Rebuilding Iraqi Science

In recent weeks, President Bush has talked about the reconstruction of Iraq, now that a new government is in place. How does science fit in with those efforts? Beriwan M. Khailany, deputy minister in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Baghdad Elizabeth C. Stone, professor in the Department of Anthropology, State University of New York

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IRA FLATOW, host:

The pictures coming out of Iraq, playing out on our T.V. sets and web pages, show a government struggling to rebuild itself as others try to tear it down. The reality, that reality, is mirrored in efforts to try and rebuild the scientific infrastructure of the country, whose laboratories and universities were stripped of equipment by looters.

Each day, it's a struggle for those scientists, who often face bullets before Bunsen burners, and they have become targets of assassins and kidnappers. So what does the future hold for Iraqi science?

Iraq's Deputy Minister for Science is here to talk about efforts to boost science and technology, and to restore the country's higher education system. For example, the free exchange of ideas, is key to doing science. We're going to talk about the new Iraqi virtual science library, which makes thousands of scientific journals available, free of charge, to scientists over there.

FLATOW: And there's another Iraqi program that has plans, if the funding comes through, to train Iraqi scientist in archeology. Of course, a fitting discipline for a country called the Cradle of Civilization.

FLATOW: So we are going to talk with the Archeologist leading that program, as well as documenting what the war has done to valuable archeological artifacts and excavation sights. And if you'd like to talk about rebuilding science in Iraq, give us a call, our number is 1--800--989--8255, 1--800--989--TALK.

FLATOW: I'll introduce my guest right now. Beriwan Khailany is the Deputy Minister in the ministry of higher education, and scientific research in Baghdad. She joins us today by phone from Arlington, Virginia. Welcome to the program Dr. Beriwan.

Dr. BERIWAN KHAILANY (Deputy Minister of Higher Education): Hi, thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Elizabeth Stone is a Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. She joins us today by phone from Oxford, England. Good evening, welcome back to the program Dr. Stone.

Dr. ELIZABETH STONE (Professor of Anthropology, Stony Brook University): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you - Dr. Beriwan, can you describe for us what effect war has had on scientific efforts, and institutions in Iraq?

Ms. KHAILANY: A good question. Okay, before starting answering your question, I would like to mention a few thing - if you certainly know the situation of my country. It was suffering before April 2003, and of course the challenges, faced over the last three years. Going through three wars on 13 years of sanctions left it's impact on the characteristics of the Iraqi society, of course, on Iraqi educational institutions.

So that's why we believe that the reconstruction of the educational institutions will enhance in rebuilding our civil society, and of course defeating the terrorism. Our educational institutions in the capacity of 22 universities, and three technical foundations, suffer from deterioration of the infrastructures.

Which, was badly affected by the looting on the destruction post to the 2003. Which are yet to receive its share of aid, and reconstruction, due to the security situation. Despite all that, we are working very hard to maintain our new trends of higher education. What we are - what's our new trend is, having reliability on foreign development in science and technology.

And of course train strong eagerness to follow the Internet development.

FLATOW: It seems that one of the biggest challenges your facing now, and I mentioned that at the beginning - and I read articles from Science Magazine, other people who've been there - is the security issue, that scientist and professors literally have targets on their back, for kidnapping, and murder.

Ms. KHAILANY: This is really big issue. We are worried quite a lot about it. And, government back home is planning to help us out in keeping - to put in our professors, and of course doctors as well, physicians, in a better position in secure areas. Or perhaps finding a solution for keeping those people from being targeted all the time.

The ones that are targeted those guys, I mean professors and doctors. The ones who are against our new belief, of being free country, believing in human rights, and democracy. So, the ones that who don't want these three issues to be implemented in Iraq, they are behind our professors. If you make higher education or education, deteriorated, it effects on the whole society.

This is the main issue.

FLATOW: Is there a danger that some of your bright scientist may be just leaving the country?

Dr. KHAILANY: Well lots of them are leaving. So we are suffering from brain drain right now. It's only because of the security situation, and our professors being targeted all the time.

FLATOW: Yes.

Dr. KHAILANY: It's a very big worry. It's our main issue to find a solution for it.

FLATOW: Yes. I can imagine it is - I don't want to get into the next question, because we're going to have to take a break. And, I want to give everybody, both you, and Dr. Stone a time to give me full answers. So I'm going to - let's take our break now. Will go to a break, will come back and talk lots more with Beriwan Khailany and Elizabeth Stone, about science in Iraq. Where does it sit now. What's the state of it? How difficult will it be?

We've heard about the security issues, of scientist being targeted and just wanting to leave the country. We'll talk about how to keep them there, and how to make science work in Iraq. So stay with us, will be right back after this short break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the state of science in Iraq with my guest, Dr. Beriwan Khailany, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Baghdad Iraq.

FLATOW: Dr. Beriwan could you pronounce your name for me I want to make sure I get it right.

Dr. KHAILANY: It's Beriwan Khailany.

FLATOW: Khailany? Okay.

Dr. KHAILANY: Yes.

FLATOW: Thank you. Elizabeth Stone, professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook New York. Our number 1--800--989--8255. Dr. Stone you've involved in a program to rebuild higher education in Iraq, are you and your U.S. colleagues struggling with these same security concerns?

Dr. STONE: You know actually the security concerns really weren't as much of a problem. The problem for us was that we got a U.S. aid grant. One of - a very small amount of money that was actually given to higher education, back in 2003. Well it was supposed to be a three-year project. But, fairly early on they just decided well this wasn't very important so they cut it back to one year.

And the problem is you can get a certain amount of equipment of books, and things like that into Iraq. We were able to do that without too much trouble. What we really needed to do, was to do more training programs. Because you can't expect anybody, let alone people living in kind of nightmare that Iraq has become, to really kind of catch up, for what was really 15 years of neglect.

Really the whole embargo period, without some help. And what had planned, was a series of long term - longer term training programs, that you know - we've been able to do bits and pieces, by trying to get other kind of grants from other institutions. But, the money simply wasn't there, which got pulled out in for what we were trying to do.

FLATOW: We're spending a $100 billion a year, in the region. And how much money do you need?

Dr. STONE: Well, I mean yes, the particular program that we had, U.S. aid assigned I think $20 million and divided it between five universities. And our project was divided between archeology - I only got about $1.2 million - and environmental health - it got more of it during the first year.

Yes, it doesn't really take that much. I mean since then I've been able to write about six grant proposals, and gotten about $350,000 which has meant that I could do a training program (unintelligible) for four people last semester and things.

But, you know, you don't really need that much within that larger context. Higher education I think is incredibly important. After all, it's a place where young people hide out during periods of low employment in order to get their skills up. And that's surely better than having them throwing bombs.

FLATOW: Dr. Khailany, would you comment on that? Is there enough money going?

Dr. KHAILANY: Actually, I'm very much aware of this program with the U.S. IDs. And - the whole money it was about $20 million, that $20 million went to five universities, American universities, joining with our universities. I'm aware of a (unintelligible) work, they were working with five or four universities.

University of Babil was part it, and specifically, archeology, archeology department. But you know the thing is, they went through few training courses, and workshops, and then the money or not. We need a lot more money to finish our projects that we had started with the U.S. Ids(ph). This is the main issue. Most of the work that we've done, started with 2003, most of them are halfway through, that we haven't finished.

FLATOW: And then the money was cut?

Dr. KHAILANY: Run out, yes. But one thing is that money went for many universities and each university got $4--5 million to be spent on five or six universities in a row in Iraq. You know we have 23 universities right now. Then we have 18 universities. So all that money was going either spending here and there, training courses, workshops, traveling around. Not having courses workshops in Iran because of security situation traveling to Beirut, perhaps into Jordan and those areas.

So actually if I want to talk about archeology, I was expecting a lot more to be done on our archeological department in Babil University. It is - I did a lot more…

FLATOW: Yes I mean it is you know…

Dr. STONE: Let me just let me say something about that. I was - had every intention of including Babil University, Catacea University and Abeil University. Some of the universities that were just beginning archeology programs when we got started. When we got started we began by working with Baghdad and Mosul which were the two universities with a long term program.

Then these other universities began to get started. Part of our plans for the second year, was in fact to expand in that direction. We did have some people from Catacea at our - at the training program we had in Jordan. And we also invited someone, actually from Babil University to go to an Islamic archeology conference. In Istanbul, but I think for some reason he didn't show up. And I don't know quite what happened with that.

FLATOW: Archeology would seem, for that region, to be a high priority.

Dr. KHAILANY: Yes, it's very important and - we need to give more attention to this subject. And now U.S. IDs don't have enough money for higher education this year. They haven't allocated some money for those project that we already started, or perhaps for new projects to start with the U.S. IDs. We look for some funds for next years.

FLATOW: Well, you were promised…

Dr. STONE: And then again, one of the things that we've been told is that just lost interest in higher education. And, you know it was very frustrating.

FLATOW: Sounds very American.

Dr. STONE: Yes, I mean - but it was very frustrating, because compared to other types of aid programs, I would argue that the higher education programs managed to find ways around the security problem. That kind of blew up in our faces almost immediately. You know we had training programs that were supposed in Iraq, we moved them to Jordan. My understanding is every one, all five of the universities met all of their goals, that they had for that first year of funding.

And did more than that, in spite of the security problems, which isn't the case of any other - you know anybody else is getting aid, so it is always going to cost so much more now to do things.

FLATOW: Tell us about I want to get to the virtual library in a little bit. But I want - while we're talking about archeology, what is the state of all those archeological sites that are there. That have been there since Saddam Hussein and in the war. And in the state of those - the looting that took place in the antiquities museums. What's happened there now?

Dr. STONE: Well I think the archeological sites are in a pretty bad way. I'm not sure that the looting is going with the intensity that it did just after the war. But, we have a project right now using high resolution imagery, which were doing kind of together with the Department of Antiquities to try get a survey of what sites have been looted, where they are, what the situation is.

And then the numbers are really pretty frightening. I mean you could go over a large number of the sites, and well over a third of them have - were talking about 1500 - 2000 sites that we can look at. Well over a third of them have been looted, and the further you go towards the kind of Samarian heartland, the more looting you see. So it's not distributed evenly.

And especially the big Samarian sites, most of them have just been completely destroyed. I mean the surface just looks like mountains of the moon. And in some cases, you even have situations where the looters are not just doing that, but they are tunneling down and getting - going into very early levels. And, so destructing things even more. So the sites are really in a bad shape, and the Department of Antiquities has a fairly small kind of police unit. What were hoping is to be able to give them some at least spatial information so that they can, they can kind of decide where to put the 1,200 men in this very large country where they can be best - most effective. But - and there are also some kind of political problems that are going on. One of the people, and I don't want to identify him any further, who - a member of the Department of Antiquities has been very active in trying to prevent looting, he's actually been in jail for the last three months, even though all the charges are being dropped. The political situation is such that the money that comes in from looting winds up kind of dominating the local area. And therefore it's kind of impossible for the Department of Antiquities to get him back out again even though he's completely innocent.

FLATOW: Hmm. When we last spoke over three years ago, you were just beginning to get a handle on how the war had affected the looting of the museum there. Have you got any better handle on the museum collections, what has happened to them?

Dr. KHAILANY: I think we have a better, I think we have a general understanding, and the museum probably lost about 10 to 15,000 objects.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. KHAILANY: You know, a certain amount of stuff has come back. One of the problems is that the, um, and there are a couple different groups who went in there. There was the mob and then there were some professionals. And stuff that the professionals took, they went off and took a large number of - over 5,000 (unintelligible) and small objects. We're really lucky, they had the keys, and they lost them in the dark. If they'd had them, they would've been able to open up cabinets and taken the world's best Islamic coin collection as well as a bunch of other stuff, and they didn't do that.

But the mob especially went in through the area that's known as the old store rooms and smashed an enormous amount of stuff and nobody's really been able to do an inventory of that, because the museum is not in a very good location. I think last week there was talk about a bunch of people being kind of shot up at a bus station that was within 100 meters of the museum. And today there's talk about fighting in Hitha(ph) Street, which is right behind the museum.

So in a lot a cases, for security reasons, you know, what the museum is doing is simply really walling off any part of the museum that has collections in it from anywhere from outside in order to try to protect them, their collection, should, you know, the worst happened, especially when there are curfews, because that means that none of the staff can be there and the guards can't be there.

FLATOW: So has any of the stuff showed up on the black market that was looted?

Dr. KHAILANY: Umm…

FLATOW: Is it coming back that way or being bought up or…?

Dr. KHAILANY: I think there are some - (noise) - there are a certain number of pieces that were bought by the Italians in Baghdad and returned. And some of those do have Iraq museum numbers on them.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Dr. KHAILANY: Mostly one of the extraordinary things about what's going on with Iraq, is because there are - is actually fairly good international law for a change against trafficking in Iraqi antiquities, it's not showing up in the art markets. So somebody's storing. Somewhere there are warehouses that must be groaning at the seams full of Iraqi material, because we're probably talking about, with the sites, more Iraqi dirt having been moved recently than had ever been moved before.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. KHAILANY: I mean archeological dirt. So we're talking about huge amounts of stuff, and we have no idea where it is.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking Iraqi science this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY with Beriwan Khailany and Elizabeth Stone. Let's see if we can get a call or two in before we have to go to the break. Let's go to Marvin in Fairfax, California. Hi, Marvin.

Mr. MARVIN (Caller): Hello there. Thanks for taking my call. I'm interested to find out if in addition to the very real and pressing problems of rebuilding the physical infrastructure for science, if there's any hint that Iraqi society is going to suffer through some of the same problems we in the States suffer through with scientists having to compete for funding and attention with religious fundamentalists, and even just the battle for kind of the hearts and minds of people in general. Is there any questioning of just basic scientific knowledge and principles as we have to deal with here?

FLATOW: Dr. Beriwan?

Dr. KHAILANY: Well, thank you for - well, this is a very important issue to talk about. Actually, with all this trouble that we are seeing at home, still our scientists and professors are eager to do some research work and rebuilding the laboratories and libraries. And that's how the Virtual Science Library started. From the eagerness of Iraqis to start from good work we have - we got this initiative from our American friends from - in Academy of Science and Triple AS[ph] Science and Technology policy. Being in such a situation and still working, that I think is a challenge for all Iraqis. Iraqis are willing to rebuild their own country no matter what.

Concerning the furniture, perhaps equipment, we are trying hard with all international organizations and the donor countries to help us out in providing some equipment that we need. One of the very much, very good initiatives came from a (unintelligible) foundation. (Unintelligible) foundations are locating about $50 million for rebuilding our laboratories and revitalization our higher education. That includes capacity building. So we are trying hard and we are still working, looking forward to get some more funds. Iraqi governments are locating amount of money for reconstruction of structures. We have about $25 million a month for rebuilding our structures, I mean, campus buildings and things.

Again, we have very ambitious program right now in Iran, which is locating about $100 million for scholarship, sending abroad our young students, the smart young students, to do their PhDs, abroad in high standard universities. And so that's why I'm here, actually, to make this program, to run properly with high standard American universities.

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking with Beriwan Khailany, who is deputy minister in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Baghdad. Elizabeth Stone, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Dr. Khailany, tell us a little bit about the - more about the Iraqi Virtual Science Library, what it is and how it may help efforts to rebuild science.

Dr. KHAILANY: Alright. Iraqi Virtual Science Library is one of the main projects that running in higher education of Iraq. This program came as an initiative, as I told you, from our American friends in the Academy of Science and the Triple AS, Science and Technology. So I was here last year in August last year when we discussed how to implement this project. We chose seven universities to be in our program, to get access to 17,000 scientific books and periodicals.

So now seven of our universities are getting the benefit of using online books by this very vital program. Today we have discussed our roadmap of how to expand the project to let a lot more students and faculty members get the benefit out of it, and I think we are doing very well. Now what we've done today, we set up an agenda for our training courses for librarians, IT experts as well as engineers for maintaining some of the hardwares that we're going to use. Some micro system companies are donating some servers for this program. We are hoping to get those servers very soon, to be located in all the universities that are on our program.

CHADWICK: I have to ask…

Dr. KHAILANY: The support from the Department of State was very, very important. We got a lot of support and they were taking it into the concentration…

FLATOW: I have to rudely interrupt, Dr. Khailany, to take a break, but we'll come back and talk more about Iraqi science. And hopefully, we'll also talk about Iraqi robots a little bit later, some of the robots that are in Iraq helping to aid the soldiers there. So stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the state of Iraqi science this hour with Elizabeth Stone, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, and Beriwan Khailany, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Baghdad, Iraq. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We just have a short bit of time. Dr. Beriwan what - if you can give me the three top priorities for science research in Iraq, what would they be?

Dr. KHAILANY: Three top priorities for science and research? Well, one of the priorities that I was talking about is this providing the best libraries that scientists and researchers can use. This, and our help came from Iraqi Virtual Science Library, (unintelligible). I'll talk about the topic status that takes the priority after I - I mention a few things more about Iraqi Virtual Science Library, how it works and where did we get the funds for this program and the periodicals that we get access to. Is that okay if I talk about this?

FLATOW: Quickly, quickly.

Dr. KHAILANY: So Iraqi Virtual Science Library is a digital library established to provide Iraqi universities and research institutes with access to an outstanding collection of science, which among these collections is American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, American Institute of Physics, Mathematics and Science, Environmental Science, (unintelligible) publishing and others are publishing books. A lot more. I don't want to spend time on that.

So a lot of scientists and engineers, computer scientists, they get the benefit of this. So it's goal is to help rebuild the education infrastructure and economy in Iraq. The fund came - to support this project - came mostly from Department of State and Department of State - Defense, Defense Ministry.

So the seed money came from those two ministries, and of course the help from the Triple AS and Academy of Science.

Okay, the top priorities for research part, I would say, I would say it's environmental sciences. You know, we've been suffering, we went through three wars, big wars. So we are, we've been suffering from pollution in air, water as well as soil. So environmental science research projects are the priorities. Today, actually, I was talking about this subject, and I mentioned the, you know, desertification that we, we are suffering from now. Our weather's been polluted by all those dust storms. It's only because our desert's expanding. So this, this comes one of the - perhaps I'll give it the priority to work on. Marshes is another project to work on. Again, we have plenty of other challenges to think about, like how to improve our, you know, economic resources. We have a lot of, say, minerals that have never been explored. We have areas that need to be explored for oil. So we have a lot in, as a priority.

FLATOW: Well, I want to wish you good luck in those priorities.

Dr. KHAILANY: Thank you.

FLATOW: And thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. KHAILANY: Thank you. Thank you so much.

FLATOW: We'll talk to you - we'll talk to you again.

Dr. Beriwan Khailany, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Baghdad. Also, Dr. Stone, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. STONE: Sure.

FLATOW: Elizabeth Stone, Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

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