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Vol. 35 No. 2
March-April 2013

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
See also

Science—A Bridge to Peace

The fifth conference in the biennial series entitled "Frontiers of Chemical Science: Research and Education in the Middle East" (Malta-V) was held in Paris, France, from 4–9 December 2011. The venue was UNESCO, which had invited the organizers to hold the meeting at its headquarters as one of the final events of the International Year of Chemistry. Scientists from 12 Middle East countries attended and the conference was designed, in part, to forge stronger relationships with, and establish collaborations among, scientists in the region. As with previous conferences, the intention of the organizers was to draw the attention of national governments to the notion that improving scientific cooperation could act as a spur to sustainable growth and in promoting peace and political reconciliation through science diplomacy and cross-border scientific collaboration in an extremely volatile region of the world.

The previous four conferences had taken place in Malta (2003, 2005), Turkey (2007), and Jordan (2009). Malta-V was attended by almost 80 invited individuals, with more women and advanced graduate students than at previous conferences—a deliberate attempt to engage these groups. Delegates came from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Unfortunately, the regular participants from other Middle East countries were prevented from attending because of visa problems despite UNESCO's efforts. The conference was co-sponsored by UNESCO, IUPAC, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation Global, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Chemical Society, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, and a host of other organizations.

Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova (right), and HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan enter the lecture room for the opening ceremony of the Malta V Conference at UNESCO's headquarters.

As president of the Malta Conferences Foundation, Professor Zafra Lerman opened the meeting by introducing Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO, who gave a welcoming address on behalf of the organization in which she emphasized the importance of such meetings in identifying potential solutions towards improving the well-being of the planet. Following a number of short greetings from representatives of some of the sponsoring bodies, Nicole Moreau, then president of IUPAC, greeted the participants and gave a short talk about the work of the union. Lerman then welcomed HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, well known internationally as a voice for global sustainability, reconciliation, and inter-religious understanding. His opening address reflected his ongoing interest in economic and social governance, and he put forth his vision of a new Middle East in which improvements in education could help achieve peace and democracy. Prince Hassan had opened the previous meeting (Malta-IV) in Amman and his presence in Paris reflected his positive views on the ethos and principles governing the Malta conferences. His erudite and stimulating presentation was extremely well received and the participants were grateful for his willingness to stay on for some time to talk to individuals during the morning break. It is hoped that Prince Hassan will continue working with the organizers in the future.

As at previous meetings, this conference was structured on a series of well-attended thematic workshops, keynote talks from Nobel Laureates, visits, and some social activity, all designed to encourage interaction, understanding, and collaborations between the scientists from the Middle East. In addition, an IUPAC Working Group on Regional Water Quality Assessment (established in Malta-III in 2007 and still working on the project) reported its findings as part of one of the Workshops.

As 2011 marked the centenary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Madame Marie Curie, the conference concluded with a film about her life and work.

Five intensive workshops were conducted during the conference: Environment: Air and Water Quality; Sustainability of Resources, Energy and Materials; Science Education at All Levels; Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products and Nanotechnology and Materials Science. Each was co-chaired by Middle East and western contributors.

The talks given by the Nobel Laureates have always been regarded as crucial to the success of these conferences—most are more than willing to stay for the entire period of the meeting. On this occasion, the laureates were Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and Jean-Marie Lehn (France), Dudley Herschbach and Walter Kohn (USA), and Richard Ernst (Switzerland).

Claude Cohen-Tannoudji's talk dealt with "Measuring Time with Ultracold Atoms" and had an emphasis on the function of atomic clocks and their practical applications. Richard Ernst's contribution on "Western and Eastern Concepts of Physics and Metaphysics" presented very philosophical arguments concerning art through the ages of western and Buddhist perspectives, as well as the humor of Einstein and Mozart. Jean-Marie Lehn's talk on "From Supramolecular Chemistry Towards Adaptive Chemistry" included a special emphasis on metallosupramolecular grids. Dudley Herschbach's lecture on "The Impossible Takes a Little Longer" included a historical perspective from propylene to polytoxins. Together with Walter Kohn's talk on "Solar Energy," in which he expressed the importance of the population growth effect on energy consumption, all the lectures provided considerable food for thought. There were also two exceptional additional plenary talks. Michael Graetzel's talk on electricity and fuel production from sunlight examined the progress being made towards the utilization of solar energy as a substitute for energy from fossil fuels and nuclear sources. Omar Yaghi's talk on materials science and global mentoring described the growth of a vibrant global science community through the involvement of faculty and students at institutions around the world.

The organization of the conference allowed considerable time for informal discussions among the participants. Most morning and afternoon sessions began with one of the Nobel Laureate presentations followed by discussion and then one or more workshops. These were scheduled so that each attendee had an opportunity, so far as was practicable, to participate in each session. As at previous conferences, each workshop developed a set of statements and recommendations for future actions that were presented in a plenary session on the final day.

The workshop on Environment: Air and Water Quality included two technical sessions that focused on environmental chemistry and water quality. A third session dealt with current and prospective collaborative research projects. It included presentations that highlighted the results of the IUPAC-sponsored Working Group project referred to earlier that assessed sustainable water resources for the countries in the River Jordan watershed (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, and Palestine). Attendance at all three sessions was high, due to the wide recognition of, and concern about, the serious environmental issues facing all Middle East countries.

IUPAC representatives announced that they planned to sponsor a Chemistry Research Applied to World Needs (ChemRAWN) conference on sustainable water resources based in part on the Working Group's accomplishments. Its final report was submitted to IUPAC in 2012. Other potential collaborative projects identified were an evaluation of the environmental impacts of intense water desalination activity, the assessment and development of aquifer recharging with treated wastewater methodologies, groundwater remediation technology development, and the development of a strategic vision for a sustainable Middle East and North Africa.

The goal of the workshop on the Sustainability of Resources, Energy, and Materials was to concentrate on presenting current research activities in the field of renewable energy and to enhance the establishment of collaborations that could lead to the development of renewable energy sources. It featured four oral presentations and extensive discussions on relevant topics. As a result, a number of ideas were considered appropriate for continuing collaboration, including the submission of a workshop proposal to the Binational Science Foundation to support facilitating the development of partnership research projects that would bring together scientists from Israel, Palestine, and the USA. Another idea was a Middle East student symposium on sustainable energy organized by students themselves, designed to promote interaction between participants from the entire spectrum of sustainable research and to encourage the creation of a future generation of scientists in the domain of sustainable energy.

The objectives of the workshop on Science Education at all Levels were how best to increase students' interest in studying science and what approaches to teaching science are most effective for student learning. These were covered in three sessions dealing with approaches to experiencing and understanding science, the techniques and tools available for teaching, and identifying challenges and opportunities to take the issues forward. As a result, a number of initiatives were identified: continue and develop collaborations relating to inquiry-type experiments; urge science educators to assess the efficacy of their methods and to develop collaborations with educators in other Middle East countries; and to extend the concept of science education without borders (global mentoring) to younger students, combining this with peer education. A most important outcome was to spread the word about the extraordinary changes that have taken place in Saudi Arabia in the education of women in science over the past 35 years. Finally, it was considered useful for students at Bethlehem University to produce a video of one of the applications of fiber optics that could be uploaded to YouTube for wider use throughout the region and beyond.

The immediate outcome of the workshop on Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products was that new discussions would inevitably lead to fresh collaborations. Several areas were identified, including the need for more review articles and original research papers on traditional and chemical approaches to medicinal plants; the presentation of a global view to raise awareness amongst the public regarding both the benefits and potential risks and hazards of medicinal plants; updating information on instrumentation around the world; and to publicise news about progress on medical sensors and the synthesis of bioactive compounds.

The workshop on Nanotechnology and Materials Science was covered in two sessions. It was evident that both materials and nanotechnology research are required for establishing the sophisticated industry that is much needed in the region. It was considered vitally important to promote these topics amongst students, despite the relatively expensive infrastructure required. There was also a need to have an effective framework for collaboration. However, it was recognised that, because of the political situation, such collaborations needed to be outside the region, but with the necessity to involve young scientists and students from across all countries in the region. Efforts would be made to obtain the support of the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology for the organization of a summer school for students and young investigators.

Conferees presented about 40 oral papers during the workshop sessions, as well as 20 contributions to well-attended and highly stimulating poster sessions. These provided participants with an overview of work in the region related to scientific and management strategies. Private discussions will undoubtedly lead to collaborations that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish under normal circumstances. It was evident that all those present made valuable contributions to promoting the chemical sciences for peace, diversity and human rights by building friendship, trust, tolerance and cooperation in a very turbulent part of the world.

The importance of the social side of these conferences cannot be underestimated as they provide informal occasions at which existing collaborations can be discussed and new ones instigated. Apart from the usual breaks, we were indebted to The Honorable David Killion, the US Ambassador to UNESCO, for hosting a reception at his residence and to Sir Peter Westmacott, then British Ambassador to France (and now British Ambassador to the USA) for hosting a reception at the beautiful and historic British Embassy. Other notable social activities included dinner at Le 58 Tour Eiffel restaurant and the farewell banquet on a River Seine cruise.

As for previous conferences, it is well worth recording that the organization of Malta-V required several additional obstacles to be overcome compared to previous conferences. These included, for example, the perennial and worsening problems associated with the obtaining of visas and only the strong relationships forged in those earlier meetings enabled most of these problems to be solved. Without these relationships, an already difficult conference organization would have been even more burdensome.

The numerous positive comments from participants at the end of the meeting more than justified the efforts made to ensure that the conference took place. Finally, the participants were unanimous in calling for a tenth anniversary conference in the series and Malta-VI will be held in November 2013 on the island of Malta where the first conference (Malta-I) took place.
The Malta Conferences Foundation was established in 2011 in Washington DC as a non-profit foundation, thus giving it charitable status.

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