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Summer 2017

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Can Science Diplomacy Advance STEM Education Particularly for Women in the Middle East?
by Steven G. Greenbaum and David P. Hajjar

In a world of diverse transnational priorities across the globe, the advancement of science is seen by many countries as a solution to promote a knowledge-based economy, yet few resources are actually committed to this policy. For example, countries in the Middle East face a range of social, political, economic and security challenges that are unparalleled in the world. Many of these countries are trying to manage their economies during declining oil and gas prices which have now had a negative impact on their ability to make local investments in science and technology (1). Unemployment is high, political upheaval is often at the core of civil war, and the last priority of government officials is the development of science and technology expertise. Except for Israel, most Middle East nations are underperforming in science in this region of the world where only 1% of their expenditures include research and development (R&D) (2). Science diplomats and/or health attaches have tried to assist countries in the Middle East to address the short-falls in scientific and technological program development. These efforts have been welcomed, but the results have been marginal. One way to remedy the situation is for these countries to grow their scientific communities, and this includes the encouragement of a highly under-developed workforce, viz., women and ethnic minorities. Enabling this largely neglected and under-utilized intellectual resource to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is the focus of this article.

Indeed, many scientific leaders from Israel and Arab countries have come together to develop strategies and issue policy statements which have called for greater investments in STEM. An example of this occurred where ministers of higher education and science assembled in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in March 2014 calling for the improvement of science education and research capacity in the Middle East, with the goal of investing 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) for the expansion of R&D; it was proposed that 30% of this expansion would come from the private sector who are interested in technological breakthroughs.

We have written in the past about developing links between investigative science and policy utilizing science diplomacy as a useful tool to advance Middle Eastern knowledge-based economies (3-6). One major reason for “soft power” approach is that it can be used as a valuable mechanism to develop foreign policy in this region of the world, specifically for the purpose of encouraging governmental support of STEM research and education. Between 2013 and 2016,  Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all realized this potential; they hosted regional conferences to determine whether science diplomacy can indeed bring positive awareness for the need to develop IT communications, manage climate changes, develop research tools and training opportunities for men and women so that one could build research capacity in their countries (6). An important concept raised at these conferences was the necessity to develop the infrastructure to develop cutting-edge research opportunities, particularly with new talent.

With these issues in mind, the most daunting challenges that governments face include poverty; lack of access to clean water, food, and electricity; unfavorable climate change; and insufficient responses to disease outbreaks (4-6). Addressing these challenges will require nations to harness the knowledge and experience of its policymakers and diplomats familiar with STEM research. Owing to the launch of President Obama’s 2012 priorities for STEM Education and the 2013 Global Innovation Initiatives articulated by policymakers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, it was clear that science diplomacy can be a useful and reasonable tool for advancing the STEM disciplines (4).

STEM experts working in diplomacy require competencies and skill- sets to effectively counsel officials involved in policy development to train the next generation of STEM scientists and to build research capacity for their countries. For example, academic medical centers in the U.S. are now promoting interdisciplinary collaborations to address various disease epidemics that occur in the Middle East [e.g. severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS)]. The development of “Education Cities” in the Middle East region of the world (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar) exemplify some of the national priorities to advance science and technology, build research capacity, train women physicians-scientists, and deal with emerging health issues (diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases) (3-6). Climate change offers yet another daunting set of challenges as well as opportunities. The importance of science diplomacy in achieving agreement on reducing carbon emissions without undermining the economies of the petroleum-exporting nations cannot be overstated. However, emerging renewable energy technologies represent enormous research and training opportunities for young scientists and engineers.

It should be emphasized that training the next generation of scientists has always been considered paramount to societal advancement, whether it involves technological advancements, food security, medical breakthroughs or drug development.  The U.S. State Department Global Innovation Initiative fosters international exchange of students and faculty, particularly women who have developed scientific skill sets that can assist under-developed countries in STEM.  This initiative encourages international academic collaborations with the potential of forming business linkages that exploit scientific discoveries. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as well as the Institute of International Education in the State Department also fosters mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries by means of STEM-based educational and cultural exchanges.

The engine of economic development requires a highly STEM-educated workforce. At our peril, industry as a whole excludes large segments of the population, notably women, from full participation in fields still dominated by men. While it is incumbent on nations to ensure access to quality education leading to technical careers for all of its citizens, we posit here that opening up opportunities for women with greater alacrity will lead to a dramatic increase in an industrial, competent workforce. There is another perhaps less quantifiable but equally vital benefit here: successful and substantial participation by women (and under-represented groups) will pave the way toward social equality and offer a positive vision of the future for the next generation of individuals who might otherwise be marginalized. These benefits will transcend generations in the decades to come as young girls and boys increasingly see their mothers employed in high tech fields.

It is useful to see how the U.S. has gradually recognized the need for STEM diversity and responds to those needs. Some U.S. agencies (Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation) have been at the vanguard with innovative programs targeted at women and under-represented minorities (including African American and Hispanic) in STEM. These range from K-12 enhancements in underserved neighborhoods, to supporting stipends for students engaged in university faculty research, to research grant “set-asides” for faculty research at minority serving institutions. The primary goal of these programs is to increase the number of advanced STEM degrees earned by women and minorities in the fields in which they are most under-represented. By many accounts, this strategy has succeeded in increasing the number of both undergraduate and graduate STEM degrees obtained by women and minorities. However the ultimate goal is, as it must be, to provide entry to the STEM workforce, whether it is academia, national lab employment, or industry.

A major issue now is whether these programs can be exported to the Middle East. Owing to the barriers for women and minorities in STEM education and the its workforce in the U.S., there is no doubt that women in the Middle East are experiencing similar issues; and,  there are also some powerful cultural differences which must ultimately be taken into account to rectify this situation. We first highlight some aspects common to both societies.

In the 1950s, women comprised less than 10% of medical students in the U.S., whereas today they constitute about 50% of the student body (7). Progress on this front has been less dramatic in the physical sciences and engineering, but still significant, especially in the last decade. This is certainly due in large part to the gradual shift in cultural norms away from the “woman as homemaker” model of the 1950s. In many parts of the Muslim world, however, the cultural barriers that women face are much greater, beginning at birth and continuing into high school owing to lack of educational opportunities for girls. However, there are encouraging signs that this is changing. For example, some young women are attending secondary school classes in STEM areas which affords them the opportunities to pursue careers in STEM and in medicine, but their numbers are few.

It is difficult for a nation to decide on long-term investments in educational infrastructure without long-term opportunities for its STEM graduates, the most successful of whom most often find themselves in the U.S. or Western Europe. Many successful scientists and engineers originating from the Middle East, who were educated and now employed in the West, harbor a strong desire to return to their homeland, but do not do so for lack of career opportunities in the Middle East. It is encouraging that many of these individuals have recently established both informal and formal ties with universities in their countries of origin, thus achieving a degree of professional status in their homeland, whereby they can have a strong and positive influence on political and economic development. Women, indeed, have begun to participate in the workforce in STEM areas in the Middle East. An example that strengthens this conclusion is found within the technology sector.

In the U.S., STEM “cooperation” strengthens our international relationships, because these disciplines are based on values that transcend gender. International education exchange programs in STEM are encouraged particularly for women to develop STEM networks to enhance their careers. Also, science and technology cooperation between the U.S. and Middle East could foster a global environment where innovation, invention, and industry can thrive. For example, a well-known account of the Israeli high tech start-up culture is found in the 2009 book by Senor and Singer, entitled Start Up Nation (8). It provides valuable lessons for both men and women. No one can dispute the entrepreneurial success of Israel, but even as the most innovative (per capita) nation, Israel is faced with economic challenges for the future. Successfully addressing these challenges can provide guidance for other nations that strive for equality and an increase in the STEM workforce pool. In recent years, the Israeli Government recognized the need for reaching out to the Arab-Israeli and Haredi (ultra-religious) communities to address future job shortages in the high tech sector in order to continue its leadership in technology and entrepreneurship (9). Both populations are growing at a faster rate than secular Jewish Israelis, yet both remain under-represented in STEM (10). Notwithstanding security concerns in the case Arab-Israeli for certain technology fields with military applications (e.g. development of weaponry) , there is a more subtle barrier to the high tech world, particularly the start-up culture. One of the main themes of “Start-up Nation” is the key role that compulsory military service plays in fostering teamwork and discipline, which form the bedrock of future partnerships. Of course, neither of the target groups have access to this entry point. To what extent can the U.S. “Affirmative Action model” overcome this disadvantage? What works to some extent in universities and middle to large companies is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in a start-up. Israeli entrepreneurs tend to reach out to their immediate network (often their former army buddies) when they need to fill a particular need, for example coding or circuit design. Is it possible to institute an affirmative action strategy, for example by offering incentives to start-ups to reach out to the Arab and Haredi communities? One way to proceed would be for companies and start-ups that receive some support from the Israeli government is to do just that. Of course, there will be less incentive for companies raising private funds through venture capital.

Moreover, the role of science and engineering departments within universities in fostering entrepreneurship cannot be overstated first and foremost because of the technical training that is the foundation of scientific and engineering practice. In the U.S. as well as world-wide, universities have expanded beyond their traditional roles of education and training to include entrepreneurship and technology transfer. Clear evidence of this can be found in the robust tech-transfer offices of research universities, linkages between business school and science/engineering programs, and strong alumni support from individuals in high tech companies. A particular example of U.S. Government encouragement of these activities are the long-running SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) and STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) programs which encourage faculty to seek commercial outlets for their inventions (11); and, more recently, a National Science Foundation initiative called ICorp, in which graduate students play a central, entrepreneurial role (12). Recently, the NIH has adopted the ICorp model for its entrepreneurial program; and, these ideas are being disseminated to funding agencies and ministries in other countries through science diplomacy. It is suggested here that science diplomacy can play a critical role by providing a forum for U.S. educators and administrators as well as representatives of the high tech industry to share “best practice strategies” regarding participation of women and other under-utilized segments of the population with their counterparts in the Middle East.

In addition, international conferences are vital in providing forums for the exchange of ideas and dissemination of successful practices by academia when they serve as catalysts for new businesses. A related recent development concerns the international engagement of many U.S. research universities with overseas campuses in the Gulf Arab States as well as international outreach by universities through partnerships with the State Department and USAID. It is not difficult to imagine adding robust sessions on inclusion and diversity to these activities.

In the Arab Middle East, there is a growing sense and recognition of entrepreneurial spirit, perhaps first broadcast to the rest of the world by the first Global Enterpreneurship Summit (GES) held in Cairo in 2009. The GES was a U.S. State Department initiative set up by President Obama. Annual GESs have been held around the world, the most recent in Silicon Valley in 2016. Understandably, technological innovation by young people is limited to software and application (app) development, but even these nascent efforts have created wealth and opportunity for a growing number of young engineers, among them an increasing the number of women. An excellent account of the attendant challenges and opportunities is given in Christopher Schroeder’s 2013 book entitled, Startup Rising (13). With increasing enrollment of women in STEM disciplines at Middle East universities, these campuses have a major role to play in fostering entrepreneurship, just as they have in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Whether it is in an academic (university setting) or high tech environment (industry), science diplomats from Western countries can assist Middle Eastern academic and industrial units to provide a nurturing environment to support women who show early signs of interest in STEM education. Educating young women early in their academic experience about stereotype threats is important. Indeed, early incentives should be offered to high school female students to encourage them to take biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering classes. It is also important to send an inclusive message about who makes a good science or engineering student, and to emphasize real-life applications in STEM courses. In fact, exposure to science diplomats who are women would be a wonderful, positive start to encourage students to pursue a career in STEM. They would be excellent role models for Middle Eastern youth who wish to think “outside the box,” in regions where women in the sciences are not supported and appreciated to the extent that we see in the Western world.bluestar

1. Annual Meeting of Arab Ministers of Finance: Economic Diversification in Oil-Exporting Arab Countries, Manama, Bahrain. April 2016. https://www.imf.org/external/np/pp/eng/2016/042916.pdf
2. "Research and development expenditure (% of GDP)". World Bank and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_research_and_development_spending
3. David P. Hajjar et al., Prospects for Policy Advances in Science and technology in the Gulf Arab States: the Role for International Partnerships. International Journal of Higher Education 3, no.3 (2014): 45-57. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v3n3p45
4. David P. Hajjar et al., Role for Diplomacy in Advancing Global Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Policies in the Twenty-First Century. Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. Spring 2015: 93-100 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1815695606/fulltextPDF/D74E51CDE9514D02PQ/1?accountid=170463
5. David P. Hajjar. U.S. Science Diplomacy as Seed for the Advancement of Democracy in the Near East. Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, in press, 2017
6. David P. Hajjar. Want to ease Tensions in the Middle East? Science Diplomacy Can Help. Brookings Institute. Foreign Policy Essay. Lawfare, June 2016 https://www.lawfareblog.com/want-ease-tensions-middle-east-science-diplomacy-can-help
7. Distribution of Medical School Graduates by Gender. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2015 http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/medical-school-graduates-by-gender/?currentTimeframe=0
 8. Start-up Nation, Dan Senor, Saul Singer, Hatchette Book Group, New York, NY 2011.
 9. Tech Industry Wiring In Israel's Arabs, http://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2016-02-10/high-tech-wires-in-israels-arabs
10. Israel's Demography Has a Unique History, Sergio DellaPergola, John F. May, and Allyson C. Lynch, Population Reference Bureau, http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2014/israel-demography.aspx
11. https://www.sbir.gov/about/about-sttr
12. https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/
13. Startup Rising, Christopher Schroeder, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY 2013.

AuthorDr. David P. Hajjar is Dean Emeritus and University Distinguished Professor, and Professor of Biochemistry and Pathology at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a 2014 Jefferson Science Fellow of the National Academies at the U.S. State Department, and a 2016 senior fellow in science policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

Author Dr. Steven G. Greenbaum is Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. He was a 2014 Jefferson Science Fellow of the National Academies at the U.S. State Department.

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