US plans for science outreach to Muslim world

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White House to send scientists as envoys.

The administration of US President Barack Obama is ramping up plans to develop scientific and technological partnerships with Muslim-majority countries.

The move follows a June speech by Obama at Cairo University in Egypt, when he promised to appoint regional science envoys, launch a fund to support technological development and open centres of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia. So far, the science-envoy plan is closest to getting off the ground, say White House officials, who see it as part of a broader drive to improve relations with the Islamic world.

“This is a key part of the partnerships with Muslim-majority communities. ”

"Polling consistently shows that science and technology is an area where the United States is widely respected for its leadership," says a top administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is a key part of the comprehensive partnerships we are pursuing with Muslim-majority communities." The effort is being led by the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The White House plans for leading US scientists to visit a Muslim-majority region for several weeks, to canvass local researchers, community leaders and others for ideas that would shape scientific initiatives.

Various US embassies have already identified themes of interest, officials say. Lebanon, for instance, has expressed an interest in technology development focused on the environment, and Bangladesh wants to initiate mentoring programmes for young scientific professionals. The first science envoy is expected to be announced "shortly", according to the administration official.

"They [the administration] clearly have the door open for ideas, and we have ideas," says John Boright, director of international affairs at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC, an independent advisory group.

Boright was part of a delegation that visited Syria this spring to discuss science and technology exchanges. Syrian researchers told it that their greatest need was for more training for nurses and medical technicians. Setting up a training centre along those lines might be "low-hanging fruit" for the White House to pluck off, Boright says.

In the longer term, the White House will need to work within or around science initiatives that are already underway, such as the Masdar eco-city in the United Arab Emirates and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, due to open next month in Saudi Arabia.

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Witze, A. US plans for science outreach to Muslim world. Nature 460, 1067 (2009) doi:10.1038/4601067a

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