Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Science and the Middle East

I was under the impression that the science community was supposed to act as unbiased, objective observers. You know, just focus on our nerdy little projects and refrain from injecting politics into our research. Unfortunately, some scientists feel the need to mix politics and science when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last year a group of scientists from Europe (mostly the UK) organized a boycott of Israeli researchers. One of them was Richard Dawkins, a famous evolutionary biology (and one of my least favorite people). Here's the letter they published in the Guardian. They also tried to persuade the E.U. to boycott Israel, but luckily the E.U., in the interest of invested money of course, declined to participate.

Nature magazine, published in the UK, was a primary battleground in the debate. Here's a link to the web focus page that lists all the numerous letters and articles on this subject. In the October 2 2003 edition of the magazine, the cover (seen below) featured the Israeli wall.

Hmmm... based on this cover, what side do you think Nature is on? I thought this cover was completely inappropriate because typically the cover of a science journal is reserved for the hottest research of that issue i.e. something scientific, NOT political. But in reading Nature's commentary on science policy, I've noticed a decidedly left-leaning and sometimes anti-U.S. tone in their commentary.

However, in that October 2 2003 issue, the article about the challenges facing Palestinian and Israeli scientists was surprisingly even-handed. Here's an excerpt:

Many Palestinian researchers reject the idea of boycotting Israeli science. "It's counter-productive," says Abdeen. Even among Palestinians who support the idea of an economic boycott on Israel, there is unease about the idea of extending protests into the scientific arena. In towns such as Nablus and Hebron, however, some researchers support the actions of those foreign academics who have refused to work with Israeli scientists. Despite his own willingness to work with Israelis if the collaboration strengthens Palestinian science, Khatib is among their number. "Pressure must be exerted on Israel," he says. "I support the boycott because it can enhance movements in this direction."

Such comments are distressing to Israeli academics, especially those involved in collaborations with Palestinians. There is a saying in Israel that reflects the country's love of debate: "put two Israelis in a room, and you'll get three opinions". But this definitely does not apply to discussions about the call for a scientific boycott. "You're not going to get three opinions on that," says Jonathan Gressel, a plant biologist at the Weizmann institute. "I don't think it ever helps to keep scientists out of science for political reasons." His colleague Geiger agrees: "This breaks with one of the most cherished and important features of science: that it is international and non-political (emphasis added)."

Science magazine, published in the U.S., had a more low key approach. No covers. No barrage of letters. They printed two small articles, both on efforts of Israeli and Palestinians to collaborate despite the political conflict.
ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN RESEARCH: As Mideast Peace Process Lags, Science Endures
ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN COOPERATION: Building Bridges in a Battle-Scarred Land

Now, I'm not saying that scientists shouldn't be involved in politics and state their opinions openly. I've got strong opinions myself that regularly conflict with those of my coworkers. However, these political views should be set aside when you do science and interact with scientists from other countries. To me, what Dawkins and his buddies have done is nothing less than bigotry. It smacks of the same sort of anti-semitism that infected German science during the rise of the Nazis. Also, I think boycotts do more harm than good. Look what happened in Iraq. Saddam lived like a sultan, while his people starved and non-military research ceased.

Anyway, incidents like the science boycott are what happens when smarty-pants experts in one little area, e.g. evolutionary biology, think that they are also experts in everything else, including foreign policy. Dawkins et al. should try to look at both sides of the story, write their whiney little letters to al-Guardian (not Nature), and get back to work!!!!

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