Effect Measure

Iran eats its seed corn

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Ian
    June 26, 2009

    Well said.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    June 26, 2009

    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.

    I’m not sure who you’re referring as the second generation of diaspora. They obviously can’t be in Tehran, so was diaspora the wrong word? Or am I missing the meaning?

  3. #3 revere
    June 26, 2009

    Bob: Not well phrased on our part. The idea was that there was a generation from the bad outcome of the Revolution of 1979 and the ones from this regime who were too young to be part of the first diaspora but who are represented by the stifled reform impulse now in the streets. There are many of this generation of Iranian scientists in diaspora.

  4. #4 Rich
    June 26, 2009

    A little too much overgerealization. I knew quite a few grad students in the sciences during the 70s, who were very happy to overthrow the Shah. They saw him as an illegitmate, coorrupt leader (which he was). I’ve also known emigres and they mostly were people who left based on political position rather than because of devotion to rationality. More recently, I have been part of scientific exchanges with Irani scientists visiting the US–they were govt employees (govt hospitals, ministries, universities) and doing things that were surprisingly progressive, given the tone of the regime. My impression is that savvy people, with high standards of science and public health manage to survive. Others leave. It’s far from ideal, but people adpat to cycles of minor reform and major repression.

    It’s worth remembering—We have just gone through a long cycle of profoundly anti-rational, anti-scientific politics in our own country. Despite talk of moving to Europe or Canada, I know of only person who left (for Oxford). Many left government service earlier than they had planned, but most wound up in academia or in some consulting capacity. There are obvious parallels, although our is a more open and better funded system, but instructive nonetheless.

  5. #5 Paul
    June 26, 2009

    “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.”

    I agree with your position, revere, but I’m concerned about your optimism that the inevitable demise you predict will occur within a viable time frame. Talk about a country eating its seed corn, North Korea has starved its population (literally, as opposed to your metaphor concerning only scientists), yet their regime lasts long enough for its scientists to now threaten the world with nuclear weapons. Iran is not that far behind with the same aims.

    Let’s hope its expats and internal young dissenters can be effective enough to prevent the current Iranian regime from achieving similar goals.

  6. #6 Tsu Dho Nimh
    June 26, 2009

    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.

    You are forgetting those who fled the Shah (or whose parents fled) and tried to go back. Many of these were rejected and even imprisoned for being “too Westernized”, so they left again.

    Perhaps they are the “boomerang diaspora”.

  7. #7 revere
    June 26, 2009

    Tsu Dho Nimh: I’m not forgetting them. I knew many well. I include them under the first generation, opponents of both regimes, mostly left politics.

  8. #8 hass
    June 26, 2009

    THERE IS NO ACTUAL EVIDENCE OF ELECTION FRAUD IN IRAN. Every claim about election rigging has a rational counter-claim.

    THINK: Why would the regime resort to fraud when Mousavi is very much a regime supporter?

    Get the FACTS at IranAffairs.com

  9. #9 revere
    June 26, 2009

    hass:It’s not about Mousavi. It’s about a vicious, repressive and dishonest government that has violently put down freedom of assembly and expression. Iran is run by a corrupt theocracy of old men. Religion always has an ugly face around somewhere and we are seeing one of its ugliest in the current regime in Iran.

  10. #10 Doug
    June 27, 2009

    You said, “Iranians must determine their own destiny. It is not for scientists elsewhere to tell them how or to interfere.” Preferring theoretical people, as I do, and thinking they’re the better part of humanity, I judge that it’s good for the theoretical to determine their own destiny, as best they can, irrespective of the claims of other groups. Like me, I doubt you know of a practical way to effect a reform in Iran that would be enduringly beneficial to theoretical people; however, if you did, I think theoretical people everywhere would be satisfied to see you implement it without any respect.

    You said, “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.” I don’t think we can be altogether certain of the durability of the theoretical life. Granted, if we would be just as well satisfied by the existence of five theoretical people as 5 million, there would be little about which to differ. However, the theoretical already seem rare and lonely, and a change in their number even by a single order of magnitude will be a disaster, and not one that seems beyond the pale. Moreover, the advance of technology seems to raise new possibilities for the efficient tracking, control, and destruction of the heterodox. But even apart from the consideration that theoretical people seem to be arming their enemies, it seems that our way of life, with freedom, leisure, and wealth sufficient to maintain universities, research centers, colleges, libraries, and scholarly institutions every few miles, will pass and perhaps is now passing. Whatever our “political scientists” know, it seems insufficient to carry the day in Iran, the United States, or indeed anywhere. Far from being sanguine about the survival of the theoretical life, I think we could usefully recover the entire political philosophic tradition, as best we can, and see if we can detect when and how we went wrong or learn what we might do next to preserve understanding and inquiry in our posterity. For to a man, we surely will not save ourselves.

  11. #11 Greg
    June 29, 2009

    Where we went wrong, Doug, is right here : “thinking [ theoretical people are ] the better part of humanity”.