Middle East Scientists Gather in Malta

Science For Peace In The Middle East

Malta conferences encourage stronger scientific ties to counter political strife in troubled region

Stephen K. Ritter
December 19, 2005

Volume 83, Number 51 ,pp. 53-59

Scientists from 12 middle Eastern nations, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority, met on neutral territory in the Mediterranean island nation of Malta in early November (2005) for the second conference designed to forge stronger relationships among scientists in the region. The conference organizers designed the meeting to draw the attention of national governments to the fact that improving regional scientific cooperation could aid sustainable economic development and promote peace and political reconciliation.

“We can’t leave the peace process in the Middle East only to the politicians,” commented chemistry professor Zafra M. Lerman of Columbia College Chicago. Spreading the message that everyone can work together “is the best thing we can do for the Middle East,” she told C&EN. Lerman served as chair of the conference organizing committee and leads the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Scientific Freedom & Human Rights.

Titled “Frontiers of Chemical Sciences II: Research & Education in the Middle East,” the five-day invitation-only conference expanded upon progress made during a similar meeting held in Malta in December 2003 (C&EN, Jan. 12, 2004, page 36). That meeting is believed to have been the first time since Israel was created in 1948 that scientists from all segments of the Middle East participated in a joint conference.

Several initiatives to promote collaborative research projects and student and scientist exchange programs were born out of the first conference. Attendees this year learned that some of those initiatives have been highly successful, while others made no progress at all because of continued cultural and political restraints. At Malta 2, as this year’s conference was called, the Middle Eastern scientists again sought to overthrow old ideologies and rekindle efforts to normalize their relationships.

The Middle East can’t flourish in a constant state of war, Lerman pointed out. “People-to-people contact and mutual understanding can lead to lasting friendships and collaborations that transcend political and cultural differences,” she said. “Scientists can do what lawyers, diplomats, soldiers, and presidents haven’t yet been able to do.”

“The unfettered and timely exchange of ideas, information, and research findings is absolutely critical for the advancement of science,” commented ACS President-Elect E. Ann Nalley, a chemistry professor at Cameron University, Lawton, Okla. Nalley was one of a half-dozen speakers representing the organizing committee during the conference’s opening ceremony.

“Scientific results in Cairo, Egypt, could be the key to a puzzle stumping a chemist in Cambridge, England; Cape Town, South Africa; or Cairo, Ill.,” Nalley continued. “No matter where the classroom, students should have the opportunity to experience the world and wonders of chemistry and explore the opportunities that our science has to offer. Together we can catalyze the scientific interactions that are essential to the progress and welfare of all people no matter what language we speak or no matter what our ideologies are.”

Photo By Steve Ritter

Common Interest Hoffmann (seated right) engages scientists from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and Qatar in a discussion in Malta.

Malta 2 was organized and sponsored by ACS, the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the German Chemical Society, and the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and an anonymous foundation joined the organizers as major financial supporters. The sponsors covered the expense of travel, accommodations, and meals for the Middle Eastern attendees, a total cost of about $220,000.

The organizers invited 65 Middle Eastern scientists to the meeting, about double the number of attendees at Malta 1. The Middle Eastern participants hailed from Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Because of the current political situations in Iraq and Syria, delegates from those countries were unable to attend.

Many of the scientists who attended are heads of universities or scientific societies in their countries, and it’s anticipated that their participation could have an impact on national science policy or even the political outlook in their countries. Nalley took the opportunity to meet jointly with the chemical society leaders several times during the conference to discuss potential areas of collaboration and other ways ACS could lend support.

To draw scientists to the first Malta conference, Lerman asked six chemistry Nobel Laureates to be plenary speakers and help lead topical workshops. That plan worked so well that it was repeated for Malta 2.

The Nobel Laureates this year were Roald Hoffmann (U.S., 1981), Yuan T. Lee (Taiwan, 1986), Jean-Marie Lehn (France, 1987), Richard R. Ernst (Switzerland, 1991), F. Sherwood Rowland (U.S., 1995), and Aaron Ciechanover (Israel, 2004). Hoffmann, Lee, and Lehn had participated in Malta 1. Other plenary speakers this year were chemistry professor and noted author Peter W. Atkins of the University of Oxford; chemistry professor and nanotechnology specialist David N. Reinhoudt of the University of Twente, in the Netherlands; and chemistry professor and solar-cell expert Michael Grätzel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne.

The plenary lectures and workshops were coordinated around the key topics of environmental air and water quality, medicinal chemistry, nanotechnology, science education, and energy and solar cells. The workshops, led primarily by Western scientists, included research presentations on those themes by some of the Middle Eastern scientists and provided a forum to discuss challenges and future needs. A poster session held throughout the conference featured the research of nearly 40 of the Middle Eastern scientists.

Photo by Jeffrey Wade/Columbia College

Sisters In Science Lerman (center), an Israeli-born American, is flanked by scientists from Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

The objectives of the organizers included stressing the message that the chemical sciences are essential to address the pressing issues of the 21st century, noted Simon Campbell, president of RSC. He pointed out that the goals of the meeting in many ways mirror RSC’s motto: “For the sake of knowledge and for the benefit of mankind.”

The conference itself is only the first step, Campbell said. “What really matters is what we do when we get back home, because it’s essential that we translate our discussions and our ambitions into action.”

Achieving even modest success won’t be easy. For some countries in the Middle East, it’s difficult for scientists to meet or to have a free exchange of ideas across borders on a regular basis, noted IUPAC President Leiv K. Sydnes, a chemistry professor at the University of Bergen, in Norway. A nonpartisan umbrella organization, such as IUPAC or a coalition of scientific societies, can be successful at breaking down barriers and influencing productive interactions, Sydnes commented. “When scientists meet, the science becomes a vehicle to goodwill and cooperation across political borders that divide regions having a common, entangled future,” he said.

Sydnes noted that IUPAC is looking forward to having more countries from the Middle East join as members. Currently, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey are the only member countries from the region. But in part as a result of Malta 1, Jordan will join IUPAC, effective Jan. 1.

Jordan is uniquely situated in the Middle East. It has been called “the eye of a hurricane” because it’s centrally located and, as one of the more liberal countries in the region, it’s a place to which most Middle Easterners can travel with relative ease and security.

Sultan T. Abu-Orabi, a chemistry professor and president of Jordan’s Tafila Technical University, was one of the key scientists at the Malta conference. He also is president of the Jordanian Chemical Society and president of the Arab Union of Chemists. Abu-Orabi believes IUPAC membership will help Jordan and the entire region, because IUPAC can assist Jordanians in hosting regional conferences that can be attended by scientists from all countries, something that hasn’t been possible in the Middle East before.

He also provided an example of the type of potentially fruitful collaborative efforts that were generated behind the scenes in Malta. During the poster session, Abu-Orabi and chemistry professor Ahmed A. Ahmed of El-Minia University, in Egypt, struck up a conversation and discovered they had common research interests. They agreed to start a collaborative project once they returned home.

Abu-Orabi presented a poster in which he reviewed more than 15 years of research involving 1,3-cycloaddition reactions to synthesize pharmaceutically important heterocycles, such as triazoles. Ahmed presented a poster describing the study of three terpenoids with unique carbon skeletons that his group isolated from medicinal plants and structurally characterized. The two scientists discussed how Ahmed could send isolated natural products to Abu-Orabi’s lab, where the compounds’ biological activity could be evaluated.

Ahmed noted that he has collaborated with chemists in the U.S., Japan, and Europe in the past and that he and Abu-Orabi have known each other for some time. Neither had been in a position to potentially work together before now, however, and still wouldn’t be were it not for the Malta conference, he said.

Jordan is already home to one success story of scientific cooperation in the region: SESAME, the Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science & Applications in the Middle East (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2003, page 48). The facility, set to open in 2007, is the first synchrotron in the region and is being built at Al-Balqa’ Applied University by a consortium of nine countries under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization.

Research at SESAME will focus on environmental, biomedical, archaeological, and materials research, including the techniques of protein crystallography, photoelectron spectroscopy, and X-ray elemental analysis. The facility’s directors are encouraging collaborative projects among scientists from different countries.

One of the major outcomes of Malta 1 was an invitation extended by Lee for three students from Middle Eastern countries to spend a year in Taiwan training at Academia Sinica‘s superconducting synchrotron. Lee is the president of Academia Sinica, the leading academic institution in Taiwan.

He proposed establishing advanced training fellowships to cover the travel costs and living expenses of the students. SESAME’s scientific committee subsequently selected students from Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan to receive the fellowships, and they recently completed their year in Taiwan. At Malta 2, Lee announced plans to host three more students in the coming year.

“We have to learn to solve our problems together; to share new knowledge, new technological options, and the limited resources available; and to understand and respect different cultural heritages in order to establish a genuine ‘global village’ that promotes sustainable development for all of us,” Lee commented.

Another major outcome of Malta 1 was an offer by Hoffmann, a professor at Cornell University, to organize and lead a set of technical workshops designed to bring top undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and young faculty from Middle Eastern countries together for additional training. “We wanted to push the cooperative effort to another level, with a focus on young people,” he said.

At Malta 2, Hoffmann announced that a National Science Foundation grant of $134,000 has been provided to fund the workshops. He received the grant under NSF’s Discovery Corps program, which has the goal of exploring innovative ways for scientists to combine their research expertise with service to society. He has selected chemical bonding (the subject of his plenary lecture), bioinorganic chemistry, and nanochemistry as the first topics. Each intensive, weeklong workshop will include 10 to 12 Middle Eastern attendees and be conducted by leaders from the U.S. The grant covers the cost of the workshops, including travel and living expenses for the attendees.

Hoffmann will lead the chemical bonding workshop, which is scheduled for January in Egypt. California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Harry B. Gray will lead the bioinorganic workshop next spring, Hoffmann noted, while the leader for the nanochemistry workshop has yet to be decided. The latter workshops likely will be held in Qatar and Egypt.

One evening during the conference, the attendees were treated to a concert of Middle Eastern and classical music by a trio of Arab and Jewish Israeli musicians. The event was organized by chemist and musician Maria E. Michel-Beyerle, a professor at the Technical University of Munich, in Germany.


The concert was symbolic of the obstacles scientists in the Middle East must overcome to achieve success. Taiseer Elias, a leading figure in classical Arabic music, played the oud, a guitarlike stringed instrument; Menachem Wiesenberg, an acclaimed composer, played the piano; and Iris Jortner played the violoncello. The music was orchestrated to bring together the different sounds of three instruments that normally wouldn’t be heard together.

The success of Malta 2 was obvious two evenings later when Hoffmann gathered the attendees after dinner to listen to recorded Middle Eastern music over a sound system. After a little cajoling, he had nearly the entire conference–indifferent to age or nationality–enthusiastically dancing together. Before Malta 1 started, that type of interaction was thought to be impossible.

“There was a lot of tension surrounding the organization of the first meeting that didn’t exist this time,” observed chemistry professor Yitzhak Apeloig, president of Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. “For Malta 1, everything was organized in complete secrecy. There was great concern that there could be some kind of terrorist attack.”

In most cases, personal acquaintances with members of the organizing committee were required to bring the people together, he told C&EN. The umbrella of the six Nobel Prize winners also was absolutely essential. “We could not have had Malta 1 without their participation,” Apeloig said. “In fact, in some countries, people could not justify attending the Malta conference without that strong scientific presence.

“When the people arrived in Malta, the atmosphere was very, very thin,” he recalled. “There were a lot of suspicions from all sides, with very little contact among attendees in the beginning. The organizing committee members and the Nobel Laureates had to play a major role in starting to make connections and in establishing a dialogue, particularly between Israelis and Arabs.”

The atmosphere started to change after the second day, he added. “People started to be much more relaxed and started to talk to each other,” Apeloig said. “By the final evening of the conference, everyone was becoming friendly.”

At Malta 2, those initial cautious feelings were not in the air, he said. A core group of scientists was returning from Malta 1, and even as people arrived at the airport there were hugs and handshakes. “It was very friendly from the beginning,” he said.

Apeloig pointed out that the tensions weren’t just between Arabs and Israelis, but also among attendees from the various Arab countries. “From the outside, everything in the Middle East always looks homogeneous,” he noted. “But it’s not. There are many tensions in the Arab world as well.”

One of the unsuccessful initiatives from Malta 1 was an offer by Apeloig to provide graduate fellowships for students from Arab countries to attend Technion. He knew that there would be political barriers making such a proposition difficult, and so far no one has accepted or even contacted him about his offer. The major problem, even for students in Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, is the pressure the students feel in their own community not to go, he said. The same problem exists for faculty members. Most Israelis also would be anxious to travel to an Arab country, he noted, not because there is a problem within their own community, but because of concern for their personal safety.

Even within Israel there is diversity. Arabs make up about 20% of the population, and within the Arab community there are various groups of Christians, Druze, and Bedouins, Apeloig explained. Unfortunately, too few Arabs are involved in science in Israel, he said. But he believes they can play a major role in the future.

Awad Abu-Freih, a former graduate student in Apeloig’s organosilicon group at Technion, was the first Israeli Arab Bedouin to get a Ph.D. degree in science. At Malta 2, Abu-Freih recounted for C&EN the struggle he had faced to successfully complete his education and start his career, which included work at a university and in industry.

He is now a professor at Sapir Academic College, in Hof Ashkelon, and is dedicating himself to helping Arab high school students prepare to go to college, including learning Hebrew and English. “We don’t need to solve all of the problems,” Abu-Freih said. “But we need to start moving in that direction.”

One successful outcome on the education front from Malta 1 was an agreement signed in early 2004 for Palestinians to study for graduate degrees at Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. The first beneficiary of the program, a woman from Al-Quds University, East Jerusalem, West Bank, has now begun studies at Weizmann.

“I think the atmosphere now is such that all the participants feel strongly that they want to move ahead with collaborations,” Apeloig continued. “There are better chances that something realistic will come out of Malta 2.” For good measure, he reiterated his offer of graduate fellowships for Arab students to attend Technion. “Maybe now, this will be possible,” he said hopefully.

For the Iranian scientists, the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979 was in some regards positive for science. Before the revolution, there were few graduate science programs in Iran; a master’s degree was generally all that was offered. Many top scientists who had been educated in the U.S. and Europe fled the country, but doctoral programs to replenish universities started in the mid-1980s.

The Iranian scientists at the Malta meeting commented that they are willing and able to forge greater ties with scientists from other countries. They have the same concerns as scientists everywhere about finding jobs, publishing their research, and gaining tenure, all while balancing their professional and family responsibilities. Like other Middle Eastern scientists, they are frustrated by the politics, including U.S. economic sanctions, but they carry on and consider themselves members of the global academic community.

“We have struggled, but we have established a good university system,” noted Habib Firouzabadi, an organic chemistry professor at Shiraz University and president of the Iranian Chemical Society. Many of the first Iran-educated Ph.D. students are now full professors at universities in Iran, he noted. “This has been an important development for Iran,” he added. “We have progressed a lot.”

One interesting statistic from Iran is that 64% of undergraduate students are women. This has been attributed to the country’s culture, where men have familial obligations and presumably don’t have as much time to study as women. But at the graduate level, the percentage of women is much smaller, around 30%.

One of Iran’s rising women stars is materials scientist Azam Iraji zad, an associate professor of physics and head of the recently formed Institute for Nanoscience & Nanotechnology at Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran. In Malta, she presented two posters on her group’s work.

One presentation described preparation of porous silicon wafers impregnated with palladium by an electroless-plating process. Variation of the electrical resistance of the material in the presence of dilute hydrogen is strongly dependent on the configuration of palladium on the silicon surface, which her group has observed by electron microscopy. The palladium-laden silicon has potential application as a room-temperature hydrogen gas sensor, Iraji zad noted.

Her group is using similar materials to develop inexpensive natural gas sensors. These sensors are expected to be widely used in Iran, where natural gas is the primary cooking and heating fuel, she said.

Malta is a “great place for the exchange of scientific ideas,” Firouzabadi said. The Iranian chemists are eager to start collaborating and making progress internationally, rather than “remaining trapped in our part of the world,” he added.

One effort to reach out was the start-up of the Journal of the Iranian Chemical Society in September 2004. This international journal is published quarterly and boasts two Nobel Laureates on its editorial board: Lehn and Ahmed H. Zewail of California Institute of Technology. Firouzabadi encouraged scientists at Malta to send their papers to the journal, and a number of them, such as researchers from Gaza, already have.

“In the Middle East, things go much more slowly compared to the U.S.,” he observed. “It takes time to convince people that something should be done. Once you agree, then suddenly something may happen and put a stop to it. Then you have to start again.”

A popular workshop at the conference was one on air and water quality. It was led by Charles E. Kolb Jr., president and CEO of Aerodyne Research, Billerica, Mass., and Thomas G. Spiro, a chemistry professor at Princeton University. The workshop was coordinated with Lee’s plenary lecture on energy and the environment and Rowland’s plenary lecture in which he focused on newer data on ozone depletion, smog, and global warming.

The workshop was born out of discussions at Malta 1, where scientists reported widespread air and water quality problems and shrinking water availability in the Middle East. They recognized that the problems are exacerbated by pollutants that cross national borders, Kolb noted. The scientists agreed that a collaborative response to obtain reliable data was needed to move forward. Without the data, their countries’ policymakers wouldn’t focus on environmental issues and the public wouldn’t be informed on the issue, they said.

At Malta 2, Yousef Abu-Mayla of Al-Azhar University in Gaza (Palestinian Authority) addressed water quality and supply in Gaza, while Miriam Waldman, an environmental consultant and retired Israeli Ministry of Science official, talked about the situation in Israel. The key issues that impact groundwater aquifers in the region are seawater intrusion, contamination from agricultural runoff, natural salinity, and wastewater treatment, they reported.

On the basis of several benchmark measurements, such as chloride and nitrate concentrations, the quality of water in Gaza is unacceptable for human consumption under World Health Organization recommendations, Abu-Mayla pointed out. Waldman noted that water use is rising and available resources are becoming depleted and increasingly polluted. She said future plans will need to include upgrading deteriorated systems, utilizing brackish water and seawater, reuse of wastewater, and public outreach on water conservation measures. Already at least one project, a joint Israeli-Palestinian water-purification study, has been funded on the basis of efforts stemming from the first Malta conference.

With regard to air quality, Najat Saliba of American University of Beirut, in Lebanon, and Yinon Rudich of Weizmann Institute of Science discussed gaseous and particulate air pollution measurements in Beirut and the transport of air pollutants across national borders.

Saliba noted that few atmospheric pollution data sets on ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter are available for the Eastern Mediterranean. In general, the countries there are constrained by lack of standards, rules, and regulations on air pollutants, she noted.

For Rudich, a key concern is long-range transport of pollution from Central and Eastern Europe or from Africa, depending on prevailing winds. For example, data presented in Malta showed that significant particulate matter, lead, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons drift northeast from Egypt and across Gaza, Israel, and on into Jordan.

By the conclusion of Malta 2, the environmental scientists decided to establish a forum to promote further research without worrying about potential government intervention. As Samira I. Islam of King Abdulaziz University, in Saudi Arabia, commented: “We need something touchable that can be put into practice. If we don’t get started in the right direction, we can lose years of valuable time.”

Taisir Subhi Yamin of Arabian Gulf University, in Bahrain, volunteered to direct the forum. He will oversee creation of a website, databases, and other services to aid the forum’s participants via the Internet. The initial action items to be accomplished in the next year include collecting relevant Middle Eastern air and water quality publications and data sets to share; identifying regional experts, particularly younger scientists, and soliciting their participation; and defining goals and agendas for the air and water working groups, including preparing collaborative funding proposals for environmental monitoring and research and setting up future meetings.

By establishing the forum, the Malta conference “may have catalyzed regional collaboration on environmental issues,” Kolb said.

On Nov. 9, the final evening of the conference, as the attendees were enjoying a gala banquet at a Maltese palace, word came that a deadly bomb attack had occurred in Amman, Jordan. It was a reminder to the conferees that, despite their week of fruitful work in Malta, they would soon return home and, amid the daily threat of violence, continue their scientific endeavors.

The bombing didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for moving forward with collaborative efforts, however. In fact, the attendees have demanded a Malta 3 conference, and the Middle Eastern national scientific societies have indicated that they are prepared to take an active role in organizing it. The goal is to eventually make the Malta conferences self-sustaining without the need for third-party involvement.

“There’s no doubt the Malta conferences have moved forward and are successful beyond anyone’s expectations,” Lerman said. “It’s unbelievable how much everyone wants to be part of what we are doing. It’s just amazing. The point is that all of us need to continue the effort to use science as our common language–as our common interest–to reach stability in the Middle East.”

Chemical & Engineering News

ISSN 0009-2347

Copyright © 2006 American Chemical Society
Source: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/83/8351sci2.html
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