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Looking for the light at the end of Syria’s tunnel

Once consequence of Syria’s conflict has been the destruction of fledgling efforts to strengthen science. Research and universities can help the country rebuild, but only in at atmosphere of democracy and free expression, says Rim Turkmani.

Even before the conflict in Syria began, research in the country was in a bad way. Only 1 per cent of academic staff at state universities published research papers, and the universities were old-fashioned, corrupt institutions needing root-and-branch reform. A tiny fraction of government spending, which was mainly spent on defence and security, went to R&D. The cream of Syrian scientific talent was devoted to projects such as developing chemical weapons.

But there were positive signs. Syrian research students who had sought further education abroad were beginning to reinvest their expertise in their home country. In 2011, Talal Al-Mayhani, a Syrian cell biologist who studied for his PhD at the University of Cambridge and now works there as a postdoc, established a cancer research unit at Aleppo University, where he had studied as an undergraduate.

The unit provided training for undergraduates to enable them to launch pilot studies capable of bridging the gap between basic and clinical medicine, and to plan for health policy reform. It attracted funds and secured provisional collaboration with a lab in Cambridge. But by early 2012 it had shut down.

“Gradually, the centre was affected by the Syrian crisis: patients, who often came from rural areas, could not reach the university hospital without risking their lives, and we lost most staff and students. Some have left the country because of the violence and some students were arrested for daring to protest against the regime,” says Al-Mayhani.

Another Aleppo institution, the Syrian branch of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, was one of the most productive research centres in the country. But it was looted when rebel forces captured the surrounding area. Its staff were killed, internally displaced or became refugees.

Damascus has been less directly affected by the violence, but the city’s university has fared little better. “Teaching time had to be cut down by 30 per cent. Students are often very late because of the time they have to spend at the checkpoint, and they all have to leave early to be home safe before dark,” Afif Rahma, a professor of civil engineering at Damascus University, writes in an email. “The financial collapse drove some professors to seek higher-paid positions at private universities or abroad. The lack of hope for a better future has been the most devastating factor among academics and students alike, especially as they witnessed the way many of their colleagues were lost so cheaply as victims to the madness of all parties in the military operations.”

In summary, violence has killed off every opportunity to revive academia in Syria. Many institutions have been destroyed. Academics and students have been killed, maimed, arrested or forced to flee. A generation of schoolchildren and university students has missed out on education and will remain psychologically scarred.

Two years ago, the Arab spring seemed to offer the western world an opportunity to redefine its relationship with countries such as Egypt and Syria. Science and research could have been used to re-establish a relationship based on knowledge exchange and mutual respect. Intellectual freedom and a desire for learning could have flourished, allowing Arab science to catch up with the rest of the world.

That opportunity, particularly in Syria, is now lost, thanks to the brutality of the Assad regime and the pitiful failure of western policies. The west failed to capitalise on the first six months of largely peaceful mass protests; economic sanctions hurt the people more than the regime and accelerated the development of a war economy. Too many states took the lazy option of castigating the regime for its crimes and calling for President Assad to go. This made a diplomatic resolution harder, increasing the political polarisation and fostering increased violence.

Helping academics in Syria starts with ending the violence, and providing support for schemes such as the Scholar Rescue Fund, which offers grants to academics at risk so they can accept temporary appointments at universities abroad.

To resurrect academia in Syria, a political solution is needed that initiates a democratic transition with freedom of expression at its core. Only in such a climate will academia revive, Syrian intellectuals return and fruitful long-term relationships with academic institutions develop.

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Rim Turkmani is an astrophysicist at Imperial College London and the founder of Madani, an organisation that works to promote the role of civil society in Syria.