Doha, Qatar—The Arab Spring that toppled governments in North Africa and the Middle East turned into an Arab summer for science journalism, as more than 700 attendees from ninety countries gathered for four days last week in this Persian Gulf city to discuss the importance of covering science in a rapidly changing world and the crucial role of a free press in doing so.
“The revolution was the easy part. What is happening now is the hard part,” said Egypt’s Nadia El-Awady, co-director of the 7th World Conference of Science Journalists, on the meeting’s final day. “When you liberate people’s minds and creativity, it creates a healthy environment for science, and if we can create and hold on to democracy, we have a good chance to improve science.”
The groundbreaking international meeting—the first such gathering in the Middle East—was jointly organized by Arab and American science writers in collaboration with colleagues from around the world. The conference was originally scheduled to take place in Cairo, but the unanticipated political revolution in Egypt brought planning to a halt, as some of the organizers, including El-Awady, put their own lives on the line in the Tahrir Square protests that brought down the reviled government of former president Hosni Mubarak.
The unsettled situation following the January 25 uprising threatened the conference’s future until a last-minute plan emerged to keep the meeting in the Middle East by moving it to the tiny desert nation of Qatar. The decision to move the meeting to a more stable location was agonizing for the organizers and drew criticism from some registered participants who felt that it betrayed the sentiments of support expressed by many foreign science writers during the revolution. However, with violent clashes between protesters and police erupting in Cairo during the conference’s second day, and strong turnout for the meeting, those criticisms soon dissipated.
“We managed to pull through the challenges and difficulties,” said El-Awady, an understatement to say the least, given the turmoil she and others experienced personally and professionally during the eighteen-day Egyptian uprising. Her own world changed dramatically, as she found herself tweeting her experience to colleagues around the world as she transformed from a journalistic observer to a self-proclaimed “revolutionary.”
“Our most important goal was to bring the conference to a new region of the world for the first time,” said El-Awady, the retiring president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). “It was a chance not only to have developing world journalists learn from the developed world but also to have developed country journalists learn from developing world journalists. Our most proud achievement with this conference was that more than 50 percent of the delegates came from the developing world for the first time, from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, including the Arab world. For us nothing surpasses that.”
The new venue, Qatar, presented conference participants with a study in contrasts, however: a stable Islamic monarchy that has escaped recent Arab uprisings; a predominantly foreign population (Qataris number only about 15% of its 1.6 million people); home to the global Al Jazeera television news network (which broadcasts in Arabic and English); an outpost for several American universities in its futuristic Education City outside Doha; scorching 115-degree F. outdoor temperatures and overly air-conditioned buildings (which helps give it the world’s worst per capita carbon footprint); super-rich (world’s highest per capita income and highest per capita oil and natural gas production and reserves); and an ambitious goal of becoming a technological and scientific Arab leader.
The journey to Doha began in 2007, when Arab and American science writers began working together as part of an international project of the WFSJ to network and train journalists in developing countries. The federation, founded in 2002, includes nearly forty science journalism associations from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East.
“When we first started partnering with Arab journalists, we were just trying to build bridges,” said Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who chaired the international conference committee for the Doha meeting. “It was in the midst of the Iraq War and there was a great deal of conflict between our cultures. We thought, we can do better than that. We built relationships and trust and eventually decided to partner to hold this conference in the Arab world.”
The hard work began after the seventy-five-year-old United States’ National Association of Science Writers, with more than 2,000 members, and five-year-old upstart, the Arab Science Journalists Association, with about 200 members, won the competitive bid to co-host the 2011 conference.