Impacts and Future Directions
For decades, the universality of sound scientific principles has been recognized throughout the world. In situations where the communications between scientists from two countries are abnormally few or difficult, such as has been the case in U.S.-Iran relations during the past decade, special efforts to build scientific linkages can be important. Scientific benefits of sharing experiences among specialists who are working in similar fields but in different geographic and cultural environments—such as the different environments of the United States and Iran—have often been apparent to the participating scientists, immediately or after short periods of time. For example, international cooperation has sensitized scientists to the strengths and weaknesses of capabilities and approaches of foreign counterparts in addressing problems of mutual interest (e.g., stem cell research in the United States and Iran). They sometimes see on-the-ground activities that are ahead of, but relevant to, efforts in their own countries (e.g., advanced techniques for breeding of sturgeon and other species in hatcheries in Iran). The scientists can then better evaluate the significance of the scientific findings that are set forth in publications of their counterparts.
Other types of benefits of cross-border interchanges can also be important. Understanding the similarities and differences in related approaches used by scientists who are thousands of miles apart can at times be helpful (e.g., dangerous surgical procedures that threaten the cardiovascular systems of TB patients in Tehran and Houston). Collaboration has sometimes documented how findings in one physical environment help explain the
scientific aspects of similar problems encountered in other settings (e.g., pollution impacts on biodiversity in the Caspian Sea and in lakes of North America). Joint efforts have frequently clarified the magnitude and importance of problems that should be of international concern but are not receiving adequate preventive attention in national programs (e.g., dust storms reaching central Tehran due to sand uptake far to the west of the capital). At times, visiting scientists witness phenomena that are inconsistent with global trends (e.g., frequency of certain forms of stomach cancer in Iran), see developments that will soon become global trends (e.g., increasing obesity in the United States), and hear warnings of looming global disasters (e.g., impacts of climate change in both countries).
The thousands of Iranian-American scientists who have emigrated to the United States in recent decades and have then successfully pursued scientific careers provide strong testimony to the increasing internationalization of (a) scientific knowledge and (b) scientific approaches that lead to new discoveries and new applications of science. Such migrations of scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that a sound basis for scientific inquiry can transcend geographical and political boundaries. To participate effectively in modern science, researchers simply cannot ignore achievements of colleagues in distant lands.
Many scientists in the United States and Iran routinely rely on a global outreach while at times recognizing the limitations on their contributions to science that result from current constraints on U.S.-Iran cooperation. But many other Iranian scientists are not accustomed to searching through the findings of foreign colleagues for solutions to common problems. Thus, it is not surprising that Iran has both (a) scientific strengths, which take into account experiences elsewhere (e.g., treatment of drug addiction), and (b) weaknesses in research areas, which are well developed in other countries (e.g., ecological modeling of watersheds). Thus, the world can benefit from some of Iran’s strengths (e.g., Iran’s contribution to the earthquake response effort in Pakistan side-by-side with the U.S. response effort), and Iran can begin to catch up in other areas by following the lead of more advanced colleagues from abroad (e.g., mastering techniques for liver transplants). There are some areas wherein all can learn together (e.g., personalized medicine).
Few aspects of international cooperation can be kept under wraps in laboratories or at field investigation sites. Scientists, journalists, and historians throughout the world prepare frequent commentaries for the public on the value and details of international scientific cooperation. They regularly
write about (a) scientific revelations uncovered by international teams that are spreading across the continents and (b) benefits of international collaboration in building trust and understanding among colleagues from different nations. They often focus on the importance of new channels of communication, and particularly the Internet, in increasing contacts with researchers from countries who have been isolated from the mainstream of international science. Indeed, seldom does a week go by that Science, Nature, and other journals do not have reports on the payoffs from international cooperation, often focusing on countries that have been estranged from the international community. At the same time, a growing percentage (more than 20 percent) of the articles in internationally recognized journals are co-authored by scientists from two or more countries.1
International success stories based on science frequently are linked to sustained cooperation among institutions in different countries over many months or years. The U.S.-Iran engagement program of the National Academies has been devoted primarily to only short-term interactions; and attribution of scientific breakthroughs to such brief encounters is unrealistic. Nevertheless, given the reach of the engagement program in terms of the number of participants and topics, modest scientific impacts of the program are beginning to emerge; and some impacts may be of considerable international interest in the future.
Against the widespread conviction that in time international cooperation often pays off for the scientists who have been involved and at times for a broader segment of society, this chapter summarizes some of the outcomes to date of the U.S.-Iran scientist-to-scientist engagement program of the National Academies. It also addresses potential political benefits from scientific cooperation. The program has been one of the most active U.S. scientist-to-scientist programs with Iran in recent years although given the capabilities of the scientific community in Iran, it has been very modest in size. According to U.S. government officials, the political impacts of even limited engagement efforts are important in helping to gradually restore a more positive U.S-Iranian relationship and in beginning to set the stage for broader people-to-people programs.
FOLLOW-ON ACTIVITIES TO INITIAL ENGAGEMENT EVENTS
Previous reports of the National Academies have presented survey-based evaluations of follow-on activities related to much larger exchange programs in other regions of the world. Shortly after completing their initial
cooperative activities, the participants were systematically asked to provide comments on follow-on activities. They were also asked for suggestions for improving the programs.2
However, the limited resources available for carrying out a small program with Iran have been focused entirely on ensuring that operational activities would be adequately supported. Also, uncertainties about the political implications of distributing questionnaires concerning impacts discouraged such a practice. This report is the first attempt to collate a few examples of follow-on activities. While the follow-on activities that are cited throughout this report are far from a complete list, they nevertheless are helpful in assessing the impacts of the program.
Clearly, obstacles of all types prevented full realization of many aspects of the planned efforts. But the results have to be judged within a broad context. This context, previously discussed in Chapter 1, has included (a) increasingly hostile relations between the U.S. and Iranian governments, (b) elections in both countries that introduced new administrations and new policies, (c) uncertainties concerning developments within Iran in the wake of the election in 2009, and (d) continuing calls in Washington for more stringent economic sanctions, which may have a spillover effect in constraining scientific cooperation.
Chapters 3 and 4 have identified a number of the near-term follow-on activities that have resulted from specific workshops and other cooperative events. Follow-on activities involving continued cooperation among some of the original participants have been noted (e.g., additional workshops on related topics). Also, follow-on activities that have been undertaken without the benefit of further cooperation opportunities have come to light (e.g., Iranian purchases of new experimental equipment for microbiology investigations of food contaminants).
Almost all cooperative follow-on activities have depended on continuation of organizational and financial support for the activities by the National Academies and its philanthropic partners, as well as by the ability of Iranian counterpart organizations to organize and finance their share of appropriate follow-on arrangements. Few spin-off cooperative programs that are organized and financed through other channels have developed, even though this type of spin-off sustainability of cooperation has been an objective of the National Academies from the outset of the program. While such continuation of joint efforts has been a frequent discussion topic, particularly at universities in Tehran and at other venues where workshops have been held, little follow-on activity has been initiated by
the participants themselves without the direct involvement of the National Academies.
As noted in previous chapters, seldom have the individual American participants in engagement projects had the time, financial resources, and inclination to try to organize follow-on cooperative activities on their own. Also, Iranian colleagues seem to have been reluctant in taking the initiative. They have often stated, “We will be in touch by e-mail.” But the e-mails may not arrive.
Support on the U.S. side by the National Academies, universities, or other organizations with capabilities to mount and sustain international programs seems essential if U.S.-Iran science cooperation is to expand, or even to continue. The one exception—and it is an important exception—is the attendance by scientists who have been participants in academy-sponsored activities in subsequent international scientific conferences, which are held in the two countries. The National Academies have received several positive reports of such participation following events on the same or similar topics sponsored by the National Academies (e.g., cancer conferences in the United States and environmental engineering conferences in Iran).
Beginning in the early 1990s, a number of U.S. universities effectively sustained active science cooperation with Iranian universities for a few years with no involvement of the National Academies. Such sustained relationships seemed to have increased the commitments of individual scientists to working with colleagues across the ocean. Usually Iranian exchange students were an important component of the cooperation. But as Iranian science students in the United States decreased in number, due in large measure to problems in obtaining U.S. student visas for studies in technical areas, interest of some U.S. universities in science engagement also decreased. U.S. universities could not count on Iranian tuition payments as one of the incentives to maintain science cooperation, as had been the case at some universities a few years ago. Also, the decline in exchange students has increased the difficulty in justifying outreach to Iran. With declining resources for outreach, some U.S. universities have turned their attention to other less daunting activities.
However, even one-time interactions of Iranian and American scientists such as those sponsored by the National Academies can influence their views and subsequent actions. They frequently receive strong impressions as to the importance or the limitations of their own scientific research agendas, the need to use information from colleagues around the globe, and the quality of activities behind scientific articles prepared by counterparts. Walking
through a U.S. laboratory with modern research equipment has been an eye-opening experience for some Iranian visitors who work in facilities with older and more modest equipment. And advanced laboratories in Iran have also surprised American visitors.
Most American participants in the engagement program had their first encounters with Iranian counterparts through participation in the program. With a few exceptions, the Americans have been enthusiastic about the interactions. Many have stated that they would welcome additional opportunities for such contacts in order to delve deeper into scientific accomplishments in Tehran and other scientific hubs of Iran.
Also, Iranian attitudes toward the possibility of follow-on interactions have been positive. The repeat-participants in activities sponsored by the National Academies presumably considered their initial experiences worth-while. In addition, the Iranian workshop participants, as well as the American participants, have almost always completed their papers for publication in Proceedings and other reports.
Discussions of the importance of scientific publications have frequently taken place during U.S.-Iran workshops and associated visits to facilities. Also, preparation of Proceedings of workshops that have been published by the National Academies and its partners has required that the submitted papers meet an acceptable quality level. Some papers prepared by Americans and by Iranians have been rejected. Others have been revised one or more times before they were accepted. Unfortunately, the National Academies were obliged to withdraw one Iranian paper from the electronic version of a Proceedings after the Proceedings had been released and posted on the academies’ website when it was discovered that some of the text had been copied from a related article without references.3 Clearly, the workshop participants have become aware that publication of a paper requires a review process that is not to be taken lightly.
Many Iranian scientists, including some who occupy or have occupied important government positions, have long been aware of the importance of the integrity of the process that leads to scientific publications. They know the requirements for publishing in journals that are covered in the Web of Science Citation Index maintained by the Institute of Science Information (ISI), herein referred to as ISI journals; and success in publishing in these journals is a highly valued achievement. However, other Iranian scientists
have not ventured into this arena, confining their publications to Iranian journals, and particularly Farsi-language journals, which may not meet international standards.
Leaders of the Iranian scientific community will probably continue to advocate compliance with internationally acceptable publication standards, even for Iranian journals published in Farsi. They still have a long road ahead. However, they know that international credibility rests squarely on the credibility of Iranian publications. U.S. encouragement of adherence to good publication standards is desirable; and such encouragement has been possible during the engagement program.
During the workshops and other engagement events, various publications are sometimes distributed. The U.S. publications are always quickly taken by Iranian counterparts. Other U.S. publications that are cited during the course of the interactions are frequently requested by Iranian participants and if available, they are provided electronically. Important international publications that are not available electronically are clearly in short supply in Iran.
In 2009, the journal of Sharif University of Technology, entitled Scientia Iranica, received international recognition as an ISI journal due to the combined efforts of Iranian and American participants in the engagement program. The accreditation process was not simple. The editor of the Iranian journal had difficulty responding to the application requirements without the help of an American counterpart who in turn was in contact with a representative of the ISI. The newly recognized journal must now operate under international ground rules that should help ensure its integrity as a reliable publication. Twenty-eight Iranian journals, primarily in biomedical and engineering fields, are ISI journals;4 but Scientia Iranica is unique in its broad swathe of science and engineering disciplines and topics.
As to Iranian-authored articles published in ISI journals, the number of articles has steadily increased in recent years, growing from 1,500 in 2000 to 5,500 in 2005 and was still increasing at that time. The Iranian publications far exceeded publications from other Middle Eastern countries except Turkey and Egypt, although in 2005 the Iranian number passed the number of Egyptian publications. The number of Iranian articles co-authored with foreign colleagues was about 1,100 in 2005, with Americans being the largest number of co-authors. While this number is small, in time some of the interactions under the program of the National Academies and other scientist-to-scientist programs may lead to additional articles with co-authors.5
INTERNATIONAL VISITOR PROGRAMS
The National Academies have participated in three International Visitor Programs (IVPs) that have been sponsored by the Department of State. They addressed food-borne diseases, water conservation, and earthquake science and engineering. They involved a total of 45 Iranian specialists. IVPs bring to the United States professionals from Iran, as well as many other countries, as noted in Chapter 3. The length of stay for Iranians under this program is usually about three weeks. The roles of the National Academies have been (a) ascertaining interest of reliable partners in Iran for assuming responsibility within Iran for each of the programs, (b) organizing and hosting a scientific workshop during the visit, involving 25-40 participants, and (c) providing assistance to the Department of State in arranging associated visits by the Iranian visitors to scientific and other facilities in the United States.
At the conclusion of each three-week session, representatives of the Department of State meet with the Iranian visitors to listen to comments on their visits and suggestions for future exchanges. Observations provided by the Department concerning the overall Iran program, which has involved more than 250 Iranian visitors to the United States since 2006, are as follows:
The program began the process of re-establishing contacts between academic, professional, and cultural communities in the two countries and helped reconnect Iran to the United States. The first-hand experience of observing American society and its people has … generated goodwill and respect…. Many Iranians have stated that their impressions of Americans and their culture have improved dramatically. Most, if not all, participants have expressed the hope of remaining in contact with Americans they met during the program and of having some Americans visit them.6
ADMIRATION OF IRANIANS FOR SCIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES
Reports of western-initiated public opinion polls in Iran have repeatedly shown that U.S. science and technology are highly respected by Iranians, a finding that is consistent across the neighboring countries as well. Also, U.S. universities receive favorable ratings as respected institutions.7 These positive attitudes toward American science and education are undoubtedly
rooted to some extent in oral and written reports disseminated throughout Iran by Iranian visitors to the United States over many decades. Awareness of U.S. technological accomplishments is also enhanced by media portrayals of economic achievements based on science and technology in the United States and by continuing reports of life in the United States by the Iranian diaspora. Short-term visits to the United States have provided opportunities for a few Iranians to “ground truth” such reports.
Scientist-to-scientist programs that provide opportunities for Iranians to have direct contact with contributors to science and education achievements are probably adding to the perpetuation of such positive images. It is not possible to attribute a specific workshop, exchange visit, or other type of collaborative project to a general enhancement of the image of the United States. But the cumulative effects of such interactions are most likely a contributory factor to the positive images of U.S. science and universities that are prevalent in Iran.
Chapter 4 describes the visits of U.S. Nobel Laureates to Iran and the enthusiastic receptions they received. In recent years, American scientists have dominated the lists of recipients of Nobel Prizes. Consequently, many Iranians are convinced that much of the best science in the world emanates from the United States. For a Nobel Laureate to take the time to travel to Iran makes a huge impression on scientists, students, and the general public that cannot be measured—only admired.
But visits of less renowned scientists can also have positive impacts on significant audiences, and particularly students in the audiences. Unfortunately, distinguished American scientists are increasingly rare visitors to Iran due to the political turmoil in the country. When they have given presentations to audiences of 100 students or 30 faculty members, for example, the reactions have been punctuated with desires to want to hear more.
MAINTAINING CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION
One of the strengths of the program of the National Academies has been its continuity over a decade. The National Academies have become well known to a number of institutions in Iran as well as in the United States. Judging from the number of inquiries to the National Academies concerning scientific relations with Iran, they are increasingly recognized as a good source of up-to-date information on the state of scientific interactions and challenges in bringing together colleagues from the two countries.
The National Academies have provided a channel of informal communications between important members of the two societies. There are of course many other channels of communication. When aggregated, these channels seem to have a positive effect on developments within Iran while helping to provide insights of broad international interest.
Most of the foregoing observations relate directly or indirectly to the importance of openness when considering cooperative ventures that might be interesting for American scientists. Authoritative reports about science and technology activities in Iran are in short supply. Such reports are occasionally received by the National Academies, usually in connection with specific events that are being scheduled or have been completed in Iran.
But general awareness of civilian activities in Iran is a long way from international expectations for countries with significant scientific capabilities in fields that are distant from security and proprietary interests. Only limited information about Iran’s science and technology achievements is publicly available, and the insights during engagement activities can be helpful to the international community. As such information spreads, it can also help clarify for the international community opportunities for engaging Iran, which must look outward if it is to maximize the effective use of its technological capabilities.
Openness becomes particularly important if the information that is shared relates to developments of broad international importance. Many analysts within and outside government in Washington are focusing on the development of Iran’s defense-related capabilities. But few are devoting their efforts to understanding the workings of Iran’s civilian infrastructure for science and technology and the international potential of Iranian science, which are the interests of the National Academies,
Examples of questions of interest are the following: What are the characteristics of Iran’s capabilities in emerging areas of international importance such as progress in nanotechnology applications? Do documents published in Tehran about Iranian science exaggerate, underestimate, or accurately characterize Iran’s technical capabilities to support economic and social development? How can Iran’s well-trained workforce use its talents effectively when there are limited job opportunities in high technology areas? How could Iran become a regional leader in areas of science and technology that would be welcomed by neighboring countries and the world?
The answers to such questions should be taken into account as western governments develop strategies for engagement with Iran. The National Academies can contribute to discussions of such issues. But it should be recognized that other U.S. scientific organizations (e.g., American Physical Society, U.S. Geological Survey) may be better equipped to delve into many of the issues in more detail and then to suggest approaches for science engagement.
IMPACTS ON U.S. POLICY FORMULATION
The National Academies frequently consult with the U.S. Government concerning policies and programs directed toward Iran, and particularly the Department of State’s people-to-people engagement activities and the Department of Treasury’s policy on economic sanctions. The government seems to welcome the views of the National Academies, given the on-the-ground experience in Iran of the National Academies. When asked as to whether the program of the National Academies usefully complements other exchange programs, the answer of U.S. officials has always been the same: “Yes, and we are eager to learn about your experiences.”
Throughout this report, many suggestions have been offered concerning steps to help ensure that cooperative activities take place and that they are rewarding for the participants and their institutions. Five lessons-learned stand out as guideposts for future activities within a contentious political framework. They are as follows:
Committed and influential U.S. and Iranian leaders of individual projects are essential both to bring important specialists to the table and to navigate successfully through the government policies and procedures that determine whether and how each project can be implemented.
The project leaders should be strongly encouraged to invite young professionals to be among the participants.
When an opportunity for implementation of a project of interest to both sides arises, immediate steps should be taken to carry out the project even if it is not at the top of the priority list of projects-in-waiting.
Documentation of the results of projects that are publicly available can significantly magnify the impact of projects.
An important criterion in selection of project participants should be the likelihood that they would have the interest and time to sustain the contacts made during the projects.
FUTURE DIRECTION OF THE PROGRAM OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
At the level of individual scientists, there are conflicting voices in both Iran and the United States as to whether scientific exchange programs can be effectively carried out within the constraints imposed by the security policies in the current political environment. Nevertheless, most well-informed scientists in the two countries with whom the National Academies have contacts favor continuation of engagement activities to the extent possible. They recognize that there may be personal risks. The National Academies are prepared to move forward, but ensuring the personal safety of participants overrides all other considerations.
Scientific areas that might be considered for future cooperation have been identified throughout this report. Building on past cooperative activities should be a high priority in developing the next phase of cooperation.
Some forces in Iran would welcome a termination of engagement programs involving the United States, including engagement in science. At the same time, given Iran’s long-standing commitment to excellence in science, it is difficult for even these voices in Iran to ignore the wellsprings of technology in the United States. Nor have these isolation-oriented voices succeeded in suppressing the views of others who believe that scientific cooperation is essential if Iran is to graduate from the status of a developing country and join the ranks of the industrialized countries in the foreseeable future.
The Iranian Government has alternatives to dealing with the United States and its political allies in modernizing the country through more effective use of technology. China is selling petrochemical equipment to Iran, and Russia has found Iranian customers for its nuclear and aerospace technologies. But the United States is still at the apex of scientific achievements and university education in the eyes of important Iranian leaders. Every year, many members of Iran’s elite of different political persuasions support efforts of their science-oriented children and other relatives to obtain U.S. student visas or green cards.
Against the background of uncertainty as to future Iranian policies, the National Academies have taken several steps to sustain its engagement activities during 2010 and 2011. They have kept on the table a number of areas
for cooperation that have been discussed for several years. They continue to work with the Department of State, which has its own people-to-people agenda. Also, they offer this report to help focus discussions on next steps.
When opportunities arise, consideration should be given to ambitious projects. By all accounts, the pilot project on food-borne diseases was a successful effort that attracted much attention in Iran and in Geneva, the home of the World Health Organization, as well as support in the United States. Another sustained project with operational aspects carried out under the auspices of the National Academies seems desirable.
Among the topics that have been discussed informally in the past with Iranian colleagues as the basis for an ambitious undertaking are the following: (a) collaboration on assessments of the challenges in restoring the shrinking marshes on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border near the Persian Gulf, with a focus on water recycling and holistic engineering approaches, (b) designation of an international network of centers of excellence for improving seismic resilience of structures through enhanced construction designs and practices in Tehran and other major cities from Turkey to Pakistan, (c) upgrading one or more Iranian national parks to international status for preservation of biodiversity, and particularly unique plant and animal species of the region, and (d) creation in Iran of a regional center for research and training in radiation therapy and patient safety to reduce medical errors throughout the region. Other topics are suggested in this manuscript, particularly in the appendices. From archeology and astronomy to zoonotic diseases and zoology, the topics of common interest are numerous and diverse.
SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING
Iran’s size, its geo-strategic location, and its abundant energy resources ensure that the country will be an important player in international affairs for the indefinite future, both regionally and globally. Its talented workforce, particularly in science-related endeavors, should provide a base for moving forward economically. But neither the Iranian Government nor an increasingly outspoken population is in agreement as to Iran’s future political direction, either internally or internationally.
The neutrality and prestige of science, which is said by many Iranians to have been in the DNA of the Persians, can steer important segments of the youth toward science careers leading to personal satisfaction and professional recognition. Highly motivated young professionals seem willing to accept excessive government control of their laboratories and to tolerate
unemployment uncertainties. At the same time, science offers rallying points for bringing parties together nationally and internationally without the need for any party to make political compromises.
Cooperative projects can continue to facilitate integration of Iran’s scientific aspirations with global realities and with the interests of the United States and other science leaders. Scientific cooperation is one of the few options for bridging differences that separate the two governments. Together, the two scientific communities can begin moving toward important scientific gateways to understanding and international security. Hopefully, the roads through the gateways will be short and will offer rewards for science and for the general populations of the two countries.
1. National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators, Vol. 1, p. 5-42, 2008.
2. See, for example, Glenn E. Schweitzer, Interacademy Programs between the United States and Eastern Europe 1976-2009, pp. 26, 27, 29, 34.
3. Declan Butler, “Plagiarism Scandal Grows in Iran,” Nature, Vol. 462, December 10, 2009, p. 704.
4. Information on ISI activities provided in March 2010 by firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. Mojtaba Shamsipur, “The Role of Chemistry and Biology in the Future Development of Iran,” Science and Technology and the Future Development of Societies, International Workshop Proceedings, National Academies Press, 2008, pp. 66-69. Also, Declan Butler, “The Data Gap,” Nature, Vol. 444, 2 November 2006, pp. 26-27.
6. Department of State, January 2010.
7. For a polling report on the very positive attitudes in Iran and selected Arab countries of U.S. scientific achievements, see Changing Minds, Winning Peace—A New Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim World, Report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, 1 October 2003.