A Critical Look at Science in Iran

Mike Simmons

“WE WELCOME THE ASTRONOMERS OF THE USA AND GERMANY TO OUR CITY.” The small billboard rose over the town’s central intersection, welcoming us to this rural town of 10,000. We were few in number, so the celebration of our arrival was a delightful surprise. But surprise turned to astonishment as we passed banner after banner welcoming the community’s rare international visitors. Foreign scientists visiting any small Third World town well off the beaten tourist track would certainly be unusual, but it wouldn’t usually bring the town out. But out they came: town leaders and local press — along with a good portion of the citizenry. We were more than just visiting scientists to these people, though. We were from countries that are leaders in science, and the small town of Sa’adat-shahr has a passion for the oldest science — astronomy — like no other place on earth. Even so, the extraordinary reception of Americans seemed incongruous to newcomers to this country where anti-US demonstrations are what we most often see on the evening news broadcasts back home. This was the Islamic Republic of Iran. We were to learn that surprises and contradictions await western visitors to Iran but perhaps nowhere more so than in Sa’adat-shahr.

Visiting astronomers from the modern-day Mecca of astronomy are hardly an everyday occurrence anywhere in Iran. For this small agricultural town in the high desert of southern Iran, however, the visit trumped even the most important prayer session of the week. As I addressed an attentive audience, the town’s imam excused himself to the mosque to lead the Friday noon prayer. I’m sure most of the audience would ordinarily attend the service, but on this occasion everyone else remained seated, giving their attention instead to this American visitor rather than the town’s spiritual leader. I soon learned that, had I arrived earlier, I would have been speaking in the town’s main mosque between prayers. The honor was not lost on us.

Talks on astronomy are not normal fare for Muslim services — except in Sa’adat-shahr. Descriptions of what worshippers might glimpse in the night sky often supplement the services and the congregation is sometimes treated to a slide show of astronomical photography. Star parties —– gatherings of amateur astronomers and their telescopes — are announced in the mosque so that the faithful can plan their evening around viewing the celestial wonders that God has placed in the heavens. The mosque is not just advertising evening shows for entertainment, though; the Koran cites such celestial spectacles as proof of God’s existence. A film that sometimes precedes public gatherings demonstrates God’s greatness through his creations — both earthly and heavenly — including wonders of the heavens that could have drawn inspiration from a NASA web site.

Teacher Asghar Kabiri is the man behind Sa’adat-shahr’s unusual interest in the sciences. Kabiri’s passion for astronomy takes him — and his students — beyond classroom book-learning. The starry canopy of night provides a natural laboratory where townspeople often join the students. When a large public star party is scheduled the town government is pleased to cooperate by cutting the town’s electricity, thus eliminating the glare of lights that diminish the glory of this remote, rural site’s sky and overwhelm faint celestial objects.

On a nearby hilltop, the efforts of the community are helping Kabiri realize his dream of an observatory. Workers donate time towards the building’s construction and women have even sold their jewelry to contribute. "School janitors and teachers all paid a small share of their salaries to help build the observatory,” Kabiri told a Reuters reporter for a recent article on stargazing in Iran.1 “Now it has become the pride of the town," he says. "Astronomy is a divine science and is encouraged in Islam. So in a small, traditional community like Sa’adat-shahr, people contribute to our activities just as they would chip in to build a mosque.” Parents in this conservative town even let their daughters stay out at night for astronomical observation.

Extreme though it may be, Sa’adat-shahr is but one example of the interest in science in Iran. Outsiders are often surprised to discover the value placed on science in Iran and other Muslim countries. Americans who see fundamentalist Muslims decry the advances of the modern world on the evening news sometimes expect to find similar attitudes throughout the Muslim world. The Islamic world led the way in science during the Golden Age of Islam while the west slumbered through its Dark Ages but that was centuries ago . . . What have they done lately? The answer is most often “not much” compared to western civilization. But while science in the Islamic world has declined since then, it is certainly not due to a predomination of fundamentalist views like those of the recent Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. In Iran, the past millennium’s poets and scientists alike are celebrated as heroes and the country sees increased scientific and technological knowledge as important to regaining broader influence in the region.

The highest rated program on Channel Four, the government-run science channel, is a short and irregularly scheduled show on astronomy, The Night Sky. The program features interviews with astronomers including the staff of Nojum (Astronomy) Magazine, the Middle East’s only astronomy magazine. Babaki Tafreshi, Nojum’s editor-in-chief and a regular guest on The Night Sky, is often recognized by viewers on the streets of Tehran. "They say they like the show because it is not connected with any problems in society, politics or religion," he told a Reuters reporter.2 Nojum’s circulation is increasing, as are astronomy club memberships. Channel Four broadcast live from various locations for four hours during last year’s transit of Venus when Venus was seen in silhouette as it crossed in front of the sun for the first time since the 19th century. Iran was a favored site to observe the event and this author led a group of American astronomers who set up telescopes next to the 2500-year old tomb of Persia’s founder, Cyrus the Great. The channel sent reporters and a satellite uplink station to the historic site to broadcast live interviews with the foreign visitors.

Iran’s scientific community has grown since the revolution in 1979. The number of professional scientific societies has seen a five-fold increase in that time with the greatest increase occurring in the past decade. The number of books published in fields of science and technology nearly doubled in the six years from 1996 to 2002. Iran’s international standing in science has grown as well; the number of papers published in international scientific journals increased from less than 100 after the revolution to almost 3500 in 2004, with an increase of 44% from 2002 to 2003 alone. The changes are not a coincidence; a recently-published proclamation of Iran’s goals for science and technology over the next twenty years includes, “(Iran) shall be of the first rank in economy, science and technology in the region, and shall keep pace along with the increasingly progressive growth of science.” International cooperation is increasingly seen as important to achieving this goal, an idea not lost on the many Iranian scientists trained in the west. The Ministry of Science, Research and Technology has several programs in place for expediting international programs, particularly strong cooperative programs with Europe.

But as is often the case, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Professional societies in Iran are funded with government oil money rather than taxes or membership dues. Thus, proliferation of societies doesn’t necessarily indicate the same demand that motivates their creation in western countries. Government funding also leads to government control of societies, unlike their western counterparts. And while the increasing international cooperative projects are beneficial, most involve Iranians traveling to other countries; few foreigners begin research projects in Iran unless Iran itself is the subject. The scarcity of many critical resources in Iran is a factor in the one-way exchange.

A particularly interesting project to attract foreign scholars is taking place in Khoronagh, a village of fewer than 300 inhabitants in Iran’s central desert near the ancient city of Yazd. There, a citadel built of mud and straw over the past 4000 years is being retrofitted for safety and comfort and outfitted to operate as an international conference center. A nearby caravansary — a resting place for the camel caravans of Iran’s past — has already been refurbished as an auxiliary meeting place. The village’s inhabitants participate in the activities of the center and sociologists will study the effects of modernization and international visitors on the village’s youth. But the Khoronagh project is the exception in Iran rather than the rule.

Iran faces many serious difficulties in developing its own science base. The problems are as much homegrown as a result of outside pressures or isolation. The scientific discoveries and technological developments that fascinate the populace are also commonly perceived to be programs of western science not suitable or achievable in Iran. The US and the EU are admired for their accomplishments but the goal of catching up is often seen as unrealistic. The attitude is subtle but pervasive. Many students see emigration as the only route to conducting original research or achieving academic freedom and success.

Indeed, Iran has suffered greatly from a “brain drain” since the 1979 revolution. Iranian students in the west long to return to their country after graduation but many are deterred by the dearth of suitable opportunities. Scientists in Iran suffer from a lack of resources for original research but perhaps even more importantly from a lack of initiative. This might be partly a result of the attitude that the highly-publicized scientific advances of the west cannot translate to their own country. But in most Third World countries research tends to be repetitive, following safe paths to publication but lacking the innovation that brings the greatest rewards in discoveries, advances and international recognition. Results are often measured in the quantity rather than the quality of publications. Governmental control of the sciences can often put bureaucrats in positions of authority despite a lack of sufficient familiarity with their assigned fields to properly evaluate scientific results.

This bureaucratic control can produce some highly paradoxical results. The wealth of oil money available for high-profile projects and purchases makes large purchases possible for those who are well-connected with the ministries. But when a grant funds the entire purchase, there is no motivation to share the use or cost of the equipment. For example, of the 19 MRI machines in Iran most are greatly underutilized. In the west, such machines are made available to users beyond the purchasing organization to ensure that they can operate 24 hours a day seven days a week and more quickly recoup the high price of their acquisition. Another western-style incentive — accountability from the funding agencies — is also missing for many such large, oil-endowed purchases.

While high-profile programs might find funding, many smaller higher-quality proposals fail to find backing. Such proposals are often not well understood by those in positions of authority and a western-style scientific review process — a committee-based system of appropriate experts — is lacking. This isn’t surprising within Iran where teamwork is not the norm (something immediately apparent to anyone who has seen the traffic in Tehran!). Individuals may work on parallel efforts but rarely collaborate with colleagues. Where a western scientist might seek someone from another department or institution with expertise needed on a project, the Iranian scientist is more likely to do his best to fill all the necessary roles. Thus Iranian scientists often work in a vacuum without exposure to new ideas or methodology, unacquainted with fields that might augment their own work.

A lack of cohesion within the scientific community is the result, and that in itself puts Iranian scientists at a great disadvantage compared to their western counterparts. Because much of science is imported rather than developed internally the driving force for the development of a broad-based interactive scientific community is lacking. Cooperative projects — and the free exchange that such teamwork engenders — is uncommon in Iran compared to within the US and Western Europe where the objective is high-quality publications of original research.

Dr. Mohammed Yalpani, a western-educated chemist who directs the Center for International Research and Collaboration in the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology of Iran, finds a parallel in the comparison of music and science between east and west. While a western orchestra is composed of many individuals playing different notes, the music’s composer and the orchestra’s conductor ensure that those notes combine to produce harmony and even more complex structures such as counterpoint. Persian music more often consists of a leader playing a note or theme with other players following that lead. In his field of chemistry Dr. Yalpani is familiar with western efforts that combine many types of chemists to produce new technology, perhaps with a “conductor”. In Iran, he says, he does everything himself while his neighbor and the government are unlikely to even know what he’s doing.

The vagaries of government funding of science and technology in Iran don’t help. Eighty percent of funding for science and research and development (R&D) is directed to the appropriate ministries that have R&D sections. But 80% of the scientists are at universities rather than at the ministries. Thus funding is misdirected and poorly distributed. Again, without feedback and accountability there is little motivation for change for those at government funding agencies. Such bureaucrats may want nothing more than to maintain the status quo and avoid jeopardizing their own situations. This, of course, leads us full circle back to funding decisions — the bureaucrat is thus isolated from the segments of the scientific community where true innovations may take place and, as a result, becomes less knowledgeable of the field and where funds are best spent. This might partly explain the difficulty Iranian scientists face in finding funding for long-term projects that don’t quickly produce results the bureaucrats can point to as a sign of success. Some funding agencies even lose sight of the ultimate goal for a Third World country — improving domestic technology through applied science. According to Dr. Yalpani, too much is spent on abstract or theoretical science. “Einstein is useless to a country like Iran,” says Dr. Yalpani.

Bureaucrats are always easy targets but there is still culpability to be found elsewhere. University professors themselves have to be watchful of their own situations in a country where competition for positions is fierce. Because the government funds most research, professors find themselves serving the government’s needs, which can at times be overwhelming. The time spent with students suffers and graduate students in top universities might find themselves without the guidance common in western universities. Ironically, this is most common with the most capable professors who are offered administrative positions a Third World professor can’t afford to decline.

It is the youth of Iran that can bring Iran back to prominence in the sciences. Seventy percent of the populace is under the age of 30. With university space available for only one out of four applicants and soaring unemployment facing graduates many of this young post-revolution generation are frustrated and discouraged. But not all are without hope. Iran’s best universities continue to produce top-notch scientists and scholars who are now attuned to advances and methods of other nations and cultures as never before.

Asghar Kabiri, in the unlikely conservative town of Sa’adat-shahr, is a leader in teaching these youth the ways of science. He has channeled the enthusiasm of his young charges towards a belief that they can accomplish what they want to, that science really is even for the children of rural Iran. They have already become leaders by showing the way to their parents and other townspeople. And they have had success at attracting international attention and visitors that any city would be proud of. In these youth, Iran has the natural resources that it needs and Kabiri is showing how to nurture it.

If the attitude of Sona Hosseini, a Masters student in astronomy at Zanjan University, is any indication, the future may shine more brightly for this younger generation. Burdened by a lack of observational facilities for astronomy, Hosseini is nonetheless determined that her chosen field is for her. “I always wanted to be all that I can be, live my own life and follow my own stars,” she says. Visiting with the youth of Iran, one cannot avoid concluding that — with the help of teachers like Kabiri — they will find and follow their own stars.




2. Ibid.