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Hard-Liner's Triumph Puts Research Plans in Doubt

Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 36a-37a
DOI: 10.1126/science.309.5731.36a

TEHRAN—Shapour Etemad was stunned by the victory of Tehran's hard-line mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last week's presidential runoff election. Like many intellectuals, Etemad, director of the National Research Institute for Science Policy in Tehran, had campaigned for a moderate government, adding his name to a public endorsement of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. After Ahmadinejad's surprise landslide victory, Etemad was left wondering if he should resign his influential post and retreat to academia.

Many Iranians were troubled by the stark choices in this election. Ahmadinejad campaigned on a promise to breathe new life into the Islamic revolution, whereas Rafsanjani pledged to seek closer ties with the United States. Although Ahmadinejad has not aired his views on science, some researchers fear that his ascendancy could result in a curtailment of foreign collaborations, an accelerated brain drain, and a shift toward more applied projects.

That's not what Iranian scientists want to hear, given the distance they've come since 1979 when the Islamic revolution closed universities for 4 years. “We were completely isolated,” says string theorist Hessamaddin Arfaei, deputy director of research at the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Tehran. Stagnation deepened during the protracted Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; afterward, U.S. economic sanctions slowed the recovery.

Unknown quantity.

A proponent of the Islamic revolution, President Ahmadinejad has not made known his views on science.


It's only recently that Iranian science has enjoyed a widespread renaissance. The number of foreign collaborations has risen threefold in the past 4 years, says Iran's deputy minister of science, research, and technology, Reza Mansouri. “Scientific output has skyrocketed since 1993,” boasts Mohammad Javad Rasaee, dean of medical sciences at Tarbiat Modares University. Iran's share of global scientific output rose from 0.0003% in 1970 to 0.29% in 2003, with much of the growth occurring since the early 1990s, according to a study earlier this year in the journal Scientometrics. The analysis, led by immunologist Mostafa Moin of Children's Medical Center in Tehran, was based on publications tracked by the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Moin, a former science minister, ran as the sole reform candidate for president, placing fifth in the election's first round.)

But momentum is in danger of being lost, some observers warn. After Moin was eliminated from the race, Etemad and a few dozen colleagues wrote an editorial in East newspaper on 20 June, urging “all cultivated people” to vote for Rafsanjani and arguing that “a total catastrophe is pending and immediate.”

Others caution against rushing to judgment. Mansouri anticipates only “minor fluctuations” for Iranian scientists. The situation will become clearer, he says, when the new government, including a science minister, is appointed in early August. And some found hope in last week's offer by the board of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to suspend a controversial ban on publications from Iran and three other countries (Science, 17 June, p. 1722); AIAA stated it will “formally reconsider” the policy on 1 September.

Ahmadinejad's predilections may become apparent when a high council for science and technology, chaired by the president, meets this fall. The council, created earlier this year, controls most of Iran's science budget. Others argue that the country's scientific community has weathered previous changes of government well. “My thinking is that we will be affected very little, if at all,” says Yousef Sobouti, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences in Zanjan. But even if some fears have been exaggerated, Etemad predicts, “we're in for a long, hard time.”

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