Science Partnerships Vital to US - Arab Relations

Research partnerships in science and technology are a crucial part of American efforts to build alliances with Arab nations, and should receive increased financial support from the United States and oil-rich Arab governments. That's what chemist Mostafa El-Sayed, told a group of scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Saturday, February 19.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding between the United States and Arab countries, based on differences in religion and ideology, but science is a language we all speak. The advances it brings can help fuel the economies of countries like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, which don't have the tremendous oil wealth that some of the other Arab countries have," explained El-Sayed, who is director of the Laser Dynamics Laboratory and professor of chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. An Egyptian by birth, El-Sayed came to the United States in 1954 after earning his bachelor's degree at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

Likening the partnerships to a scientific version of the Peace Corps, El-Sayed reasoned that while this investment will not single-handedly reduce anti-American sentiment in the so-called "Arab street," the working partnerships it forms can help to foster an atmosphere of international trust and understanding throughout academia, which can have a trickle-down effect in other parts of society.

"We will never make them rich off these partnerships alone," explained El-Sayed. "But the level of communication that is necessary for a successful research partnership is a step towards getting people in Egypt and other Arab countries to see Americans as partners."

Egypt should be the centerpiece of any American effort in this area, he said, because it maintains good relations with both the United States and the rest of the Arab world. It also has the most to gain from scientific cooperation, since technological investment is poised to contribute more to the growth of its economy than oil. But even oil-rich countries should support these efforts, he argues, for the economic stability they can help bring to the region.

"Stability is in everyone's interest," said El-Sayed. "Advancements in science and technology have the potential to be stabilizing factors in the Arab economies and that has the potential to bring stability to both the streets and the region."

The U.S. Agency for International Development currently provides $3 million in support of Egyptian science, said El-Sayed. Half of this money is given to the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research to support Egyptian professors; the other half goes to the U.S. Department of State and the Egyptian Embassy to support American professors working abroad. The average award is $60,000 for two to three years. Forty percent of the applicants receive funds. The largest portion of the funding goes to biotechnology, followed by manufacturing technology, environmental technology and information technology.

The National Science Foundation also provides funds for research-about $1 million annually for the entire Arab world. El-Sayed suggested that more funds should be allocated to countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, which have a large number of scientists but are lacking in equipment and facilities.

"One potential solution for new funds is for the U.S. to encourage wealthier Arab nations to contribute money to the effort, while the U.S. could contribute matching funds," explained El-Sayed. "This would be an inexpensive way to make our good intentions known to our Arab friends, recover our influence in the region and regain their trust."