By Giselle Soares
The Middle East is widely perceived as a region of intense conflicts, such as the dispute over oil, territory and, more recently, the social movement known as the Arab Spring. However, the region has a rich history of scientific research, which is less well known. During the Islamic Golden Age, a period that covers the 8th and 13th Centuries, there were huge contributions in science and technology related fields such as mathematics, biology and medicine. It was by thinking about the potential of the Arab world to emerge again as an important center of science that the Nature Publishing Group launched the Nature Middle East, a web portal of information on medical and scientific research involving 18 nations of Arabic Middle East.
According to Mohammed Yahia, editor of the website, the Nature Publishing Group decided to create the Nature Middle East due to changes in the region that were particularly interesting in science. Many countries in the region were turning towards science, heavily investing in it and partnering with major universities and research centres around the world, says Mr. Yahia. "We might be at the beginning of a new science renaissance in the region, and we at Nature Publishing Group wanted to be at the forefront of that and be part of it as it happens", he states. Mr. Yahia will be one of the speakers at the 13th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST).
Mohammed Yahia, editor for Nature Middle East, is a speaker at the 13th PCST Conference that will be held in May in Salvador, Brazil. He will be part of the plenary about science communication and social media
Yahia graduated from Cairo University with a bachelor degree in Pharmacy and Pharmacology. He started his activities in science journalism under the tutelage of Nadia El - Awady, former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and one of the most renowned science journalists in the Middle East. According to him, there is a huge role for science journalism in the region, but science-related discussions on topics such as water scarcity, water and energy insecurity, environmental degradation and educational deficits become primarily political discussions. "I think science journalists have a role here to bring these discussions to the public, so they can push politicians to change their approaches". Yahia also notes that science journalists need to act as the link between what researchers are working on in their closed off ivory towers and between the layperson. "The layperson needs to understand what research is being conducted and how it affects them. The science journalist also needs to play a part in creating a science culture in society, bringing science home, so that the layperson can have a voice in what issues and problems he/she faces - and that should be one of the drivers of scientific research", emphasizes the editor of Nature Middle East.
For what concerns the public communication of science in the Middle East, Mr. Yahia says that there has been some improvement in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. "The main problem is that science journalists here are often not familiar with science topics, which means they have trouble understanding and explaining it to audiences. This can have various effects, from the less serious problem of writing an uninteresting and uninformative piece to writing something full of blatant scientific mistakes. I also wish there were more science journalists and more dedicated science pages in major news outlets. As it stands, very few media organizations have science teams (or even a science editor)", he explains. On the positive side, he points the foundation in 2006, of the Arab Science Journalists Association (ASJA), an association to bring science journalists and communicators from across the region together. "This was great help since we produced material to help science journalists produce better quality work. The linking up also allowed this small, core group of people to help each other regionally, which is a wonderful way to break through the limitations of budget that we often face when working on larger, regional stories".
Participation in the 13th PCST Conference
On the conference that will be held in Salvador, Mr. Mohammed Yahia will attend the plenary on science communication and social media on May 7th at 9am. He hopes that the event will give a chance to science journalists in Latin America who might not have had a chance to interact with their colleagues in other parts of the world. "I am especially excited that it is coming to Latin America because, unfortunately, I have always felt that Latin America was underrepresented in other science meetings (such as the World Conference of Science Journalists - WCSJ). PCST being held in Brazil will certainly be a boost to science journalism in Latin America and this is definitely a boon". He highlights the diversity of topics covered and the origins of the speakers. "The speakers in the sessions are also from very diverse backgrounds (both geographically and development-wise) which I think will only enrich the discussions. It is wonderful to get a chance to share experiences with peers from across the world", concludes the editor of Nature Middle East.