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Vol. 26 No. 3
May-June 2004

Frontiers of Chemical Science—Research and Education in the Middle East

by John M. Malin

In regions where political and cultural conflicts are overwhelming, can science improve the quality of life? This basic question has been addressed recently by a group of 57 scientists from 15 nations, including 35 chemists and chemical engineers from Middle Eastern countries who all met in neutral ground to discuss and share common problems. This first-of-its-kind meeting, held 6–11 December 2003 in Malta, aimed to foster relationships among chemical scientists from throughout the Middle East who otherwise might not have the opportunity to interact with one another. Attendees included 6 Egyptians, 3 Iranians, 7 Israelis, 5 Jordanians, and 8 from the Palestinian Authority. The rest of the participants were chemists and chemical engineers from Kuwait, Lebanon, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Africa, Taiwan, and the United States.

Conferees at dinner: Ann Nalley, Sultan Abu-Orabi, Afsaneh Safavi, John Malin, Zafra Lerman, Hanan Malkawi, Boshra Awad, Isa Khubeis

In his letter of welcome, Guido de Marco, president of Malta, succinctly framed the issues that conference participants faced: “Depletion of resources, environmental degradation, a widening gap in technology, and shrinking water supplies are an indication of the mammoth challenges facing this region . . .” But, de Marco added, “Collaboration and sharing of information among scientists of this region can make a world of difference . . . you can lead the change, you can be successful where politicians seem to be failing. Improving the standards of living of the peoples in this region is after all the best way to fight terrorism. . . . You are putting science to the service of humanity by seeking how to, through research and education in the troubled region of the Middle East, convert frontiers into bridges; how to use science to improve the standards of living in this part of our world . . .”

Meeting Planning and Organization
The American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) Subcommittee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights, chaired by Dr. Zafra M. Lerman, provided the impetus for the project. In 2002, the subcommittee brought the idea for a conference on chemistry in the Middle East to the ACS’s International Activities Committee and, subsequently, to the ACS Board of Directors, chaired by Dr. Nina I. McClelland. In the end, the conference was organized by ACS’s International Activities Committee and co-sponsored by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and IUPAC.

Wanting to also attract the attention of national governments, the organizing committee invited some of the best chemical scientists from the region along with six Nobel Laureates: Dr. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji spoke on “Cooling Atoms with Light: A Recent Application of Molecular Physics”; Dr. Dudley Herschbach’s lecture on chemical education and research was entitled “The Impossible Takes a Little Longer”; Dr. Roald Hoffmann discussed “Protochemistries for Antiquity—Teaching Tools for Today”; Dr. Yuan T. Lee spoke on “Dynamics of Chemical Reactions and Photochemical Processes”; Dr. Jean-Marie Lehn discussed “From Molecular to Supramolecular Chemistry—Chemistry Beyond the Molecule”; and Dr. Rudolph A. Marcus lectured on “Unusual Isotope Effects in the Upper and Lower Atmosphere.”

Professor Roald Hoffman lectures on Chemistry of Antiquities.

The organizers structured the conference to allow plenty of time for informal discussions among the participants. Each morning and afternoon session began with a lecture by a Nobel Laureate, followed by a discussion session and a special follow-up lecture or a working group meeting. The working groups, which had open, rotating memberships, discussed applications of chemical sciences in the Middle East. Working group meetings were scheduled so that each attendee had an opportunity to participate in every group. Each working group developed a set of recommendations that were presented in a plenary working session at the end of the conference.

Many of the conferees were members or presidents of their national academies of science and/or their national chemical societies. In many cases, participants were encouraged to attend by the ministers of science of their respective countries. One, Dr. Venice Gouda, is the former science minister of Egypt.
Conferees presented some 30 papers in a well-attended and stimulating poster session. Topics included “Photooxidation Process Using Sunlight and Environmentally Friendly Sensitizers to Control Egyptian Schistosomes” (M. H. Abdel Kader, Egypt); “Chemometrics and Environmental Pollutants” (Mehdi Jalali-Heravi, Iran); “The Environmental Protection of Water Resources Shared by Israeli and Palestinians” (K. H. Mancy, U.S.A.); “Chemistry Department Localities and Their Intake Capacities in Iranian State Universities” (H. Zohoor, Iran); and “Contacts to Molecule-Based Devices” (D. Cahen, Israel).

In addition, invited scientists gave special lectures. Dr. Herman Winick of Stanford University spoke on “The Impact of the SESAME Project on Science, Technology, and Society in the Middle East.” Prof. Peter Atkins, of Oxford University and chair of the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education, discussed “Modern Trends in Chemical Education.” Dr. Charles Kolb, president of Aerodyne Research, Inc., spoke on “Regional Air Quality and Climate Change: New Insights and Research Tools.”

Recommendations and Outcomes
Although the conference was not a CHEMRAWN meeting, the CHEMical Research Applied to World Needs committee of IUPAC helped by obtaining a contribution from UNESCO on behalf of the project. As in CHEMRAWN conferences, the conference working groups served as Future Actions Committees by meeting to discuss recommendations in the following areas:

  • Materials and Polymer Science (group leaders: Roald Hoffmann and Helmut Ringsdorf)
  • Cultural Heritage and Preservation of Antiquities (Roald Hoffmann and Venice Gouda)
  • Environment, Water, and Renewable Energy (Yuan T. Lee and Charles Kolb)
  • Research and New Methodologies in Science Education (Dudley Herschbach and Peter Atkins)
  • Medicinal and Natural Products (Jean-Marie Lehn and Ernest Eliel)
  • Research and Technology Transfer for Economies in Transition (Rudolph Marcus and Roald Hoffmann)
  • Use of the International Centre for Synchroton-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME project, Herman Winick and Dincer Ulku)

Those committees produced a set of recommendations, which are slated for follow-up:

a. Establish a Web site for communication among conference participants, which will eventually include a database on instrumentation available in the Middle East and opportunities for training in the use of that instrumentation.

b. Future Actions groups will work together to encourage governments in the Middle East to develop collaborative research agreements among countries in the region.

c. Participants will engage private companies in becoming involved in scientific collaborations in the Middle East.
d. Funding agencies, governments and providers of journals should work together to make online publications available to scientists in the region.

e. Materials chemists are reminded that (1) solar cells, (2) catalysts and (3) membrane technologies are particularly relevant in the Middle East and should receive special attention.

f. Natural products chemists are encouraged to find useful opportunities in (1) screening of local natural products for bio-activity; (2) studies of tropical diseases; (3) combining natural products with polymers; (4) cosmetics; nutrition and (5) pesticides.

g. Chemists concerned with cultural heritage are urged to help with preservation of precious Middle Eastern artifacts by (1) encouraging the training of conservers; (2) linking preservation with economic benefits; (3) involving the European countries more; (4) fostering future events, such as an upcoming workshop in Jordan on this topic.

h. The Chemical Education group proposes to construct a database in at least four Middle Eastern languages to (1) exchange innovative teaching ideas, (2) promulgate simple and interesting experiments that can be carried out with basic equipment; and (3) exchange personal contacts. The chemical education specialists recommend creation of a regional steering committee to organize regional educational workshops for teachers, students and the media; and to develop a digital videodisk (DVD) to promote interest in chemistry studies in the region. These projects are to be initiated by forming a regional steering committee.

i. Environmental chemists in the Middle East are encouraged to concentrate on (1) developing the public’s appreciation of how chemists work to improve the environment; (2) assembling environmental baseline data to share in the region; and (3) finding improved uses of existing resources such as waste water, the area’s cheapest source of water; (4) bringing scientists together to determine what baseline measurements must be made in the Middle East, and how to share data throughout the region; and (5) educating students in environmental chemistry.

j. The Economic Development working group encourages (1) fostering small businesses in the chemical economy; (2) using the “diaspora” of Middle Eastern heritage in developed countries to develop sources of venture capital; (3) encouraging governments to establish Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant programs to encourage scientists with innovative ideas for new products and services; and (4) developing chemical business incubator programs at Middle Eastern universities.

k. Participants reviewed current progress in establishing the SESAME project in Jordan. They noted how important it is that national governments in the region be asked to provide support for SESAME. As noted above, Dr. Yuan T. Lee offered three one-year fellowships for Middle Eastern scientists to receive advanced training through study at the synchrotron facility in Taiwan.

l. All participants recommended strongly that a second conference should be held, in 2005.

Morton Hoffman, Peter Atkins, Sultan Abu-Orabi, and Paul Walter at the poster session.

At the culmination of the meeting, Dr. Zafra Lerman, chair of the Organizing Committee, stated “the results of the conference were spectacular,” and “Conferees especially enjoyed the warm friendship shared among attending scientists from all countries. Many participants stated that it was successful beyond any expectations.”

Dr. Lerman added that the excellent relations among conferees are evidenced by the fact that participants have continued to interact after returning home and that joint research is being undertaken. After the conference, she noted, scientists from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met to discuss and plan scientific collaboration. For example, two of the conferees have submitted to an international granting agency a joint proposal to perform research on water quality.

Dr. Yitzhak Apeloig, president of Technion University (Israel Institute of Technology), has offered three scholarships for students from Middle Eastern countries to study at his university. Professor Yuan T. Lee will provide three one-year fellowships for Middle Eastern scientists to perform research at the synchrotron light source in Taiwan. The scholarships will support advanced training to facilitate the work of young scientists at SESAME, the new synchrotron facility that is being constructed in Jordan with UNESCO support.

Malta proved to be an excellent choice for the conference, providing a safe venue that was easily accessible by scientists from all the countries represented. Organizers are very pleased with the outcome of the conference and truly believe that the conference made a genuine contribution toward improving scientific cooperation among chemical scientists in the Middle East region.

John M. Malin <[email protected]> is chairman of the CHEMRAWN Committee and assistant director of International Activities for the American Chemical Society.

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