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Nature 423, 903 (26 June 2003)
EDITORIAL: Building bridges
Science and technology agreements between the European Union and Arab countries are a small, but welcome step.
The European Union's (EU's) freshly signed science and technology coooperation agreements with Morocco and Tunisia — soon to be followed by another one with Egypt (see page 906) — are to be welcomed on several grounds.
Research in the Arab world is in a bad way, and the agreements send a hopeful message to those who want to turn the situation around and use science and technology to improve society and spur economic growth (see Nature 416, 120–122; 2002). Also, with immigration from North Africa a hot political subject in Europe, the EU is acting in its own interests if it helps economies in the region to prosper in peace.
In Morocco, researchers are already involved in some 200 EU projects. Most of these are in areas close to the nation's pressing needs, such as management of water resources, transport and agriculture. The EU hopes now to encourage more of the same, by helping researchers to identify potential partners in Europe, and to work through the European Commission's legendary paperwork.
Another potential benefit of the agreements is that they can only assist in building political dialogue in the Middle East. Joint, practical projects, such as developing methods for the treatment of waste water from the olive-oil industry, can surely improve relations in the region, as can purely scientific ones, such as SESAME, the synchrotron being built in Jordan. In the words of Said Assaf, a scientist from Ramallah in Palestine who is involved in SESAME: "This project is a bridge to peace though science. As Arabs, we realize that acquiring technology is very important for the advancement of our people."
Indeed, science is one of the few areas where constructive dialogue can be maintained between peoples in conflict. The EU–Arab agreements follow on from a renewal of Israel's participation in the EU's sixth Framework research programme earlier this month, and Philippe Busquin, the European research commissioner, hopes these "will pave the way to enhanced dialogue between Arabs and Israelis".
Such dialogue will take time. Israel shares some problems — such as desertification — with its Arab neighbours, but in its research capacity is closer to Switzerland or Sweden than to Egypt or Jordan. And as long as Palestinian scientists work in the shadow of an occupying army, scientific collaboration will remain more of a cherished ideal than a reality.
© 2003 Nature Publishing Group
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