As the coalition struggles to breathe life into Iraq's shattered scientific community, one of its top priorities is to nurture what had been one of Saddam Hussein's most valuable assets: researchers involved in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. A trio of new initiatives is now taking shape to keep weapons researchers busy on peaceful projects.
The Iraq International Center for Science and Industry, expected to be established by the Coalition Provisional Authority later this month, intends to take the most talented researchers under its wing. The program is being launched with $2 million in start-up funds from the provisional authority and is slated to receive another $20 million over the next 2 years. It aims to put top guns to work right away producing a road map for Iraq's civilian R&D. "This is a significant activity that does not require research facilities," says a coalition official. That's a crucial point, he adds, given that "research facilities cannot be built overnight."
Then the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation this spring will bring a half-dozen top former weapons scientists to Washington, D.C., for a week-long visit with top U.S. scientists and officials with an eye toward forging collaborations.
The third project, spearheaded by the Arab Science and Technology Foundation in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, and the Cooperative Monitoring Center at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, is a broad effort to assess the equipment and facilities needed to renovate Iraq's shattered scientific infrastructure. In this initiative, which got under way quietly in January, roughly 150 scientists, divided into teams, are visiting Iraqi institutes and academic facilities to assess infrastructure needs. "We're doing this for all scientists," not just former weaponeers, says the foundation's president, Abdalla Alnajjar.
Some priorities are clear: Much work is needed to improve public health, clean up the environment, and reinvigorate agriculture using suitable seed stocks, to name a few. "These might seem like mundane activities for former WMD scientists," but they're essential to rebuilding the nation, says the coalition official. The provisional authority also is restoring a sophisticated military fiber-optic network that was severely damaged during last year's invasion. When the network is back up and institutes connected, many scientists will discover broadband for the first time.
Progress on all these fronts is likely to be slow. "Iraqi science is at least 12 and more likely 18 years behind the West," says the coalition official. But the stakes are high, says Carleton Phillips, a mammalian biologist at Texas Tech University who's on loan to the State Department and is now coordinating nonproliferation work across Iraq. "We have an opportunity to reduce the risk of expertise or material passing into the hands of terrorists or rogue states."