Friday, July 08, 2016

AAAS panel urges increased scientific collaboration with Iran

by Salman Hameed

This is a good sign. The Science Diplomacy 2016 conference of The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences devoted one full session on increased scientific collaboration with Iran. This should be a no-brainer, but here we count any steps as a blessing. Here is some coverage of the session:
Throughout the “Opening Doors to Iran” session of the 5 May conference—one of eight sessions on diverse topics in science diplomacy—panelists cited far-ranging evidence of the capability of Iran’s scientific community as a collaborative partner. They described
the problems Iran is experiencing—such as energy shortages, HIV/ AIDS, and air and water pollution—as opportunities for science and technology engagement to positively
impact people’s lives. Referring to the nuclear agreement signed last July and subsequent statements signed or released by the United States, Iran, and five other nations, panelist Ali Douraghy, of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, said, “There are certainly very positive opportunities for potential scientific cooperation outlined.” 
Over the years, Iranian scientists, physicians, and other health experts have collaborated with their U.S. counterparts through partnerships fostered by the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, AAAS, and CRDF Global, on topics such as water, food- borne diseases, neuroscience and drug abuse, noncommunicable and infectious diseases, health disparities, and bioethics. The 5 May panel was convened by CRDF Global, a nonprofit that connects emerging scientific communities with the international scientific community. 
“Scientific collaboration is among the best ways to show that the two countries can productively work together, as opposed to work against each other, by helping tackle the world’s greatest challenges and to build trust,“ said Tom Wang, AAAS’s chief international officer and director of the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.
And here is a nod to the sanctions:
Stone described how Iranian scientists were able to push ahead on international-quality research despite the sanctions. The Iranian Light Source Facility, a synchrotron project, has made remarkable progress in overcoming sanctions, thanks in large part to improvisation. Similarly, when scientists were unable to import sensors to measure seismic stress on infrastructure such as dams and bridges in a country laced with faults, they invented their own that are now used throughout the country and are even starting to be exported. 
“I was struck by the ingenuity of many of the Iranian scientists in the face of sanctions,” said Stone. 
Somewhat surprisingly, stem cell research was one of the fields that progressed, after Iranian scientists, unsure of what was permissible, petitioned Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyyed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to issue a fatwa on stem cells. The ruling in 2002 legalized any kind of stem cell research except for human cloning, a policy more liberal than that of the United States. Iranians, given the go-ahead from Khamenei, actively advanced the research, Stone said.
It is not just stem cells policy that is more liberal than the US. I had posted a while back about the proliferation of IVF centers in Iran. The panel talked about universities engaging with Iran in scientific research, and I think that is crucial:
U.S. universities, said panel moderator Siri Oswald, sometimes misunderstand the restrictions on scientific exchanges and needlessly abandon efforts to engage. “They back off of opportunities that, frankly, they could engage in,” said Oswald, interim vice president for programs at CRDF Global. A publication by the Institute of International Education entitled “Reinventing Academic Ties,” which contains a helpful guide on the impact of sanctions on academic exchanges, offers information for U.S. scientists and institutions looking to collaborate with Iranian researchers, said Douraghy, who is a senior international programs officer for the National Academies. 
“In this time, we should take advantage of the good will and test the system, and see what kind of collaborations we can start under current conditions,” said Stone, who urged environmental scientists to turn their attention to a catastrophe occurring in northwestern Iran, where poor water management and drought have caused Lake Urmia to lose 80% of its water, creating a salt desert that threatens crops and people. 
“These sorts of environmental problems are really amenable to international cooperation,” he said. “They’re an easy sell” to the U.S. government, the Iranian government, and to funders, Stone added, “and if they’re successful, they’re going to sow a lot of good will with the Iranian people.”
Read the full article here