Friday, November 28, 2003

Drawing a nano-sized line in the sand

Whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program just before the U.S. invasion will be debated for decades to come, but there is one indisputable fact that should be dealt with in the short term: Iraq's science community is now one of the country's richest untapped natural resources.

Iraq is not the only nation to find itself with so much brain power and so little in the way of infrastructure, funding and sense of national direction. Contained within the independent nations of the former Soviet bloc, including Russia itself, are underfunded scientists and institutions looking for a way to apply their knowledge. Without a plan to tap into this resource, there's a danger that Iraqi scientists could make themselves available to the highest bidder, as did some of their counterparts in Russia who sold nuclear secrets to Iran.

That's why the Royal Society in London should be commended for helping to found the Iraqi Academy of Science to keep the best and brightest working to rebuild their country's technological base. According to this report from the Royal Society, Iraqi scientist Hussain Al-Shahristani said:

    The Iraqi Academy of Science will be an autonomous, self-governing organisation of distinguished scientists dedicated to employing their talents for the advancement of science in Iraq. The Academy will also revive Iraqi talents for the good of humanity after decades of abuse of Iraqi scientists under Saddam Hussein's regime.

There appears to be a Middle Eastern scientific renaissance occurring, despite the tremendous amount of resources wasted during decades of plotting ways to annihilate the infidel next door. Science Watch reports that Middle Eastern nations, especially Iraq's former nemesis Iran, have increased their "presence in world science." Just think what could be accomplished if a "peace dividend" were to ever fall into the laps of the Arab and Persian scientific worlds. Remember, it was they who kept enlightened thought alive while the Europeans wasted a millennia or two slaughtering one another and actively discouraging scientific progress.

Not included in the Science Watch statistics, though, is Israel, whose science output is so large that it would preclude any meaningful comparison with its neighbors.

Small Times' Israel correspondent has a report on the state's nanotech program, and particularly former Prime Minister Shimon Peres' newfound sense of mission that ties nanotech to enhancement of water resources and, yes, even peace. I'll have more to say on how nanotech is all wet (in a good way) in dry areas, but for now here's some more background on nanotech in water desalination, here's more on Israel's technological rebound and here's some info on Israeli and French (yes, you read that correctly: French) cooperation in bio- and nanotechnology. See what can happen when nations put politics aside and share their knowledge? Somebody should tell that to Professor Mona Baker of the University of Manchester, whose blackballing of Israeli scientists reminds us of how even from great minds there can emerge the worst small-mindedness.

I can tell from my Web stats that I do have some readers in Iran, which has nanotechnological goals of its own. To them, I'd like to extend an invitation to contact me and see how we can get a battle plan together for an all-out war on inequitable distribution of resources such as fresh water and arable land, brandishing nanotech-enhanced weapons. Having spent much of my journalism career writing about the Mideast conflict, I'm certainly not blundering into this subject under the influence of any kind of naive daydream that historical, cultural, religious and political barriers will simply melt into the desert. But it couldn't hurt to set up a tent.


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