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Rebuilding Science in Iraq, One Scientist at a Time

By Alexander Dehgan

Editor's Note: Alexander Dehgan is an AAAS Science and Technology Fellow who worked in Iraq this year in a US program designed to direct Iraqi weapons scientists into new scientific careers. The following article is adapted with permission from a telephone interview conducted by AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen on 2 September 2004.

Alexander Dehgan at work.
Alexander Dehgan at work.
When I arrived in Baghdad, Iraqi science was in a complete state of disarray. This was due to the devastating effect of three wars on the country's infrastructure, the militarization of the scientific community during the Iran-Iraq war to feed Saddam Hussein's military machine, and the continuing militarization of the science sector. But there was a waxing and waning of the scientific community between working on weapons systems and then pulling away from weapons systems, and then working on weapons again. This had a really disruptive effect on the community.

There were also the economic sanctions that served to isolate the scientific community as well. They restricted access to journals and to new laboratory equipment for the universities, to basic materials to carry out science. There was a deep suspicion of individuals who had any ties to the West, which only worsened the isolation. And then finally, after the last war, the looting of scientific equipment, where seemingly every piece of equipment was taken or destroyed, dealt the final blow.

You also had certain numbers of scientists that were high-level Baath Party members who had been intimately involved with the weapons programs who were sitting at home and doing nothing.

Not all the scientists were Baath Party members. Many scientists weren't. One of the mistakes people have made with regard to the Baath Party was that they compare it to the Nazis, rather than comparing it to the Communist Party, which I think is the more appropriate example.

People joined the Baath Party for career advancement. There was a restriction, under the CPA, against hiring people from the four highest levels of the Baath Party. Although the fourth level was one of the prohibited levels, scientists joined it because that was what was necessary to become a director of some companies—there were a lot of companies under the military-industrial commission—or for career advancement. People had different degrees of adherence to the Baath Party that they adopted. They were looking at moving ahead. We had to gain their trust. Under Saddam's system, if you had contact with foreigners, you were persecuted. If you stood out from the rest, you faced the risk of death under Saddam.

We had to overcome these barriers. Transparency was especially important in explaining to the scientists exactly what we were doing. We would interview scientists and work with scientists. Under Saddam, the government controlled most aspects of the economy. We were helping the Iraqi scientists to privatize, to develop some of their ideas, to help fund their ideas to meet markets in the Middle East.

The majority of people in Iraq were civil servants to one degree or another. To get them to break out of that safety net, to get them to take the risks that people take in a capitalist society, to recognize the rewards and dangers of those risks, was something we had to do.

There were no typical days in Baghdad. In the first meeting of the scientific advisory council, there was automatic gunfire all around our building. We moved all the scientists into this safe room and then we found out it was just celebratory fire because some local leader had gotten a post and his people were celebrating.

Meanwhile I've got all these scientists, this large council group, stuffed into one room. Our guards are on the roof patrolling the boundaries with their weapons drawn, people are running through the center, it was chaotic. That's how much of a risk these scientists were taking to participate in our program. They trusted us by working with us, even though that could be a death sentence for them.

Every day was different. There would be emergencies. A car bomb was set off next to the house of one of our employees. There were threats that would come up that we would hear about against our center. It was just getting basic things—one of the most difficult things we had to find was a good conference table. And it's hard enough going into a society that has been through three decades of war and trying to find these items. It's even harder when you're in a continuing war zone.

I spent nearly every day working outside of the Green Zone, in the area I call the Red Zone—you had to compartmentalize. There are risks you can control and there are random chance events that you cannot control. What you do is take all the precautions to minimize risks you can control and you have to literally put aside fear of events you can't. You have to think like a scientist. The statistical chance of getting hit by a mortar or car bomb—those random risks are pretty low. The University of Chicago was a far scarier place in my opinion.

What people within the Green Zone who didn't leave it on a regular basis didn't understand is that Baghdad is a city of 4 million people where people try to live an ordinary life. There are parts of the city that you wouldn't normally go to, just like there are parts of any American city that you don't go into at night. You don't routinely go for a walk in Sadr City. But there are people who are living their lives, every day, visiting relatives, shopping for food, going to work. You can make use of this reality to travel around the city, by integrating into it, and by doing things that most people wouldn't think you would do.

One of the most reassuring signs I ever saw while I was in Baghdad was that someone opened up an eclair shop. It was an eclair shop that could've been in Soho—London or New York—that produced these magnificent pastries. And it was beautiful and it was architecturally well-designed. I realized that someone is not going to put this much time into opening something like this unless they have faith in the future. And so you adopt that faith that the Iraqis have.

It's a monumental task. Because we are not rebuilding just from one war—one short war—and the looting that happened afterward. We are rebuilding from many, many years of what went on under Saddam's leadership. We are rebuilding for decades, for many years of what has gone wrong in this country.

At the third meeting of this scientific advisory council that advised the science center we were sitting around the table and I was trying to get the Iraqis to prioritize what they believed were the most important projects that they needed to work on. And people kept giving me projects that were really of the most interest to that particular scientist rather than projects that would really be beneficial to the country.

And then half way through the meeting I realized that the real problem wasn't the Iraqis, the real problem was the fact that I was sitting at the table. I excused myself and went out for an hour and a half and I asked them to give me when I came back a list of what they felt the priorities were and how they'd address those priorities.

It was phenomenal—they broke themselves into groups, divided by discipline, and came up with a list of challenges that they needed to address and indicated how their scientific expertise could be used. At that point I recognized that the whole problem had been me.

It wasn't a question of trust. I think it had more to do with the fact that they were deferring to me and the leadership role I had within the science center. At the scientific advisory council, they were all of equal rank.

You needed to have the thing that makes science in the Western world beneficial, which is the freedom of discussion and debate among scientists. That is the hallmark of science in the West—the scientific method and independence of thought and the right to argue for a perspective you believe in as a scientist, and to document it with facts. That's what makes science—something that's built on merit and independence of thought. Under Hussein, this was something that was taken away from them.

The challenges facing the Iraqi scientific community are many. It is clear that we need to work on the power structure, on sanitation, on the environment, which has been used as a weapon in the last 15 years. We need to work on building an economy that provides stability and incentives for the Iraqi people to participate in their country. Science and technology will play an integral role in developing these things. We need to rebuild Iraqi agriculture. And we need to reinvigorate the scientific culture that is based on merit, transparency, and independence of scientific thought and overcome what has happened under the previous regime.

Second, we need to unite the community to work on the rebuilding of the country and addressing the substantial problems I mentioned, such as the environment.

Third, we need to rebuild and equip Iraq's laboratories, universities and scientific institutions. The key is this must be more than the donation of equipment or the building of schools. It has to extend to developing programs that allow us to reintegrate weapons scientists, nonweapons scientists, and reclaim Iraq's lost generation of science students, to achieve the basic goals of the reconstruction process.

Fourth, we have to reintegrate Iraq's scientific and technical community into the greater global scientific community. This means that our global scientific societies and our universities must reach out to Iraqi scientists as collaborative partners, as host institutions for cultural exchange. I think these exchanges must run both ways. I think we need to send scientists to Iraqi universities to share ideas but also so that we have an idea of what they are going through. And we need to provide training for graduate students, because right now they have no opportunities within their country.

Finally, we must work to integrate ethics into the scientific community. This is a challenge and responsibility not limited to Iraq, but which we face in the US and other countries.

One thing we tend to do is we lie to ourselves as scientists that our actions don't bear any consequences beyond the laboratory. And I think the reality is that we uphold the public trust in exchange for the freedom that we have as scientists to study questions that are integral to me, to search for truth in the physical, biological and chemical world.

We have to understand the potential consequences of our research, both good and bad. And then, probably most importantly, we must educate the public about our findings and to work to integrate those findings into the fabric of our society.

I think the future of the country will depend on two things: the Iraqi leadership and Iraq's economic recovery. I think both of those depend on the scientists. Scientists have to be actively involved in economic recovery. The scientists have to be there to help with developing sources of support for the country, to give individual Iraqis an incentive to prevent the violence that renders apart the country.

Most recently, Hussain Shahristani [the Iraqi nuclear physicist and victim of torture under Saddam], who is starting up the new Iraqi National Academy of Sciences, was considered for the post of prime minister. And it is because of his ethics, and because of his resistance to participating in Saddam's weapons programs, and because of his stature as a world-class scientist, that people looked up to him.

In these societies, education and being educated—particularly in engineering, science and medicine—is sort of a status symbol. It gives you the respect of the people, and having that respect allows you to take a leadership role.

The Iraqi scientists and Iraqi people are great survivors. They are people who have unbelievable potential because of their flexibility and their ability to adapt to extremely difficult circumstances that they've endured over the last three wars. They have lived and have had to deal with an unbelievable amount of fear.

I got to go back to the Green Zone at night. The Iraqis live outside of the Green Zone. They've lived through wars, they lived through Saddam Hussein and his regime. They lived through a lot of terror—Saddam Hussein used weapons against his own people and he tortured his own people. They survived all of these things. They were very adaptable. Many of them are courageous, hard-working people that want to see the reconstruction of their country, and they want to see Iraq reclaim its role as a leader of science in the Middle East. And I think they have substantial potential to do so.


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