Could science be the bridgehead for peaceful collaboration in the Middle East where all else has failed?
That’s the question preoccupying many at the World Conference of Science being held in Israel where 15 Nobel Laureates are holding a week of lectures and panel discussions for 400 high school and university students from 70 countries.
If anyone expected the Nobel Laureates to steer clear of the political questions occupying the region, they were mistaken. After all, the likes of Sir Harold Kroto, the 1996 Nobel Prize winner for chemistry, teamed up with 12 other Nobel Laureates in 2003 to denounce the Iraq war in an open letter published in The Times.
Speaking at the WCSi conference yesterday, Algerian-born physicist and Nobel Laureate Claude Cohen-Tannoudji said that when it came to scientific collaboration, Israeli and Arab scientists were working together and enjoyed fruitful collaboration and mutual respect.
“In all these meetings they become friends, so its interesting that we can’t establish peace in this country.”
Even the politicians were talking up the potential of science to bring people together to tackle common issues.
A new reality?
Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry and the country’s former ambassador to the United Nations told the conference:
“There’s something new happening in the Middle East. There’s something horrible happening, that’s ISIS, that’s Iran. But something else is happening. Nations that were adversaries are looking at each other in different ways, are drawing together. I don’t know what the rate of that breakthrough will be and I’m not sure how it will come about. But I can tell you this, Israelis today, with scientific backgrounds are making contributions in Arabic states who are our neighbours.
“And just perhaps because we have these mutual concerns, that come out of the imperial ambitions of Iran, that come out of the horrible behaviour of radical jihadists in our neighbourhood, if we can draw together because of this mutual threat, and build up scientific cooperation, we might be able to build a new reality in the future.
“And therefore science is not just another element in national security to help us more efficiently defend ourselves. Science in my judgement will emerge as a key component in building peace and a change in the Middle East.”
Later, the 92 year-old former Prime Minister of Israel addressed delegates in a philosophical and I daresay regretful speech, telling the young scientists gathered never to look backwards to the mistakes of the past and that “armies can’t defeat science.”
But science has long been used as a tool of diplomacy. The first president of Israel Chaim Weizman was a biochemist who came up with a way of producing acetone through bacterial fermentation. Acetone was used to develop cordite explosive propellants and the method was credit will accelerating the allied war effort after the method was shared with the British.
Weizman’s efforts on the scientific front are widely considered to have led to the Balfour Declaration, which helped pave the way for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine with British support.
At the time, Weizman said:
“I trust and feel sure in my heart that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life. […] I speak of both science for its own sake and science as a means to an end.”
But many decades later we have intractable geopolitical problems in the region and social, environmental and technological issues that are common to all Middle Eastern countries. Could, for instance, sharing technology and science to produce cleaner energy, ensure healthier populations or improving crop yields in dry areas, bring about the sort of breakthrough the Middle East so badly needs?
I don’t know – behind the rhetoric, what effort is going on to use science to bridge the gap? I’ll be asking that question throughout the week and will report back on what I find out.
Peter Griffin attended the World Science Conference as a guest of the Government of Israel.