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Is Science the Key to the Middle East?

By Brent M. Eastwood -

Many Arabs abhor the U.S. government—but they admire American science and technology. We should use our labs as common ground.

Polling data from the Middle East usually centers on angry views about the U.S. and its foreign policy. No surprise there. However, one segment of American society stands out—the Islamic world has very favorable views of U.S. science and technology, its colleges and universities, and American research and development capabilities.

A 2004 Arab American Institute/Zogby International survey found that 90 percent of those surveyed in Morocco, 83 percent in Jordan, 52 percent in Lebanon, and 84 percent in the United Arab Emirates have positive views about U.S. science and technology. John Zogby, of Zogby International, along with the U.S. Department of State and higher-education leaders see this as an opportunity to increase U.S. goodwill and help win the war of ideas in the Islamic world.

“This area is a valuable exportable commodity for the U.S. and it can help form a positive American footprint for mutually recognized needs between America and the Islamic world,” said Zogby.

Zogby points toward a recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report written by Arabs who admitted that the Middle East will have difficulty overcoming its current “backwardness” in science and technology. The blistering report cited the region’s lack of intellectual development and its deficiencies in modern research infrastructure, even decrying the lack of books in the Islamic world. Zogby says political leadership in countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, and Qatar remains authoritarian in nature, but these same leaders are enlightened when it comes to the need to educate the middle class and restore the Middle East to parity and even leadership in science and technology.

“We closely poll an Islamic group called the ‘Young Arab Leaders’ who are under 40, educated, reform-minded, and cosmopolitan. This group is embittered about U.S. foreign policy, but when we ask what would empower them to help lead governmental and societal reform in the Middle East, they say the ‘U.S. higher-education system,’ The U.S. is number one in their minds in this area.”

Tom Farrell, of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, says this high regard for American universities and science and technology is paramount in the Fulbright scholar exchange program for scientists and engineers from the Middle East.

“Exchange programs are a significant part of our public diplomacy efforts. Arab exchange scholars in science and technology fields can make up their own mind about the U.S. They learn that Americans have a deep sense of civic action, volunteerism, and community service. They learn an aspect of society building that is transferable to their home country’s reform efforts,” said Farrell.

The State Department also has a program for Middle East Fulbright students who are specifically interested in becoming science and technology entrepreneurs. “From Lab to Market,” a seminar held in San Jose, California in 2006, brought together applied science laboratories, technology firms such as Symantec and Applied Micro Devices (AMD), and venture capitalists with visiting Middle Eastern students. The State Department believes “From Lab to Market” is a practical application for increasing entrepreneurship and economic development in the Middle East and in other countries around the world. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes has also announced a new Fulbright Science and Technology Scholarship available to Middle Eastern students for study in the U.S. It is designed to maintain the U.S. as destination of choice for international students interested in science and technology.

The Islamic world has very favorable views of U.S. science and technology.American higher education is also taking collaborative research and development to the Middle East. The Qatar Science and Technology Park hosts a business incubator and conducts technology transfer projects from American universities in the adjoining “Education City.” This area houses branch campuses in Qatar from Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Texas A&M, and Virginia Commonwealth.

Texas A&M at Qatar (TAMUQ) has four different undergraduate engineering programs in electrical, chemical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering. Dr. Mark H. Weichold, Dean and CEO of TAMUQ, says his school’s joint research programs bring together students and researchers from the U.S. and Middle East to solve difficult problems in engineering. The TAMUQ program will begin in the Fall of 2007 and possible collaborative research projects include areas such as reservoir stimulation, down hole data transfer, telecommunications, and water quality.

“The joint research and education programs will also bring together students and researchers in ways that will begin to bridge differences in backgrounds and cultures. We see success in these aspects of the research programs as being equally valuable as the solutions to engineering problems. National security issues will be addressed in these research programs in exactly the same manner that they are addressed as if the research were conducted in the U.S.,” said Dr. Weichold.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism researchers generally agree on the need for these types of collaborative programs, but not all agree on how effective they are or how, if at all, public diplomacy efforts in science and technology are part of an overarching strategy for the Middle East. As the General Accounting Office reported in 2005, inconsistencies in the U.S. message to Muslims undermine the “efficiency and effectiveness of government wide public diplomacy efforts.” Science and technology policy is an area where the U.S. appears to have won some battles in the Islamic World, but the war of ideas there is far from over.

Brent M. Eastwood is an Adjunct Professor at George Mason University School of Public Policy. He is also President of Personal Identity Solutions Inc., a biometrics firm in Northern Virginia.



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