Monday, September 07, 2009

Obama's science outreach to the Muslim world

Obama's administration is emphasizing science outreach to the Muslim world. This is the continuation of the dialogue that Obama started with his speech in Cairo. This looks like a fantastic opportunity: Most Muslim countries have a dismal record in science and they can use all the help they can get (especially regarding training of scientists). From the US perspective, this can bring a much needed positive impression to the Muslim world - and can build productive and long lasting partnerships with the educated Muslims. In addition, there is a widespread realization in the Muslim world that science is essential for progress (though many mean technology and not pure science) and much of the strength of the US and the West lies in its dominance in science. Thus, the ground is fertile for a positive relation.

There can also be some pitfalls. Apart from the usual political uncertainties, it would be tragic if most of the effort goes into the development of technology and not in pure sciences. It is usually a hard argument to make that scientists should not only be trained in genetics, environmental and agricultural sciences, but also in subjects like astronomy, marine biology, and particle physics. But more than any thing, Muslim countries need to build a scientific culture. At the same time, each country will present different political and cultural challenges to this endeavor.

It is an ambitious plan, but if done well, it can have a significant impact.

From Nature (Aug 27, 2009):

The administration of US President Barack Obama is ramping up plans to develop scientific and technological partnerships with Muslim-majority countries.

The move follows a June speech by Obama at Cairo University in Egypt, when he promised to appoint regional science envoys, launch a fund to support technological development and open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia. So far, the science-envoy plan is closest to getting off the ground, say White House officials, who see it as part of a broader drive to improve relations with the Islamic world.
Various US embassies have already identified themes of interest, officials say. Lebanon, for instance, has expressed an interest in technology development focused on the environment, and Bangladesh wants to initiate mentoring programmes for young scientific professionals. The first science envoy is expected to be announced "shortly", according to the administration official.

Read the full story here (may require registration to access the article).


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