Diplomatic tensions, armed conflict, desperate refugees – the Arab world is confronting an historic crisis. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of Royal Scientific Society of Jordan and an influential advocate for research and science education, sees an alternative path to progress, and perhaps even peace.
Science and education are the keys, Princess Sumaya said in an interview with TWAS. Within a country or across borders, they give people a way to talk about such shared values as clean water, public health and environmental protection. They can create a conversation that leads to a shared vision for the future.
"In a region that's going through so many troubles at the moment, I think that ultimately what we're talking about is science for hope," she said. Science offers "an alternative pathway" that gives people "that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel."
Princess Sumaya was appointed president of the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan in 2006. She also chairs the Board of Trustees of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology. She has been instrumental in bringing the 2017 World Scientific Forum to Jordan, and she's a passionate advocate of archaeology and the conservation of historic sites in her country.
She visited TWAS for the third summer course in science diplomacy organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and TWAS. The course was held 11-15 July in Trieste, Italy, where TWAS is headquartered.
During the interview, Princess Sumaya described her own path to scientific leadership, the role of science and engineering in addressing the refugee crisis, and the crucial role of international partnerships and cooperation. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa in recent history have struggled to build cross-border relationships, she said. But science and science diplomacy give them a means of opening dialogue about issues that affect every nation – and tens of millions of people – across the region.
The interview took place on 11 July 2016, and was conducted by Edward Lempinen, the TWAS public information officer.
First, a personal question: How did you come to appreciate the important role of science in building strong communities? Was there a single 'Eureka!' moment, or did your views evolve over time?
I am an art historian by training, and I had very little interest in science. I wasn't good at science in school. And I certainly thought that what really interested me the most were things to do with culture, to do with beauty, to do with archaeology – and I thought this was very removed from science. I began to realize very quickly when I became president of the Royal Scientific Society – having worked for eight years in a university for technology – that science is culture, and that the cities and civilisations that I had learned to love and study were actually a result of innovation.
And so it’s through this process that I've come to describe myself as an enabler of science, because I’ve come to respect what science can do in terms of improving the quality of people's lives. But it certainly was an accident of birth. It wasn't something that I ever thought I would be involved in. I still say my passion is the history of art, but my passion has certainly become science, as well, in that I feel very privileged because my father (Prince Hassan bin Talal) really was the one who set the science movement in motion for Jordan in 1970. That's something which I feel I'm contributing to by supporting his long-living legacy, I hope, in the development of science and therefore the socioeconomic development of Jordan.
Today, you are known internationally as an influential advocate of science. As a woman, has it been a challenge to carve out this leadership role? Or does it suggest that this is a time of opportunity for Arab women in science and engineering?
I think sometimes it has been very lonely, but I don't think that's because I’m a woman. I think it's more because of the notion of science. There is a lot of lobbying we need to do for people to understand the importance of science and the role that science has to play. Unfortunately, we tend to go for the quick fixes. Of course we look at innovation and entrepreneurship in my part of the world, which is very important too, but we have almost leapfrogged and forgotten about the basics.
And so encouraging people to start getting involved in basic science and recognizing how much science has to do with sustainability and contributing toward sustained development is something that is always going to be a challenge.
"We're talking about lives and we're talking about protecting and safeguarding people. That's the most important thing that science can really do."
There have been individual women who have made great strides in the Arab world and I'm very pleased to host at my university the Arab Women Hall of Fame for women scientists. But we still have a long way to go in convincing the movers and shakers, if I can say that, in terms of the importance of the role that science has at large. I think there will still be a lot of scientists, male and female, who feel quite lonely in that they don't get the support that they need.
You have spoken eloquently about the power of science to drive positive change in society. In your view, what change or what overall goal is currently most important? And what is the role of science and technology for helping to achieve that?
Well, there are two levels. On one hand, I believe that science can really bring people together, in a way that no other subject can. Because you're talking about elements that affect everyday people's lives. So whether you're talking about water or energy, whether you're talking about clean air, whether you're talking about infectious disease surveillance, all of those things certainly bring people together to have a conversation where other disciplines might not have people from different backgrounds, and different nationalities, different political beliefs, all talking about the same thing, which is an interest in our shared humanity.
But on the other level, I think that science certainly has that influence in terms of where policies go, and I think that the influence that's needed on politicians in particular, in terms of crucial decisions – we've heard of water wars, we've lived through water wars, for example, where really we have to say: 'Look, stop here, science certainly knows no boundaries, science knows no borders'.
The issues that we're discussing are transboundary issues that really need to bring fragmented parts of the world together so that they can start talking about the bigger picture. When we talk about issues like seismic mitigation, we really can't start looking at countries around the fault line who might not have a peace agreement with one another, because at the end of the day we're talking about lives and we're talking about protecting and safeguarding people. That's the most important thing that science can do.
And that's the 'aha' moment that you have when you talk to governments and you talk to politicians. That's when the penny drops – actually, what are we doing to make sure that our people feel safe, our people feel protected, that there is an entity out there that is able to dedicate itself to improving the quality of people's lives?
Is there a growing appreciation for this perspective and this way of thinking about issues and the future?
I think so, and I hope that with the advent of the World Science Forum being hosted in Jordan (in 2017), which will be the first time it's hosted in the Middle East region, there certainly will be a lot of interest generated. That’s when as a science community we have to put our money where our mouths are because, you know, you can't just host this and then what? And so I think that's when we will really start seeing something of a science movement, which will be the first of its kind for the Middle East.
In a region that's going through so many troubles at the moment, I think that, ultimately what we're talking about is science for hope. I think that people need to be talking science for hope and having an alternative pathway that takes people away from the ideologues and takes people away from the politics of what's going on, and give them a path for looking at something differently and gives them that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
What is the condition currently of science education in the Arab world? What improvement or evolution do you see as most important?
I don't think I'm in a position to talk about the whole Arab world, because there is such a disparity in the Arab world. If you were to talk about certain countries within the Arab World, say, in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) area, in comparison to maybe countries in North Africa or even middle Africa – Somalia, Sudan – you would find a very different and diverse approach to science education.
But if I were to talk about Jordan, we have always been forward-thinking in the way in which we teach science, and science has really gone to the forefront of a lot of people's vocabulary. We have, within our high schools, a (school-)leaving certificates programme that streams to the sciences or the arts, and the sciences have still been much more popular. Saying that, though, that leads you more into medicine rather than into the life sciences. That's where there's an onus on us as decision-makers to really start encouraging people to go to university to focus on studying the basic sciences more. I think that with the life sciences revolution that's going on in the world, this is the time to do it.
Of course there are small tools that need to be utilized as well, when you talking about public schools within rural areas, that might not have the equipment to have proper laboratories and so on. We have been in discussions about mobile laboratories and how we can really get science out to the communities, and I think that's something that is very important.
"It's academies, or networks such as TWAS...that really are able to bring us together, to start talking to one another."
As I mentioned before, it's the quick fix. People are maybe more interested in being engineers because they feel that engineers will be able to secure jobs much more quickly than scientists. I think that scientists are sometimes hard on themselves and don’t promote the benefits of long-term research and what it can actually bring. People want the commercial aspect to be taken into consideration. So maybe when you're looking at careers, science doesn't always look that appealing in terms of wealth creation. But certainly in terms of job creation I think there's much more that we as universities, and schools and sciences communities, should be doing to work together to promote it.
5. Looking at scientific organisations and science-related government bodies – in the Arab world, are these structures today sufficient to advocate and guide the development of science capacity?
It's very clear in the Arab world that we're good at talking to international organisations, but we're not so good at talking to one another. I think, though, that if you look at the investments that have been made into science centres, or to universities that have large scientific research areas, I think we could be a very strong force to be reckoned with, if we would start talking to one another.
It's academies, or networks such as TWAS, for example, that really are able to bring us together, to start talking to one another, to start recognizing that there is a possibility for research alliances, and in so doing, creating a research culture within our Arab world. But more so, when we start addressing the Arab diaspora scientists, within the international community, and look at what they're contributing to science programmes internationally, that's when we can really start talking about having a strong scientific voice. Again I'm hoping that within the World Science Forum that there will be an opportunity to identify Arab science and re-herald a moment when Arab science can be seen at the forefront of contributing to science development around the world.
I would love to see, and I'm in the process of doing, a study on how many Arab scientists are actually involved in international science programmes, and I think if we started looking at the statistics we'd realize that Arab scientists working as maybe dual nationalities are certainly contributing on a very high level to international science development.
Do you think there's a strong interest among diaspora scientists in coming back into the community in Jordan or the Arab world?
I think there has to be the right environment. It's not just a matter of a salary – I don't think many scientists are just in there for the money. But it's making sure that you're part of an ecosystem where you can really contribute and be recognised. And again, where we have failed ourselves as Arabs is that we have never been very good at publishing our research. We don’t know how to promote our achievements. I think that if there was the right ethical infrastructure in place, and as I've described a movement that could really attract people to be part of something that is having a knock-on effect, and is having an impact on societies, I think that's certainly when people could be interested.
"Scientists have the spotlight on them now to deliver, to deliver those solutions.... It’s certainly an opportunity if one can take terrible times and look for the opportunity in them."
But at the same time with the wonders of technology and communication today, and our ever-growing world, we're becoming a much smaller world in terms of being able to get things done. We have a global mentorship programme at my organisation where most of the work is being done now on Skype and interfacing with people, connecting in cyberspace. The world is shrinking from that point of view, and we can certainly work together to be much stronger.
This is a time of historic challenge in some parts of the Arab world – in many parts of the world, actually. Given the civil conflicts and refugee crisis, what has been the impact on Arab scientific and engineering communities in Jordan and the Arab world?
I think that by having this huge influx of people – the numbers of refugees that are coming into Jordan alone, nobody ever expected having to deal with a population virtually doubling overnight. But at the same time, I think it's kick-started people into thinking about solutions that only scientists can bring about. So when we're looking for solutions for housing, for the materials sciences, even food safety and food security – all of these issues have really propelled scientists into the limelight, and into where we can really start thinking about finding solutions.
Because demographic changes as a result of conflict are one thing, but also we've always been very aware of the fact that demographic changes because of scientific reasons – climate change, for example – are also going to be upon us in the next few decades. And so we need to be ready. We need to be able to look at the huge shifts in the migration of people – and it’s tragic that these shifts are because of conflict, and the political problems that are happening with our region.
But in the future we will be looking at whole coasts eroding because of climate change. And then what? Where do we go with people? As I've said, scientists have the spotlight on them now to deliver, to deliver those solutions. So I think it’s certainly an opportunity if one can take terrible times and look for the opportunity in them. The opportunity here is where we can really take advantage of having policymakers listen to us in terms of trying to advocate the good role that science can play.
What role do you see for science diplomacy in supporting a strong, stable science culture across the region?
Again, science diplomacy – science is a subject that allows people to go and discover and explore where maybe others would be reluctant.
"Science diplomacy certainly has a role to play in terms of advocating where science can get it right, where maybe politics haven't in the past."
When you have a group of scientist that are there as professionals, sitting around a table, regardless of their religion, regardless of their politics, regardless of their beliefs on a nationwide basis, I think that's when you start having people looking beyond the complications and starting to talk about the realities. And the realities as I mentioned are the importance and the investment in humanity. So I think science diplomacy certainly has a role to play in terms of advocating where science can get it right, where maybe politics haven't in the past.
What role might organisations such as TWAS, OWSD, IAP and ICTP play in contributing to the development of strong scientific culture in Jordan and the developing world?
I think that the outreach that they have, the collective CV of all those members within the different organisations, if they can really come together in terms of helping us with our capacity building, that would be the biggest advantage we can have. Because at the end of the day, a country like Jordan, which is very poor in natural resources, has only one very strong resource, and that's our human resources. And so our human resources really need to be aligned with people who are like-minded, with people who have the experience, because I think that learning by analogy is probably the best way that people can understand. And so having that whole access to a body of people and professionals who have been there, done that ... is certainly a way of making sure we learn.
I think learning, at the moment – we have no option but to learn from the people who have that experience ahead of them and, at the same time, as I mentioned, being hopefully in a position to become a member of that global network family, which is really important. It's reaching out and working together that is the only solution for us.
Do you see archaeology as important to a country's development?
Yes, very much so. We have just finished hosting the International Conference on the History of Archaeology in Jordan. And I made a very strong call and will be making a strong call for the archaeologists to be a part of the World Science Forum.
They are scientists – sometimes people don't recognize that. Particularly, in our part of the world, when there's been so much damage to our big archaeological cities, like Palmyra (Syria), for example. I think it is really important that we make sure that the scientists in the archaeological field are heard because, at the end of the day, these people who are demolishing archaeology, they're basically demolishing our reference points.
In a country like Jordan, that hosts the oldest water harvesting system in the world, in Jawa, for example, or the hydraulic systems down in Petra, which the Nabataeans created, we need these as reference points. We need to show that it's countries like ours that have always had to innovate to survive. That's the way it has worked, so the issues – energy, water, environment – haven't changed over 12,000 years. But we can learn from the experiences.