attendees. Science is being liberated in Egypt, he said, referring to a new law being drafted there to encourage research. “The Arab Spring promises a gentle rain of change for science and technology.”

Egypt has its own science Nobel laureate. Egypt and the whole Arab scientific world are proud of Ahmad Zewail, who received the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy. Zewail is the Linus Pauling chairman of chemistry at Caltech, from where he also serves on the President’s Council on Science and Technology. A member of the Qatar Foundation’s board, he was the conference’s opening keynote speaker. He is dedicated to the transfer to democracy in the Arab world.

He offered his own reflections on science and society. Science has witnessed revolutions, he said reeling off a list: visualizing and controlling matter at the level of atoms, deciphering the genetic codes, using stem cells to make new organisms, building precision labs to land on Mars. He noted our level of ignorance as well: “The amount of the unknown in [the] universe exceeds by far the known.” Ninety percent of the universe is “dark”; we don’t know how to unify the forces of nature, and we don’t understand what makes consciousness from atoms and molecules. “We have absolutely no idea.”

Challenges face the world of science and media, Zewail noted, including the rise of the infotainment culture. “Entertainment at the expense of education—it’s a serious problem.” He noted that five hundred television channels are now available in the Arab world. “Is this good for education? … Information doesn’t make useful knowledge. We need new knowledge.” He lamented sensationalism in the public media and that anything deemed bland or boring is expunged.

But he also spoke movingly of the burgeoning Arab Spring. He himself was involved in the Egyptian revolution. For four weeks he was there at the heart of it. “This revolution was unique in the history of mankind,” he said. All communications were through social networking; the media played a significant, positive role; and there was a change of perception of Arabs about the value of a “civil” uprising. “They want the country to be a better place.”

Zewail also insisted that Islam is not in conflict with progress. “One small group [is made up of] fanatics,” he said. Such fanatics “exist in all faiths.” Said Zewail: “There are Muslim fundamentalists. But you have fundamentalists in America too.”

Zewail said he sees “no physics”—nothing validly foundational—in calling what’s been happening a conflict of cultures. It is simpler than that: “People want liberty and good lives to live.”

“There is nothing fundamental in Islam against science…. Let’s go beyond the past and forge ahead to the future. Our focus should be on the future,” he advised.

Zewail’s native country of Egypt is establishing a new city of science and technology outside of Cairo. The goal is to affect basic knowledge. The new city was referred to multiple times at the conference. Zewail modestly noted that “they were kind enough to name it after me.”

“We are working hard to reclaim this glorious past,” Zewail assured the conference audience.

Whether the so-called Arab Spring fulfills all the promises that bring such a feeling of burgeoning hope to the Arab world’s scientists and thinkers is a question that will probably remain open for some time. But the aspirations are certainly there, and that is an essential start. The Western world and the Arab world together can benefit only if at least some of these high ambitions come to fruition.

This is the second of several reports by SKEPTICAL INQUIRER Editor Kendrick Frazier from the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha, Qatar. The first dealt with conference subthemes of pseudoscience, mythbusting, and evolution.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.