Tours seek ways to enhance scientific, educational links
Robert Berdahl, president of the American Association of Universities, led an academic delegation to Iran in November 2008
Washington - Despite the recent detention of a member of a U.S. scientific delegation in Iran, there is strong support for continuing nongovernmental educational and cultural exchanges between the two countries.
At a January 22 symposium in Washington, American academics who have traveled to Iran discussed scientific collaboration. The event was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Moderator and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone said scientific cooperation with Iran is "well worth supporting," with no expectations beyond goodwill.
In November 2008, the presidents of six American universities visited Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and met with academic leaders and other higher education officials. The trip was an "academic mission, not a political mission," according to trip leader Robert Berdahl, president of the American Association of Universities, a nonprofit organization of research universities in the United States and Canada.
In December 2008, the U.S. National Academies led an invited delegation of American medical scientists to Iran to encourage engagement of U.S. and Iranian academic, research and other private-sector specialists on topics of international interest.
At the end of the trip, Glenn Schweitzer, director of Eurasian programs at the National Academies, was detained by Iranian security officials for nine hours over two days with no explanation. The officials who detained him said, "Science exchanges are not a good thing," in contrast with statements from high-ranking politicians in Iran who support scientific exchanges, Schweitzer said.
In response, the National Academies have announced they will not sponsor a delegation to Iran until the safety of visiting scientists is guaranteed.
Since 2006, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the State Department has hosted more than 250 Iranians, including artists, athletes and medical professionals, in a broad range of educational, professional and cultural exchange programs. (See "United States Seeks To Engage the Iranian People.")
On the nongovernmental side, since 2001 the National Academy of Sciences has facilitated cooperation between scientists in Iran and the United States, including 15 exchange visitors and 12 workshops in Iran, the United States and elsewhere that included both American and Iranian scientists.
Schweitzer supports collaboration for mutual benefit, saying that this is "not a foreign aid program." Possible areas of mutual interest include personalized medicine, cancer research, biomedical ethics and the design and interpretation of clinical trials.
Schweitzer acknowledged the many challenges to cooperation, including difficulties getting travel visas, prohibitions on traveling with personal computers and problems sustaining contact. It is difficult to get Americans to "stick with it" and remain in contact with their Iranian counterparts after a visit is complete, he said.
Economic sanctions imposed by the United States on Iran are hurting the acquisition of scientific equipment, according to Berdahl. Based on his visit to Sharif University, he thinks many academics in Iran find it difficult to publish their findings in Western journals, which they perceive as biased against them, despite the fact that many Iranian academics - including the president of Sharif University - studied at universities in the United States.
"It would be nice if student visas for Iranians were easier to get," said Shiva Balaghi, an Iranian-American art historian based in the United States. At the same time, she does not want the government interfering with academic exchanges. Based on the history of U.S.-Iranian governmental interactions, she said many Iranians today are "justifiably fearful" of American involvement in Iranian science and technology research.
To avoid the appearance of government interference, Berdahl refused to meet with Iranian politicians and government officials except the minister of science and technology. However, it is not clear to what degree the Iranian government impinges on academic freedom. Most funding in Iran comes from defense and oil ministries, according to Schweitzer, so there could be bias and conflicts of interest. A good strategy for sustained collaboration is to focus on disciplines where equipment costs are low, such as mathematics and theoretical physics.
In spite of the problems, Iranian scientists have co-authored more publications with Americans than with scientists from other countries, according to Schweitzer. There is no "great influx" of scientists from other countries into Iran, and there are more short-term academic exchanges where Iranians visit Europe than the other way around. "We want to get Iranian scientists out of isolation," he said.
WISCONSIN AND ISFAHAN
Scientists in Iran and the United States have found ways to collaborate without the involvement of nongovernmental scientific organizations such as the National Academies.
Canadian Arnold Ruoho, professor of pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, has been collaborating with Iranian chemist Abdol Hajipour for more than five years, ever since they were introduced by an Iranian-American technician who used to work with Ruoho.
Under an arrangement worked out between the two scientists, Hajipour, a professor of chemistry at the Isfahan University of Technology in Iran, spends four months per year in Madison, Wisconsin, working in Ruoho's laboratory, and devotes two months of his research in Iran to collaborative projects with Ruoho. (Both have permanent resident status in the United States.)
The two have co-authored 12 scientific papers, including a recent publication in the high-profile journal Science. Both told America.gov that they have encountered no interference from the government of either the United States or Iran.
Ruoho describes Hajipour as "a brilliant chemist, at the forefront of developing synthetic procedures that are quite unique and are being used worldwide." The collaboration has been "wonderful," Ruoho said, and is "good for science."
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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