Iraqi science faces lonely road to recovery

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Posted by Sadie from D006067.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Thursday, May 29, 2003 at 8:40PM :

In Reply to: Recovering from cultural devastation posted by Sadie from D006067.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Thursday, May 29, 2003 at 8:38PM :

Nature 423, 468 (29 May, 2003)

Iraqi science faces lonely road to recovery


Iraq's beleaguered universities took their first tentative steps towards revival last week by electing interim leaders. But so far the institutions have received precious few offers of outside help in repairing the destruction they suffered at the hands of looters.

Rebuilding Iraq's science, technology and academic base, already weakened by years of economic sanctions, will be a huge task. Looters ransacked and burned parts of Baghdad and Basra universities, stripping them of everything from computers and pipettes to chairs and doors. Similar events occurred at other Baghdad institutions, including Iraq's National Library, which housed more than 500,000 books, and the Al-Awqaf library, home to some 6,000 Islamic manuscripts.

With sanctions against Iraq now lifted, and oil revenue available to pay for reconstruction, these institutions could, in theory, be rebuilt. But officials such as Sami al-Mudhaffar, the biochemist elected last week as acting president of Baghdad University, do not seem to have received any substantial offer of help.

An official at the US Department of Defense's Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which is overseeing the rebuilding of much of Iraq's infrastructure, says that the office's educational focus will be on "primary and secondary schools, rather than universities". The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last week pledged to help to rebuild Iraq's cultural and educational institutions, but made no specific mention of science. And officials at the European Commission gave no details of any plan to help Iraq's scientific bodies.

Smaller bodies are currently focusing on assessing the extent of the damage before deciding what action to take. The Blue Shield, a counterpart of the Red Cross that aims to protect libraries, archives and cultural heritage in times of war and natural disaster, is posting information on damage on its website.

And Henry Wright, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is due to return this week from a fact-finding mission in Iraq for the US National Academy of Sciences. "We are trying to figure out what we can do to help rebuild their universities and scientific communities," says Bruce Alberts, the academy's president.

If reconstruction funds are channelled towards universities, other groups will be able to provide outside support. The Health InterNetwork, a joint venture between the United Nations and publishers that is aimed at making electronic medical journals available to scientists in developing nations for free or at reduced prices, is discussing the rapid inclusion of Iraq in the scheme.

The US National Science Foundation operates an established scheme for funding research in the Middle East. Osman Shinaishin, the programme's manager, says that he began to receive proposals from US researchers for scientific and engineering projects with Iraqi scientists even before the war ended. "If a proposal reaches me it will go through a technical-merit assessment, and will then be funded as long as travel is safe," Shinaishin says.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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