Science may know no borders but scientists have nationalities. Many live within the countries where they have citizenship, while many travel to where they can do more and better science. In the 21st century no nation can afford to squander its scientific talent. But some do it, anyway, either in small ways (failing to support science) or in Big Ways (oppressing free inquiry and free expression). No country is perfect, but some excel in this kind of stupidity. Even before the recent national uprising Iran’s government was distinguishing itself in the irrationality and anti-science department (see here, here, here). Now we are seeing it in full flower:
In another sign of a growing crackdown on dissenting voices in Iran, 70 university professors were reportedly arrested on Wednesday after meeting with the opposition figure Mir Hussein Moussavi.
According to reports by Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press[and Bloomberg via Nature blog The Great Beyond], news of the arrests came from Kalameh, a Farsi-language Web site affiliated with Mr. Moussavi. The site reported that 70 members of the Islamic Society of University Professors were detained after meeting with Mr. Moussavi on Wednesday afternoon. Their whereabouts are unknown, the reports say. (Chronicle for Higher Education)
Students, journalists and academics seem to be special targets. The campuses in Iran, just as campuses in the US or France or almost anywhere else, are hotbeds of reform and political activity. In the days of the Shah, I knew many Iranian dissident students, and they were among the most fervent and effective opponents of that brutal and corrupt regime. It was the US that put the Shah in power after the CIA toppled the duly elected government in 1953 and the current regime is the blowback from that little piece of stupidity and perfidy. Now the Iranian exile or ex-pat community will again be the nidus of resistance, and prominent among them are likely to be scientists and scholars:
As more reports come in of a crackdown in Tehran on Iranians protesting against the regime, the vast diaspora of Iranian researchers has mobilized to help the Iranian people get information out to the outside world.
Amidst the continuing violence, many academics are lobbying for international condemnation of Iran’s violations of human rights. Others are launching petitions and writing letters, as well as helping to organize demonstrations in the world’s capitals.
“I haven’t seen so much activity in the academic diaspora in 30 years,” says Davood Rahni, a chemist at Pace University in New York. “I’m getting hundreds of e-mails every day about Iran; in the past 20 minutes alone I’ve had over 30 e-mails from Iran.” (Declan Butler, Nature)
Today’s Iranian diaspora has two generations. There are those who fled after the Shah was replaced by the Islamic Republic, no friend of science and rationality. And there is the next generation, now in the streets in Tehran. Soon many more of the best and brightest scientists will get out as they are able and as the government eliminates reform minded academics and installs pliant stooges in university leadership.
Iranians must determine their own destiny. It is not for scientists elsewhere to tell them how or to interfere. But we can call attention to the plight of our colleagues within Iran and support those who leave to continue their science. Destroying the most important part of scientific infrastructure, the human infrastructure, is like a farmer eating his seed corn. Iranian society will lose, but the world can still harvest the product of Iranian exiles’ raw brain power.
Iranian scientists don’t do Iranian science any more than American scientists do American science. We do science. For many of us, that’s our true nationality. I don’t know how long the Islamic Republic will last, but when it’s gone, people will still be doing science. The same is true of every other country and regime. Something to remember.