In 2010, the National Research Council of the National Academies published the report U.S-Iran Engagement in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2000-2009). The review of the program described in detail the National Academies’ science, technology, and health cooperation program carried out jointly with partners in Iran (hereinafter referred to as science-engagement).
The report in 2010 concluded that the science and technology benefits from science-engagement had been rewarding for both countries. According to the report, science-engagement can over time not only begin to contribute to improved economic and social conditions for the general public but also can offer a rallying point for bringing together interested parties nationally and internationally, with no need for major political compromises by any party. The review of the program emphasized that cooperation in science had been one of the few available options for bridging diverse interests of Iran and the United States and for establishing gateways to mutual understanding and to international security of global importance.
The purpose of this new report is to document the history and details of the National Academies’ program of science-engagement from 2010 through 2016, while providing a perspective in considering future science-engagement. A variety of cooperative activities, and particularly workshops that dominated science-engagement during that period, are highlighted. Well-prepared gatherings of 20-30 experts in fields of priority interest to the National Academies and its U.S. and Iranian partners provided opportunities for in-depth discussions of research and field activities. Also,
each workshop led to preparation of a proceedings, which addressed developments and challenges of national and international interest. The workshops were held primarily in the United States and Iran, and occasionally in other countries with participation of local experts.
As to other science-engagement activities sponsored by the National Academies in recent years, a few exchange visits to Iran, each involving one or two Americans, and visits by individual Iranians to the United States were important. Also occasional participation by American scientists in international conferences in Tehran and by Iranian scientists in conferences in the United States were significant. However, such limited endeavors seldom had substantial scientific impact without follow-on engagement.
More than 1,500 scientists, engineers, and medical professionals (hereinafter referred to as “scientists”) from about 120 institutions in the two countries—primarily universities and other centers of research—participated in the program sponsored by the National Academies from 2000 to 2016. A comparable number of scientists in the two countries also were actively involved in arranging and hosting events for visitors from abroad. About one-half of the interested scientists participated in events from 2010 to 2016.
Another important activity was the frequent discussions between staff members of the National Academies and senior U.S. and Iranian government officials about the National Academies’ objectives, activities, and findings. These discussions kept science-engagement on political screens as an important mechanism for promoting a common objective of the two governments, namely to support constructive science diplomacy. Also, the National Academies regularly shared its experience with other interested organizations in the United States and Iran concerning both the technical and administrative aspects of science-engagement, along with the results of joint efforts,
CONTEXT FOR SCIENCE-ENGAGEMENT FROM 2010 TO 2016
The original intent of the National Academies’ cooperative program was to focus over the long-term on fields of science of mutual interest that were identified in 2000 by the leaderships of the academies of both countries. However, the administrative and financial aspects in developing and implementing cross-border activities were formidable. Therefore, the National Academies, in consultation with Iranian partners, quickly expanded the list of fields of interest; and the determination of priorities was based in large measure on the ease of arranging the travel details and the agendas for the events, while adhering to the overarching principle of mutual interest.
This report begins with a review of some of the highlights during the initial years of science-engagement (2000-2009), with particular attention as to whether and how the early events set the stage for sustainable interactions. Among the activities that were most successful in leading to subsequent endeavors were workshops and individual exchange visits that addressed the following topics: (a) detecting and responding to outbreaks of food-borne diseases, (b) improving capabilities to prepare for, to record, and to respond to earthquakes and their aftershocks, (c) coping with drought conditions in arid lands, and (d) recognizing the importance of scientific cooperation as a catalyst for encouraging diplomacy.
Also of relevance from the early years of science-engagement have been the broad efforts of the Iranian government to develop a knowledge-based economy. Ambitions of the Iranian government call for the economy to be increasingly driven by emphasis on science and technology, with greater payoffs from investments in these areas. International cooperation is to guide the search for world-wide achievements of interest to Iran.
Five aspects of Iran’s quest to become a technological leader in the Middle East that were increasingly evident in recent years of engagement are the following: (a) an expanded role of the Vice President for Science and Technology, who in recent years has had responsibility for shaping the science and technology policy of the country while administering an annual research budget of about $500 million; (b) increasing enrollment at Iranian universities, which by 2015 accommodated more than 4.5 million students; (c) sharpening the focus of government research centers on breakthrough fields of growing international interest, such as nanotechnology; (d) increasing the funding and other incentives for nongovernmental technology-oriented small firms to become “engines of technological innovation;” and (e) expanding a small cadre of experts within and outside government who have been developing and monitoring the nation’s science and technology policy that includes increased recognition of the importance of international cooperation.
Also, the report highlights the dramatic growth in publications of Iranian scientists in internationally recognized journals, including publications jointly authored with foreign colleagues.
Participation in exchange activities devoted to the topics set forth below was the backbone of the National Academies’ engagement activities during
2010-2016. The National Academies had opportunities to invite excellent American and Iranian specialists to participate, including both fast-rising male and female investigators in the early stages of their careers. Many of the participants became important advocates of continued engagement. Some followed up this interest through direct contacts with scientists whom they had met and/or through participation in subsequent activities of the National Academies.
- Water Resource Management
- Earthquake Preparedness and Response
- Vehicle Transportation
- Solar Energy Research
- Wildlife Conservation and Habitat Management
- Mathematics Education
- Urban Air Pollution
- Resilient Cities
- Climate Change
- Conservation of Wetlands
With the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, new opportunities for sustained engagement emerged. Workshops were organized in the United States, Iran, and France. At a workshop devoted to climate change, for example, the Iranian and American participants identified more than 25 cooperative activities that could be undertaken to improve regional or global understanding of the causes and impacts of global warming and steps to mitigate harmful effects. Also, as an example of near-term payoff from engagement, four Iranian water experts who participated in a workshop on the future of Lake Urmia were among the advisers appointed by President Rouhani on this topic immediately after he was installed as President of Iran in 2013.
Of special importance are lessons learned from past cooperative activities that should be of interest to many U.S. organizations involved in current and future cooperation with Iranian counterparts. They include, for example, the following approaches.
- Involve both highly respected leaders in the field of interest and early career professionals who can sustain joint efforts for years and even decades.
- Ensure that specialists and organizations from both countries bring significant technical and managerial capabilities to the table and share equally in assuming responsibility for implementation of projects and in taking credit for successes.
- Encourage publicity for positive results of joint efforts, with solid scientific documentation available to support claims of progress.
- Give first priority to the scientific benefits from projects, and then the diplomatic successes will be easier to achieve.
At the top of the list of constraints in implementing the projects developed and/or supported by the National Academies have consistently been (a) concerns of American participants about their personal safety while participating in activities in Iran, (b) uncertainties as to the limitations on academic exchanges of specific regulations promulgated by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of Treasury, and (c) the paucity of funds available from the U.S. government or private sources to support science-engagement.
The National Academies have been very active with regard to OFAC-related issues. Since 2002, the National Academies have obtained 17 licenses to (a) ensure compliance with legal requirements, and (b) to convince American university administrators who approve international travel by faculty members and U.S. government officials who are involved in controlling visits to the United States that the U.S. government supports bilateral program activities endorsed by the National Academies. The National Academies have made limited progress in reducing OFAC constraints. In recent years, the National Academies have applied for three-year licenses rather than following the practice of some organizations in applying for a license for each individual event. Also, the National Academies’ licenses have covered not only activities sponsored by the National Academies but also activities sponsored by the National Academies’ U.S. partners. The National Academies ensure that their partners abide by the provisions of the licenses.
In addition, the National Academies have worked with the department in seeking general licenses to cover selected activities that do not involve the exchange of funds, equipment, or export-controlled information. As of 2016, two fields were covered by general licenses and did not require specific licenses issued to specific organizations, namely conservation of the environment and protection of wildlife. Other topics for general licenses
that have been advocated by the National Academies, but not issued as of 2016, include (a) an expanded coverage of environmental “conservation” to include assessment, prevention, and abatement of pollution and preservation of the ecological landscape, and (b) medical research and protection of public health.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
During recent years, the National Academies have modified the program from a fragmented approach addressing many scientific fields to sustained support of projects directed to a limited set of fields. The primary fields of interest changed over time; and in 2016 they were seismic science and engineering, conservation and effective use of water resources, promotion of resiliency of urban areas, reduction of air pollution, and conservation of wetlands.
The report also underscores the importance of more concerted cooperation with Iran by the international community, including the National Academies, in addressing the broad problems of environmental protection. In principle, Iran is committed to addressing a wide range of specific environmental challenges, including, for example, dust storms, droughts, decreased water runoff from mountainous areas, and near-elimination of important endangered species such as the Asiatic cheetah.
At the end of 2016, the outlook for continuation of the National Academies’ science-engagement program was uncertain. Political relations between the governments of the United States and Iran were at a low ebb despite the success in 2015 in reaching agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal), which was both praised and criticized in Washington and Tehran. Also, other aspects of the U.S.-Iran political relationship were often not only acrimonious but also threatening.
Thus, despite tangible benefits for science and diplomacy already achieved through the National Academies-initiated engagement activities, it will be difficult but even more important to justify commitment of financial resources of the U.S. government or foundations to support the National Academies’ future efforts in the wake of political turmoil encompassing the overall U.S.-Iran relationship. Of equal importance is maintaining the steadfast support of the National Academies’ program by the Department of State, which has played a critical role in visa issuance, support of applications for OFAC licenses, and assurances for the U.S. scientific community that the National Academies’ program is in the national interest. While this
report documents the science and technology benefits from cooperation, it should also contribute to a realistic understanding of the potential and the limitations of science-engagement as a significant approach in transcending the U.S.-Iran political stalemate.
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