The struggles of the Syrian science community

Published online 16 October 2011

Mohammed Yahia

Rim Turkmani
Rim Turkmani

The science community in Syria is quickly stifled, and often brutally so, if any scientist attempts to speak out against the ruling regime, especially during the current government crackdown on dissident protests sweeping the country. The Syrian government is alleged to be deliberately targeting several scientists, including the assassination of nuclear physics professor Ous Abdel Karim Khalil in September1.

Syrian-born Rim Turkmani, astrophysicist at the Imperial College in London and curator of the Arabick Roots exhibition at the UK's Royal Society, currently showing in London, has lived far from Syria for many years, but she is in regular contact with colleagues back home as they resist the regime.

Turkmani spoke to Nature Middle East on the events unfolding in Syria, and the involvement of the science community in the uprising.

What is the state of science research and international collaboration in science under the ruling Bashar Assad regime?

Scientific research levels in Syria are low. There are scattered examples of bright research, mainly the result of the dedication of keen individuals, but in general Syria lacks some of the most important elements needed to encourage scientific research, such as intellectual freedom and proper research funding.

The regime completely underestimated the importance of scientific research and all its initiatives to revive it were nothing but a bureaucratic exercise.

The only institute that receives proper funding and attention from the regime is the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, Damascus. Although it sounds innocent, the civil research department was but a small part of this institute. The rest of the activities of the centre, however, are under the strict control of the regime. In the past it had been linked to military weapons research. Not surprisingly, the international collaboration with the civil division, which had a solid start, was dropped by European countries when more news about the engagement of other sectors at the institute started leaking, according to a professor who was involved in the project in the past.

Most success stories and breakthroughs in scientific research in Syria come from the agricultural research sector. This is because research in this sector responds to the direct needs in developing agriculture in Syria and also to the collaboration with the Syrian-based International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo.

How well do you think the Assad regime has supported research and innovation in Syria?

The security chaos engulfing the country may lead to looting of museums similar to what happened in Baghdad the day it fell to the American forces.

It has spent most of the government revenues on the military, failing to understand that the real defence of the country will come from advancing science and technology (S&T). The spending on S&T is a very small fraction of that on the army and defence.

Most importantly, the suppression of freedoms stifled creativity and innovation. Even the school curriculums do not encourage critical and creative thinking, so by the time you reach university you are pretty much ready to accept whatever you are told in classrooms and have little confidence in your own initiatives.

In the past five years the government started allowing private schools and universities. This introduced novel teaching methods and improved standards. However, this progress has been the preserve of the privileged minority — and the involvement of these private universities and the private sector in R&D is very limited.

What part is the Syrian science community, including university faculty and student, playing in the uprising against the regime?

There isn't an open role that I can talk about away from leaking stories about professors dragged out of lecture halls after writing anti-regime slogans on the wall. However, when you communicate with colleagues in Syria you realize that they are dissatisfied and unable to do much. Those who got involved paid a very high price and many of them are held in prison. This led many of Syria's academics to either leave the country or to keep a low profile especially after a series of targeted assassinations aimed at university professors.

As for the students, one of the repressive tools of the regime in Syria is the Student Union. It is still headed by the very same person who headed it when I was a student at Damascus University 18 years ago. He is obviously doing a good job and is keeping up to the old tradition of holding on to that seat. It is the student union that ensures no suspicious activities involve students.

But outside the union, students have begun to organizing in informal groups that are becoming active. Imagine that a group of computer science students decided not to register themselves for this term, and therefore are losing an entire academic year, just so that the regime loses out on the registration fee. I pleaded with them, saying they shouldn't ruin their career for the sake of the regime; but their argument was that they would rather miss one academic year than pay money that could be used to suppress and kill fellow Syrians. This is how determined they are— who can win against such determination?

Joan Ayo, an MSc student friend of mine who was studying philosophy, decided to put his degree on hold and join the uprising full time. He is now under arrest, but his dedication encouraged a large group of activists who used to work with him and they are carrying on the work. There are so many of these stories.

How can the expat Syrian scientists help their state during this period?

They can help by conveying the message to the international community and speak out about their ordeal. They can also help remotely via internet to support peaceful and civil initiatives inside Syria in many ways.

Has the current uprising affected science research in Syria, such as in ICARDA for example?

Many aspiring scientists in Syria seek not only opportunity, but also freedom and dignity, which is why they go abroad

It is affecting all aspects of life in Syria, but the impact has not reached all corners of the country and that applies to research activities too. My parents for example live in Homs but they spend the weekend in Aleppo; they keep saying that they feel as if they are going to a different continent when they are in Aleppo, where the unrest is not as severe as it is in Homs.

The sanctions affect society in general, not just the regime. These started having a negative impact on everyone. Agricultural activities are going to be affected with the shortage of fuel for needed machinery. It has already been hit by the restrictions in movement because of the security operation. All of this stifles the work of research institutes like ICARDA.

Is there any looting of Syria's rich archaeological history?

This is a major concern. Syria is extremely rich in archaeological sites, many of which are protected by the very presence of excavation missions of foreign researchers, many of whom had to leave Syria when their home countries issues travel warnings. Now these are exposed, and I have no idea what is happening to these sites. Also, the security chaos engulfing the country, may lead to looting of museums similar to what happened in Baghdad the day it fell to the American forces.

In Egypt though it was very refreshing to see that the people in Tahrir Square themselves protected the museum. I hope the same will happen in Syria, some activists have already drawn up plans to protect these sites in the case of a sudden collapse of the regime, whether they will be able to deliver is another matter — but at least this reflects their awareness of the threat.

What role can the science community play in Syria if the regime falls? How can scientists be involved in the reform of science research and education?

Some people argue it is too early to discuss these matters as innocent civilians are still been killed by the regime. We think the scientific community will have a very important role to play in any new state, especially as it is going to have an important capital at hand: liberated minds that are willing to re-build their country.

It all depends on the day after the fall of the regime, which if it happens, is not a guarantee of political freedom. I am working with a group of activists and academics to raise awareness of the importance of investing in S&T in any future state and we are integrating the science policy as an important part of the policy of the future state. We want Syria to move gradually to a knowledge-based economy.

Do you expect a reversal of the Syrian brain drain following the revolution?

Many aspiring scientists in Syria seek not only opportunity, but also freedom and dignity, which is why they go abroad. The essence of the uprising in Syria is a struggle for freedom, and Syrians already obtained part of this freedom — many of the things that are taking place in Syria would never have been allowed before the onset of the uprising.

But the struggle is going to be long, and the more freedom there is, the less brains Syria is going to lose and the more brains are going to come back. There will be a very important role for the retuning brains in Syria. They have practiced scientific research in a proper and free research environment and they also have links with the international scientific community — these assets will be desperately needed in a future Syria.