When US President Barrack Obama spoke at Cairo University in June 2009, Muslims around the world listened intently.
Obama's historic speech - widely received with a positive but cautious response -acknowledged the glorious history of Muslim civilisation, and stretched out a hand of friendship and reconciliation. And the speech also made a commitment to assist Muslim nations with education, economic development, and science and technology.
To follow up on its promises, the White House appointed three science envoys to the Islamic World last February, with a further three announced last month. It hosted an Entrepreneurship Summit in April this year, and issued a 'fact sheet' of activities in June.
But beyond these largely symbolic gestures, real progress has been slow (apart from a clutch of programs for Indonesia). Although it is still very early days, as yet there is no evidence of a positive self-reinforcing momentum, supported by adequate resources.
The proposed suite of science diplomacy initiatives will have dual objectives within the scientific and the diplomatic realms, namely, helping with scientific or socioeconomic development, and boosting America's image in the Muslim world. Ensuring the right emphasis on each objective - and an appropriate balance between the two - will be crucial to their success.
Getting the mix right
So what should the initiative's architects do to make it a success? First, the United States must build on effective bilateral science collaborations.
A successful example is the research programme under the Pakistan-United States Bilateral Science and Technology Agreement. Another is the very useful interaction between the US and Iranian national science academies. These have resulted in workshops on issues such as earthquake hazards, efficient water use, public health, and science ethics.
Second, while bilateral collaboration is essential, the Obama science initiative must also go further to create flexible multilateral structures, such as the Abdus Salam Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy or research partnerships such as CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and SESAME (the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East - currently under construction).
Open to all countries, these promote inclusiveness and have a broad reach. There is a danger that proposed centres of excellence will become too restrictive and exclusive, and open to only those that either already have good relations to the United States, or the financial resources to invest in them.
Muslim countries may not see themselves as natural partners. However the United States can provide the impetus to bring them together top back this type of project.
Science, not politics
Third, the science initiative must focus on important and urgent socio-economic problems that affect populations within the Islamic world. For example, it should mobilise funding for research on perennial problems such as maternal and child health, clean drinking water, clean energy, and disease. A proposed biodiversity centre in Indonesia is a step in right direction.
Fourth, creating employment through the application of entrepreneurial skills and the commercialisation of scientific research is clearly something America does well, and Muslim countries could benefit immensely from doing the same.
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