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Saving science in Iraq

EARLY ONE morning last month in Baghdad, Thamir Abdul Latif and Ikhlas Ghalib were shot to death on their way to work. Perhaps because such killings happen almost every day, few people appeared to get upset, and accounts in the Western press were brief. To the international scientific community, however, their deaths were significant. Abdul Latif was a director of Iraq's Ministry of Science and Technology, Ghalib a civil servant there. Their deaths represent not just a loss for Iraq but a looming crisis for all those who wish for stability in that embattled country.

Today, an attack on science is a war within the war for the future of Iraq. Since the fall of Baghdad 19 months ago, scientists and engineers have been targeted by assassins with fierce regularity. With every new killing, the chance of achieving a positive outcome in Iraq falls further into jeopardy.

The State Department has launched promising programs to help convert hundreds of Saddam Hussein's weapons scientists into constructive agents of renewal. But in the face of recurring violence and competing priorities, the programs often seem neglected. Certainly the continued fighting makes rebuilding Iraq's devastated science and technology infrastructure difficult, but it must be done.

The electric power and sanitation systems are dangerously unreliable. The environment has sustained enormous damage. Iraq's laboratories and science centers were reduced by years of UN sanctions and then further stripped in the post-invasion looting. Science education in Iraqi schools has been crippled. Rebuilding the country demands the expertise of Iraqi scientists and engineers.

Saddam understood the importance of these people, and he went to great lengths to cultivate their loyalty -- and to crush those who opposed him.

Hussain al Shahristani, the former head of the Iraqi nuclear energy program, was held and tortured in Abu Ghraib prison for more than a decade because he refused to work on Saddam's bomb.

It is impossible to say how many weapons scientists remain loyal to Saddam or sympathize with the insurgency. But it is probable that hundreds of them feel caught in the middle -- unemployed and diminished since the fall of Saddam, fearful that they will be targeted if they work with the US-led coalition, yet unsure whether the United States is a reliable partner.

Recent news stories suggest that US officials' preoccupation with the military campaign has left too little time and energy for the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraq's scientists and engineers. On the plus side, the State Department founded the Iraqi Interim Center for Science and Industry earlier this year. The center employs nearly 60 former weapons scientists, and a delegation of six former weapons scientists was brought to the United States for seminars on making the transition to postwar public works.

But these potentially fruitful programs have been nagged by problems.

More than six months elapsed between the fall of Baghdad and the center's start-up. This summer it was without a director for two and a half months. Even now it involves only a fraction of the hundreds of former weapons scientists who may need strong inducements to join the high-risk rebuilding effort.

More generally, there is little science and technology expertise in the US diplomatic delegation to Iraq. That's puzzling, because many of Iraq's new leaders have devoted themselves -- at considerable risk -- to rebuilding their science culture.

Rashad Omar, the interim minister of science and technology, is assembling a staff and advisory teams. Shahristani has formed the Iraqi National Academy of Sciences. But Iraqi science has been so decimated that their efforts will require comprehensive international support.

The United States has an urgent opportunity to help rebuild science and technology in Iraq. Science is a bastion of rationality and ethics in society. Not only does it help solve immediate problems and provide the tools needed for a healthy national future; it can serve as a counterweight to political and religious extremism and provide an element of stability where it is desperately needed. Working in cooperation with Western and Middle Eastern universities, science centers and science organizations, the United States should be part of a focused science and technology assistance plan that will be crucial to Iraq's future.

Alan I. Leshner is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science. 

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