Can Science Diplomacy Advance STEM Education Particularly for Women in the Middle East?

Author:Greenbaum, Steven G.
Position:Science, technology, engineering and mathematics

In a world of diverse transnational priorities across the globe, the advancement of science is seen by many countries as a solution to promote a knowledge-based economy, yet few resources are actually committed to this policy. For example, countries in the Middle East face a range of social, political, economic and security challenges that are unparalleled in the world. Many of these countries are trying to manage their economies during declining oil and gas prices which have now had a negative impact on their ability to make local investments in science and technology (1). Unemployment is high, political upheaval is often at the core of civil war, and the last priority of government officials is the development of science and technology expertise. Except for Israel, most Middle East nations are underperforming in science in this region of the world where only 1% of their expenditures include research and development (R&D) (2). Science diplomats and/or health attaches have tried to assist countries in the Middle East to address the short-falls in scientific and technological program development. These efforts have been welcomed, but the results have been marginal. One way to remedy the situation is for these countries to grow their scientific communities, and this includes the encouragement of a highly under-developed workforce, viz., women and ethnic minorities. Enabling this largely neglected and under-utilized intellectual resource to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is the focus of this article.

Indeed, many scientific leaders from Israel and Arab countries have come together to develop strategies and issue policy statements which have called for greater investments in STEM. An example of this occurred where ministers of higher education and science assembled in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in March 2014 calling for the improvement of science education and research capacity in the Middle East, with the goal of investing 3% of their gross domestic product (GDP) for the expansion of R&D; it was proposed that 30% of this expansion would come from the private sector who are interested in technological breakthroughs.

We have written in the past about developing links between investigative science and policy utilizing science diplomacy as a useful tool to advance Middle Eastern knowledge-based economies (3-6). One major reason for "soft power" approach is that it can be used as a valuable mechanism to develop foreign policy in this region of the world, specifically for the purpose of encouraging governmental support of STEM research and education. Between 2013 and 2016, Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel all realized this potential; they hosted regional conferences to determine whether science diplomacy can indeed bring positive awareness for the need to develop IT communications, manage climate changes, develop research tools and training opportunities for men and women so that one could build research capacity in their countries (6). An important concept raised at these conferences was the necessity to develop the infrastructure to develop cutting-edge research opportunities, particularly with new talent.

With these issues in mind, the most daunting challenges that governments face include poverty; lack of access to clean water, food, and electricity; unfavorable climate change; and insufficient responses to disease outbreaks (4-6). Addressing these challenges will require nations to harness the knowledge and experience of its policymakers and diplomats familiar with STEM research. Owing to the launch of President Obama's 2012 priorities for STEM Education and the 2013 Global Innovation Initiatives articulated by policymakers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, it was clear that science diplomacy can be a useful and reasonable tool for advancing the STEM disciplines (4).

STEM experts working in diplomacy require competencies and skill- sets to effectively counsel officials involved in policy development to train the next generation of STEM scientists and to build research capacity for their countries. For example, academic medical centers in the U.S. are now promoting...

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