Spring 2012

The American University in Cairo and the Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona have more in common than the arid desert locales of their respective campuses. We share a strong belief that universities must be dynamic forces for good in solving the complex problems of the twenty-first century. For this issue of the Cairo Review, we collaborated with an ASU think tank—the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, or CSPO—to produce a set of essays on Science and Innovation Policy. The result is a thought-provoking look at concerns ranging from the global energy revolution to the Obama administration’s reliance on drone warfare.

Our lead article is co-authored by ASU President Michael M. Crow, who initially established CSPO (as well as the Earth Institute) while at Columbia University. He and William B. Dabars make a powerful case for American research universities having to adapt so as to better address the ‘grand challenges’ of our times, such as sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and social justice. According to CSPO Co-Director David Guston who, with fellow Co-Director Daniel Sarewitz, oversaw the collaboration with the Cairo Review: “Crow is creating a ‘new American university’ that sees itself as part of a community of scholars and citizens who share values about the role of science and technology in our world.”

Speaking of desert locales, we’re also honored to publish an article on the search for groundwater in the Middle East by one of the most distinguished scientists in that field–Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.

Lee Gutkind reminds us that science doesn’t have to be, well, dry. CSPO’s writer in residence co-authored a contribution that describes an innovative project funded by the National Science Foundation to foster collaborations between writers and science policy scholars in the genre of creative nonfiction. “Knowledge of science, technology, and public policy is increasingly important for our prosperity and survival,” says Gutkind. “Writers can be the essential link connecting the scientist, engineer, and policy wonk to the real world.”

The Cairo Review-CSPO collaboration sprang to life a year ago, when Gutkind visited Cairo to deliver a talk at AUC. It’s fair to say that we have gained equally from our editorial work together. But I think that the Americans came out ahead in the culture exchange. Egyptians lavished Gutkind with local delicacies such as ful, tamiya, koshari, and molokhia. On the menu when the Cairo Review visited Tempe? Pizza, of course!

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Candidates in the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Election

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh

Independent Candidate
Secretary General, Arab Medical Union (2004present)
Member, Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau (19872009)
Born in Cairo, 1951


Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood’s liberal wing, is a pediatrician and political activist. As a student leader in the 1970s, he famously stood up to President Anwar Sadat at a Cairo University meeting and criticized the regime’s crackdown on the Brotherhood. He received degrees in medicine and law from Cairo University and a master’s in hospital administration from Helwan University. He is the secretary general of the Arab Medical Union. He has been known for his progressive views within the Brotherhood, notably on women’s rights, Muslim-Christian relations, and protecting minorities, and is considered popular with the organization’s younger members.

After announcing his candidacy for president as an independent, he broke with the Brotherhood, which had initially declared that it would refrain from nominating a candidate for Egypt’s highest office. He announced his platform at a rally in Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park attended by thousands of supporters. He portrays himself as the best candidate to bridge the gap between secular liberals and Islamists.


  • Stresses the importance of religion and democracy in Egypt and emphasizes the necessity for increased integration between Muslims and non-Muslims. Stands for the guaranteed protection of minorities.
  • Says that Egyptians do not need the government to teach them how to be pious, and rejects compulsory veiling.
  • Supports free trade and private enterprise alongside government playing a role to ensure social justice.
  • Advocates a strong presidential system for Egypt, at least until a variety of strong political parties can be established.
  • Promises to appoint a vice president under the age of forty-five and a number of ministers in the same age range—as a commitment to the youth who launched the revolution.
  • Promises to name a woman or a Coptic Christian as vice president.
  • Advocates an end of military trials for civilians and the retrial, in civilian courts, of those convicted in military courts since the revolution.

Khaled Ali

Independent Candidate
Founder and Former Director, Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights
Co-Founder, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre
Born in Daqahliya governorate, 1972


Khaled Ali, the youngest of the presidential candidates, is a human rights lawyer and labor activist. In 2010, he won a highly publicized case directing a 1,200 Egyptian pound minimum monthly wage for Egypt’s public sector employees.

He commands wide respect in the human rights community as founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights. In March, he filed a lawsuit against parliament, challenging the constitutionality of the majority Islamist hundred-member assembly tasked with drafting the new constitution, and he has participated in protests in front of the assembly’s meeting place.

Ali reportedly turned down a cabinet post offered by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He advocates social justice and ending government corruption, arguing that “Egypt is not poor. Egypt has great resources. What we do have, however, [are] policies that create poverty.”

He says that his candidacy addresses Egypt’s youth. “My decision to run is not about filling a gap,” he told Reuters. “It’s about being a different voice, from a different generation, presenting a different political discourse.”


  • Wants to revive the public sector while fostering competition in the private sector.
  • Advocates dismissal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and trial of SCAF members for crimes committed since gaining power in February 2011.
  • Proposes funding increase for state colleges and universities.
  • Rejects Egypt’s need for foreign aid, such as the $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan under consideration in parliament.
  • Promises appointment of three deputy presidents, with at least one position reserved for a woman and another for a Coptic Christian. Says at least 75 percent of his advisers will come from the “youth”—thirty-five years and under.

Abdullah El-Ashal

Candidate of Al-Asala (Authenticity) Party
Director, Policy Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (200103)Assistant Minister of International Legal Affairs and Treaties, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (19992001)

Born in Sharqiya governorate, 1945


Abdullah El-Ashal is an arbitrator for the Egyptian minister of justice and a professor of international law at the American University in Cairo. He studied economics and political science at Cairo University, law at Alexandria University, undertook post-graduate studies at both the Sorbonne and Harvard, and earned a PhD in international law at Université Paris.

El-Ashal served in Egypt’s diplomatic service for nearly four decades, retiring with the rank of assistant minister for international legal affairs and treaties. He is the author of over fifty books and is a legal scholar known for his work on the Lockerbie bombing case and the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

He is a member of the Law Committee at the Supreme Council for Culture. He also heads the independent legal committee established to follow-up the execution of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (also known as the Goldstone Report). The Salafi Al-Asala party officially endorsed his candidacy.


  • Calls his platform the “Project for Egyptian National Revival.”
  • Claims that he will reduce unemployment within four years.
  • Advocates agricultural reform.
  • Calls for review of 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Mohammed Selim El-Awwa

Independent Candidate
Secretary General, International Union for Muslim Scholars
Co-Founder, Arab Muslim-Christian Dialogue Group
Born in Alexandria, 1942


Mohammed Selim El-Awwa is an Islamist thinker and senior member of the Al-Wasat (Middle) party. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in law at Alexandria University in 1965 and a doctorate in philosophy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 1975.

El-Awwa is one of the founders of the Arab Muslim-Christian Dialogue Group and has worked extensively on bridging Sunni-Shiite divisions. Despite his efforts on Muslim-Christian interaction, he made controversial remarks to Al Jazeera about the Coptic Church’s “stocking arms and ammunition in their churches and monasteries.” He denies news reports claiming that he called the Coptic Church a ‘state within a state.’

As the nominee of the Islamist Al-Wasat party, which won ten seats in the recent parliamentary elections, he is competing to be the moderate Islamist candidate of choice. Al-Wasat, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in 1996 but was only formally recognized as a political party in February 2011. The party’s centrist tendencies offer Islamist voters an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the largest Salafi party, Al-Nour.


  • Calls for the committee that will write the new constitution to be representative of all aspects of Egyptian society, despite the Islamist majority in parliament.
  • Opposes granting the military special status, but has generally been either friendly or indifferent towards the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
  • Advocates a mixed system of presidential and parliamentary power.
  • Says that the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty “should be reexamined once things have settled down in Egypt.”

Hisham El-Bastawisi

Candidate of National Progressive Unionist (Tagammu) Party
Judge and Vice President, Court of Cassation (200006)
Prosecutor, Court of Cassation (198898)
Born in Cairo, 1951


Hisham El-Bastawisi is a jurist known for his advocacy on behalf of an independent judiciary. He most recently served as the vice president of the Court of Cassation, one of Egypt’s highest appellate courts. He received a law degree from Cairo University in 1976.

He became widely known for challenging the integrity of the parliamentary and presidential elections held in 2005 under the former Mubarak regime. For his outspoken criticism, he had his judicial immunity revoked by the Egyptian Supreme Judicial Council in April 2006. Popular protests supporting El-Bastawisi enabled him to keep his position on the court, but he later fled to Kuwait citing “evil and obscene” pressures from the Mubarak regime. He returned to Egypt after the January 2011 uprising.

El-Bastawisi announced that the socialist Tagammu party, which holds four seats in parliament, had nominated him to become the party’s presidential candidate. The April 6 Movement, one of the most influential youth organizations, supports his candidacy.


  • Calls for the Egyptian military to be held accountable for crimes since taking power in February 2011.
  • Labels education a top priority, and advocates free public education for all Egyptian citizens through high school.
  • Says drafting a new constitution is the country’s top priority.
  • Dismisses secularist fears of Islamic rule, saying that Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution makes –Islamic jurisprudence the principle source but not the sole source of legislation in Egypt.
  • Says renegotiating the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is an Egyptian right, but argues -canceling the treaty would damage Egypt’s international standing.
  • Supports renegotiating or abolishing gas exports to Israel.
  • Advocates a mixed system of presidential and parliamentary power.

Mohammed Fawzi Eissa 

Candidate of Al-Geel Al-Democrati (Democratic Generation) Party
Born in 1967


Mohammed Fawzi Eissa is a lawyer and former police officer. A graduate of Ain Shams University and recipient of a police science diploma from the Police Academy, he started his career as an officer in Cairo’s Abdeen district. He worked as an investigator in Upper Egypt and served as the head of Salamout city council.


  • Calls for social justice.
  • Advocates greater trade union rights.
  • Promotes education reform.

Mahmoud Hossam El-Din Galal

Independent Candidate
Head, Bedaya (Beginning) Party
Born in Alexandria, 1964


Mahmoud Hossam comes from a military family and is a graduate of the Police Academy. He was a member of State Security for much of his career and worked in the United Nations’ Middle East Human Rights Department from 1992 to 1994. He aims to restore security and purge the police force. His economic program focuses on increasing agricultural production.

Abul-Ezz El-Hariri 

Candidate of Socialist Popular Alliance Party
Founding Member, Socialist Popular Alliance Party
Founding Member, National Association for Change
Member of Parliament (1976–1979), (1984–1989), (2000–2005)
Born in Daqahliya governorate, 1944


Abul-Ezz El-Hariri is a strong advocate for social justice. He joined the Arab Socialist Union and Youth Organization in 1966, and the leftist opposition Tagammu party in 1976. That year, he became Egypt’s youngest member of parliament—elected as a representative from Alexandria. He had his parliamentary immunity lifted in 1977 due to his involvement in massive labor strikes. He became a founding member of the opposition National Association for Change during the rule of the Mubarak regime. He split with the Tagammu party in 2011 and cofounded the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, whi ch holds six seats in parliament..


  • Advocates social justice and wealth redistribution.
  • Seeks revision of Egypt’s foreign relations with the United States and Israel.
  • Calls for amending the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, calling it an embarrassment to Egypt.
  • Criticizes actions of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Hossam Khairallah

Candidate of Al-Salam Al-Democrati (Democratic Peace) Party
Assistant Chairman, General Intelligence Service (2000−05)
Born in 1945


Hossam Khairallah is closely associated with Egypt’s national security services. His father was the founder of Egypt’s Central Security Agency, a former governor of Aswan, and a former deputy prime minister. His grandfather was an admiral in the Egyptian navy and chief of the Giza police. Following in their footsteps, Khairallah graduated from the military academy in 1964 and served as a paratrooper during Egyptian involvement in the Yemen Civil War, as well as in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In the mid 1970s, he left the military to join the General Intelligence Service (GIS).

From 2000 to 2005, he served as assistant chairman of the GIS, under Omar Suleiman, who briefly became Egyptian vice president in the final days of the Mubarak regime. He reportedly chairs an investment organization, the Nile Investment Company. His campaign focuses on economic development and unemployment.


  • Proposes aggressive development of Egypt’s Mediterranean Coast to alleviate population pressure along the Nile River. Also proposes the creation of an agricultural development corridor from the Qattara Depression to the western oases.
  • Says drafting a new constitution to define division of power is a priority.
  • Calls for review of 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and says stability with Israel is best achieved through development of the Sinai Peninsula.

Mohammed Morsi

Candidate of Freedom and Justice Party
President, Freedom and Justice Party (2011present)
Member of Parliament (200005)
Born in Sharqiya governorate, 1952


Mohammed Morsi heads the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. He is a professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Zagazig. From 2000 to 2005, he served in parliament as an independent. Considered a conservative within the Brotherhood, he headed a group drafting a party platform in 2007 that included a provision calling for restricting the presidency to Muslim men.

Morsi received a BA and MA in engineering from Cairo University in 1975 and 1978, respectively.

He earned a PhD in engineering from the University of Southern California in 1982, and served as an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge.


  • Supports a “Renaissance Project” aimed at developing Egypt within Islamic principles.
  • Advocates increased privatization of industry, deregulation, and tax cuts to spur growth.
  • Favors a parliamentary system, but agrees to a mixed presidential-parliamentary system for a transitional period.
  • Believes U.S.-Egypt relations “must be balanced,” and has cautioned that if the U.S. were to block aid to Egypt, the 1979 treaty with Israel could come under review.
  • Calls on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over authority by June 30, 2012.

Amr Moussa

Independent Candidate
Secretary General, League of Arab States (200111)
Minister of Foreign Affairs (19912001)
Born in Cairo, 1936


Diplomat turned politician Amr Moussa graduated from Cairo University in 1957 with a degree in law. His career in the foreign ministry took him overseas and back, and ultimately to its top post. As a mid-level diplomat, he served as an advisor to the minister and held a number of ambassadorships, notably envoy to India (1983−86) and permanent representative to the United Nations (1990−91).

As minister of foreign affairs, he gained wide popularity in Egypt and throughout the Arab world especially due to his criticism of Israel. Moussa moved to the Arab League in 2001, prompting speculation that President Hosni Mubarak viewed him as a political rival. After he announced his candidacy for president in 2011, an early opinion poll conducted in Egypt made Moussa the runaway favorite with 40 percent support from decided voters.


  • Calls for equality and integration of all Egyptians regardless of religion or location, and says Upper Egypt needs to be rapidly brought onto an equal footing with Cairo and Alexandria.
  • Seeks to reform but not dismantle the State Security agency.
  • Advocates the empowerment of women and youth to play a “more influential role in the future of Egypt.”
  • Calls for amending the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and opening Egypt’s border with Gaza.

Hamdeen Sabahi

Independent Candidate
Member of Parliament (200010)
Founding Member, National Association for Change
Co-Founder, Kefaya! Movement
Born in Kafr El-Sheikh governorate, 1954


Hamdeen Sabahi is a former member of parliament and co-founder of the Kefaya! (Enough!) movement, launched in 2004 to fight corruption and the “hereditary succession” of Gamal Mubarak to the presidency. In 2010, he co-founded the National Association for Change.

He established the Al-Karama (Dignity) Party in 1996 after leaving the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party. Al-Karama was only formally recognized in August 2011, but Sabahi was elected to parliament in 2000 and reelected in 2005 as an independent. Sabahi was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in 2003 for his role in organizing demonstrations against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. His Al-Karama Party is a member of the Freedom and Justice Party’s Democratic Alliance bloc, yet Sabahi is running for president as an independent.


  • Advocates social justice and fighting poverty.
  • Calls for review of 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and suggests putting the treaty to a national referendum.
  • Criticizes actions of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and opposes a ‘safe exit’ for its leadership.

Ahmed Shafik

Independent Candidate
Prime Minister (January 29-March 3, 2011)
Minister of Aviation (200211)
Commander of the Air Force (19962002)
Born in Cairo, 1941


Ahmed Shafik graduated from the Egyptian Air Force Academy in 1961 and served as a fighter pilot in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, under then-Air Force Commander Hosni Mubarak. After six years as commander of the air force he was appointed minister of aviation in 2002, and received acclaim for restructuring Egyptair. He helped secure World Bank funding for the construction of Cairo International Airport’s new terminal.

On January 29, 2011, Mubarak appointed Shafik as prime minister in response to the protests against his regime. Shafik resigned a little more than a month later amid protests decrying him as a holdover from a discredited, ousted regime.


  • Supports the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): “SCAF is serious about power handover and is seeking to achieve the goals of the revolution. SCAF stands at an equal distance from all political and religious powers.”
  • Says his campaign does have a written platform, but prefers to focus on “practical work that provides specific solutions to specific problems.”

To Think, To Write, To Publish

To Think, in which two different kinds of people have to learn to think together under difficult circumstances and do things that, while not utterly unprecedented, are still rare and challenging.

Sonja Schmid knows she has only three minutes to make her point—and she has to share that time with her new partner. Ross Carper is standing behind her. He’s in his early 30s, balding, wearing a striped jersey, and reading over her shoulder as she follows her notes. She describes a cigarette break she shared with an aging Russian nuclear reactor operator she had been interviewing, which led to a special moment when their conversation went beyond technical talking points to a personal topic—his relationship with his reactors.

Schmid, with a cascade of wavy black hair, black-rimmed glasses, and chic red scarf, is an assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Carper is a writer with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Schmid has a PhD in Science and Technology Studies and Carper an MFA in fiction writing. They met each other only a few hours ago and yet they are already collaborating on a writing project that will consume them for 18 months. Now they have but three minutes to convince four very critical editors that readers—educated people who had rarely, if ever, given thought to nuclear reactors or their operators—would want to read about Schmid’s research. Their secret weapon: the ancient art of storytelling, embodied in a genre called creative nonfiction.

This was the pitch slam, the focal event of “To Think, To Write, To Publish,” a project aimed at promoting deeper public understanding of Science and Innovation Policy (SIP), the principles, guidelines and courses of action developed by society for using the work of scientists and innovators. The idea behind the 2010 project, which was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), was that, by working with communicators, SIP scholars could render academic findings more cinematic and, by introducing real characters behind the facts, tell a true story with action and excitement in order to communicate information about their subject in a way more compelling than would generally be possible with straight exposition or academic argumentation. The NSF typically funds research in the natural sciences and engineering to advance both fundamental knowledge and socially beneficial innovation. The NSF is also interested in two activities in conjunction with these goals: funding scholarship that helps explore and explain SIP; and communicating to broad public audiences the importance of science and innovation. The NSF achieved both these goals by supporting “To Think, To Write, To Publish,” and helped bring together scholars of science and innovation policy (like Schmid) and communicators of science and innovation (like Carper).

“Creative” in creative nonfiction refers to the style—not the substance—of the work; it differs from fiction and scenario writing in the sense that nothing may be fabricated or imagined. Instead, it is based in careful research and observation, just like journalism or academic writing—making it well suited to relaying the conclusions of long-term scholarly research. The editors that Carper and Schmid hoped to convince were largely receptive to the idea of combining SIP and story: Laura Helmuth, a short, trim, outdoorsy brunette who seems perfectly matched to the SmithsonianMagazine, where she is a senior editor; Leslie Meredith, a slender, soft-spoken, and conservative-mannered vice president and editor at Simon & Schuster; and Scott Hoffman, founding partner at the New York literary agency Folio Management, a boisterous presence in the room, with a booming voice and biting wit. All three are well aware of the growing endorsement of creative nonfiction within the publishing community and are actively encouraging the genre among their colleagues.

The fourth editor, Kevin Finneran—tall, thin, neatly bearded, and immaculately professional in blazer and tie—represents the august U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its wonk-ish policy publication, Issues in Science and Technology (IST). Finneran was perhaps the most unlikely to buy into the idea that story can communicate policy to the general public as well as to experts and scholars. In his ten years as editor of IST, Finneran has published four issues each year with eight to ten articles per issue, and not a single one has ever been of the creative nonfiction genre. Yet by the end of the pitch slam, he had committed IST to publishing pieces produced by Schmid and Carper and the eleven other participating scholar-communicator pairs. Finneran left it up to them to figure out how to turn scholarship into story.

Lee Gutkind and David Guston were responsible for bringing Schmid and Carper—and the eleven other teams—together. Gutkind, dubbed by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” led the field’s vanguard by creating graduate programs in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh and Goucher College in Baltimore. Guston, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO) at Arizona State University—recently ranked fourth in a list of “global go-to think tanks” in the area of science and technology—is a well-published and highly cited scholar in science and innovation policy who has always aimed for that broader audience. Their idea, simply enough, was to bring promising writers and scholars together, in pairs like themselves, and train them in creative nonfiction.

Gutkind and Guston had noticed that, while scholars of science per se have found a popular audience, SIP scholars had not yet done so. The communication of science demands a mind-set and an understanding of processes and terminology that seems foreign and elusive to many readers. Yet narrative books about science, technology, and related topics have always attracted readers. Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell inspired many young men and women to become doctors and scientists, while Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine ushered in the computer age. We hardly need mention Carl Sagan’s great science documentary, Cosmos, and Godel, Escher, Bach, by the mathematician Douglas Hofstadter.

Communicating science policy, however, doubles the complexity and challenge of communicating science because policy is as foreign in its practice to most people as science is. Yet such global challenges as the recent nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, climate change, and the risks posed by emerging technologies, as well as such U.S. domestic concerns as the innovation economy and the immigration of high-tech workers, demand attention to social and policy aspects, not just technical ones.

While most of us did heat a test tube or dissect a frog in chemistry or biology lab in high school, it remains likely that our closest exposure to the policy process is pulling a lever in a voting booth every couple of years. And precious few of us have given any thought to the fact that one of every eight discretionary dollars the U.S. federal government spends goes on scientific research and development (R&D), or the role that data and standards play in fostering environmental health and safety, or how people interact with complicated technological systems such as nuclear power plants.

Compounding the problem, SIP scholars—who often have undergraduate degrees in science or engineering and graduate degrees in the social sciences—are not experienced or comfortable writing for the general public and explaining what they do. They’d rather write for policy makers, whose background and sensibilities are similar to their own. Using social science research techniques, interviews and observation, for example, many SIP scholars aim to distinguish their work from that of journalists and convince skeptical readers that their accounts should be deemed reliable knowledge and not “just stories.” So even as doctoral and MFA programs in creative nonfiction are spreading across the globe; institutes and programs in narrative science, narrative history, narrative law, and narrative medicine are blossoming; and subspecialties of narrative genetics, narrative neuroscience, and narrative psychiatry are emerging, SIP scholarship is largely stuck in its traditional mode of plodding academic articles tucked away in journals whose subscription base would equal the guest list of a medium- to large-sized wedding.

And while it is true that more and more writers and journalists are recognizing the value of writing about science, the fact is that science writers are generally more interested in reporting the excitement of scientific discovery or the allure of emerging technologies, rather than the obscure details of policy, about which they may be less aware, or in some instances totally unaware. Gutkind recently approached a group of journalists—all of whom were veteran reporters and journalism professors, and about half of whom specialized in science reporting—and requested a letter in support of one of his writing projects. Two of the group had no idea what was meant by science policy. One veteran reporter and director of a prestigious journalism program asked, “By science policy, do you mean like what Oliver Sacks does?” He was referring to the neurosurgeon most known for his book of creative nonfiction essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Another, a veteran science writer who teaches for a prestigious science writing program, said that having studied a science policy website, she could see how policy related to some of her colleagues who write about genetics or robotics, but she couldn’t see how policy could relate to her chosen field of astronomy.

Because of journalists’ and editors’ lack of awareness of SIP issues, important critical perspectives are often left out of even the most successful writing about science. A good example is journalist Michael Specter’s essay in the New Yorker in December 2010 on synthetic biology. Specter produced an incredibly lively, readable piece about cutting-edge biology and the scientists, like Jay Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley, who are doing it. Better still, he coaxed the scientists into discussing some of the ethics and policy questions that surround the field, including issues of safety and security in the creation and introduction of organisms novel to evolution (and public health). But Specter stopped short of including other scientists’ accounts of these policy and ethics questions—either by not recognizing or not pursuing the work of insightful SIP scholars whose views of the prospects, risks, and benefits of synthetic biology might be different from those scientists actively involved in the research.

In contrast, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks combines good science with fine narrative story telling—and simultaneously illuminates serious challenges for science policy and research ethics. Skloot received an MFA in creative nonfiction and worked as an assistant editor atCreative Nonfiction, the first literary magazine to publish creative nonfiction exclusively. Prior to publishing the book in 2010, she also taught creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Memphis. Skloot excavated the story of Henrietta Lacks and personalized the narrative of how immortal cells, the HeLa line, from her ultimately fatal cervical cancer became vital to the development of the polio vaccine, as well as for drugs used to treat herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; how her cells helped uncover the secrets of cancer and the effects of the atom bomb, how her cells led to important advances in the spheres of cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping; how since 2001 five Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research involving HeLa cells; and how her family, the descendants of slaves, were unaware of these contributions decades after her death. In creating her New York Times bestseller, Skloot also drew significantly on the work of SIP scholar Hannah Landecker.

So to encourage the next Specter to cast a wider net and draw out the next Skloot into putting it all together, Gutkind and Guston conceived “To Think, To Write, To Publish.” Through broadly circulated appeals, they recruited a dozen early career SIP scholars (of more than three dozen applicants). These scholars included a philosopher of science concerned with the narrow scope of bioethics in the U.S., a sociologist who investigates the interaction of science and the marketplace, and an expert in marine science and policy who studies how small fisheries innovate to prevent bycatch of protected species. They also recruited a dozen early career communicators (from more than twenty dozen applicants!), including a recent MFA graduate in creative nonfiction interning at Wired, a children’s literature specialist and contributing editor to Otata.org, a Chicago-based collective of photographers and writers, and a publisher of genre fiction from Portland, Oregon. The twelve collaborative two-person teams—composed of a “next generation” SIP scholar and a “next generation” writer—would learn creative nonfiction and narrative techniques and would write a creative nonfiction essay together, based on the scholar’s research.

To Write, in which two actual people survive an exasperating collaboration to complete a task neither could have done alone.

Six months after the pitch slam, the second of the “To Think, To Write, To Publish” pieces for Issues in Science and Technology arrived in the inboxes of the organizers and IST editor, Finneran. For Gutkind, it left something to be desired: “What we’re looking for,” he explained over the phone to authors Gwen Ottinger and Rachel Zurer, “is something with more… narrative.” Gutkind went on to point out several places where their collaborative piece about Ottinger’s research had lapsed into lifeless exposition.

When Zurer called an exasperated Ottinger to regroup, she honed in on a particularly abstract section of the article. Ottinger—a Berkeley-trained anthropologist with an undergraduate engineering degree and knack for asking the kind of question informed by both fields of her academic training—had spent the best part of a decade studying efforts to measure the ambient air concentrations of toxic chemicals in communities adjacent to oil refineries and other petrochemical facilities. She wanted their piece to make the point that increased and extensive air monitoring was only useful if it was combined with research on health in the community. Their argument hinged on a criticism of existing regulatory standards and screening levels for toxins in the ambient air, which serve as the yardstick against which air quality can be measured. In short: these yardsticks can vary greatly depending on who is setting the standards, in large part because they are—almost necessarily—one part research, one part extrapolation, and one part expert judgment.

The manuscript they submitted had said as much. Zurer, a newly minted MFA deeply committed to her craft of creative nonfiction and gently dogged in her desire to understand the subjects she wrote about, now wanted them to figure out how to show it. She suggested inserting standard-setting as a scene in their narrative. But a scene of a regulator sitting at a desk and sifting through a stack of scientific studies, deciding what safety factors to apply and how to combine the results, hardly seemed cinematic. Besides, Ottinger complained, if they made a regulator their main character, they could only show the process of making one set of standards and not the larger context, where uncertainties, disparities, and omissions become obvious and limit the usefulness of standards for residents and policy makers trying to understand whether emissions from an industrial facility are affecting a community’s health.

“So who is seeing that larger context? Who is making the argument?” Zurer asked, perhaps hoping that some charismatic community activist could become the cornerstone of their article.

“Nobody!” Ottinger snapped. Then she sighed, “I mean… I am.”

Ottinger went on to explain that this was why it was so important to her to publish her research in a policy journal like IST. In general, scholars, especially those early in their careers, confine themselves to academic journals, where every article is reviewed by two to four experts on the subject matter before it can be published. The peer review process certifies the quality of research, and despite such journals’ small readership, publishing in them establishes an academic’s reputation and allows her or him to advance in the university. Writing a narrative piece for IST would hardly help Ottinger’s tenure case. Yet she felt she had something to say that people beyond her hundred closest colleagues needed to hear.

Various community and activist groups she studied had been advocating for—in some cases quite successfully—more ambient air monitoring on petrochemical facility fence lines. But increased monitoring data would be of little use without better tools with which to interpret it. And building these tools would require that the problem be acknowledged, not just by community groups, but also by scientists and policy makers who could offer resources to the project.

It was no surprise that Ottinger identified problems through her research that others hadn’t recognized, or that she would assume policy positions that were not necessarily advocated by the activists whose campaigns she’d studied. This is, in fact, part of the nature of scholarship. Academic researchers have a unique perspective: they can take a big picture view, looking at large structures as well as particular circumstances, and they can take years to untangle what is happening at multiple levels and see how it all fits together. Policy recommendations based in scholarship are thus likely to be far-reaching, long-term, and relatively novel.

But creating a narrative that would not only convey but also truly drive the communication of a scholar’s perspective on air monitoring in communities at the fence line really challenged Zurer and Ottinger. Good stories have characters, they have conflict, and they have resolution. What the scholar-communicator pair had was an on-going problem that no one was even fighting about yet—except perhaps Ottinger herself, and then only through her academic writing and occasional advice to activist groups.

“So we should do that,” Zurer said after listening to Ottinger explain how she’d actually come to the conclusions that she wanted their article to convey, “We should tell your story.”

Zurer’s suggestion was a radical one: policy scholars write about their observations and analyses, not about themselves and their learning processes. Nor do journalists usually allow themselves to become characters in their own stories. But having tried everything else they could think of, Ottinger squelched her discomfort and began the piece with the sentence, “I was at the most undignified moment of moving into my new office—barefoot and on tiptoes on my desk, arranging books on a high shelf—when one of my fellow professors at the University of Washington, Bothell, walked in to introduce himself.”

And the story finally emerged. Within the first two paragraphs, the unnamed colleague provided the conflict the narrative needed, asking the vexed question of whether emissions from oil refineries really make residents of the communities at their fence lines sick. Ottinger’s struggle to answer “The Question” then sweeps the reader with her through an Oakland, California internship and fieldwork in Norco, Louisiana, to Zurer’s meeting with activist Marilyn Bardet in Benicia, California, back to Ottinger’s office and, finally, inside her head where she formulates a plan for more extensive environmental health monitoring upon which better ambient air standards could be based, by imagining the answers that could come from extensive new air monitoring programs in communities like Benicia:

I wandered off to the faculty holiday party conjuring a new daydream: The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences would call for proposals for studies correlating air monitoring with environmental health monitoring; the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency], making ambient air toxics standards a new priority, would demand that data from fenceline communities be a cornerstone of the process; and Marilyn Bardet would seize on the new opportunities and make her community part of creating a better answer to The Question.

This interweaving of policy recommendations with Ottinger’s quest for answers earned the approval of both Finneran and Gutkind; Ottinger and Zurer’s article went on to become part of IST readers’ introduction to science policy in narrative form.

To Publish, in which at least some of our scholars and writers, having overcome the trials and tribulations of thinking and writing, succeed in their ultimate goal.

Prior to the pitch slam, the agent Scott Hoffman and the editors Laura Helmuth, Leslie Meredith, and Kevin Finneran had offered advice to the newly forged narrative-SIP teams. But at times even they didn’t seem to get it. Their experience seemed to be editing material in which science was the subject, and not the object, of study. In which scientists were the narrators or central protagonists and not problematic characters themselves in need of explanation. In which the book sells because it is selling the excitement of science. In which one word titles and Nobel laureates demand attention to their own view of the future. And while this is a necessary evil in today’s challenging publishing environment, there are other important considerations.

“How much room is there in commercial nonfiction for ambiguity, ambivalence, and criticism around science and technology, rather than promotion and adulation?” Guston asked.

A general laugh followed the response, “That’s a tough market!”

Helmuth from the Smithsonian took the idea of criticism in the wrong direction, responding that “It’s hard to do a book-length treatment of scientists misbehaving, although people have done it.”

But critical doesn’t always mean searching out the seamy side of science—the method, for example, journalists William Broad and Nicholas Wade adopted in Betrayers of the Truth, a book about scientific fraud and misconduct drawn from their front-page New York Times stories. In comparison, SIP scholars approach science with a level of constructive, learned, critical engagement the way, say, a movie critic approaches a film. A Roger Ebert for science and innovation would understand not only the role of the actors who perform the science, but also the research directors who organize it, the producers who finance it, and the audiences who are moved by it. He would understand whether the purpose was profit, passion, politics, or pure creativity. He would leave room for ambiguity and ambivalence alongside the adulation.

Hoffman, the agent, was modestly more expansive in his understanding of criticism, but nevertheless maintained that readers “want to know what is possible rather than what isn’t possible. And so what you’re selling is, to a certain extent, a fantasy or a possibility.” But properly done, creative nonfiction derived from SIP scholarship can extend possibilities rather than rein them in. Just as in art class, criticism goes hand-in-hand with appreciation. SIP scholars recognize science as a cultural achievement worthy of praise, and they acknowledge effective, legitimate science and innovation policy as doubly remarkable in its success. The desire to examine and account for science and innovation doesn’t diminish that appreciation; indeed, it stems from it. Collaborative story-telling between scholar and writer both enables a critical perspective and allows scholars’ wonder to shine through by adding color, richness and texture to central analytical points. The combination of perspective and richness makes it easier for a reader not immersed in the worlds of science or science policy to nonetheless appreciate them as part of civic life and not pristine, isolated, and remote from it.

The editor Meredith pointed toward ambivalence and even controversy as a challenge to editors and writers alike, but also held it as a potentially productive force. After learning the hard way from editing a book that was a “nice story” but was universally reviewed as presenting a one-sided view of the science, Meredith says, she now asks her “expert authors, ‘who dissents from you in all this?’ And it provides narrative tension if you have to defend yourself.” But she still saw dissent in terms of a controversy within the scientific community, rather than a conversation among scientists and non-scientists about the purpose and meaning of the enterprise and how scientific practice reflects those aims. Meredith, like Michael Specter, hadn’t yet included SIP scholars—as credentialed, hard-working, public-regarding, and brilliant as the scientists themselves—as actors to engage in this critical dialogue with scientists and facilitate such a dialogue with the public.

The academics behind the thinking and the writing illustrate the profound challenge that communicating science and innovation policy faces. But it was harder still, the participants were to discover, putting it into practice. Several of the collaborations foundered on the all-too-familiar shoals of conflicting professional demands and incompatible agendas between scholars and communicators. Some modes of failure could be ascribed to the organizers. For example, due to other demands on the group of scholars, they were not tutored in creative nonfiction with the writers, leaving them to learn this new craft from their partners, some of whom were fresh out of MFA programs and still working to master it themselves. Further, the structure of professional training meant that “young” scholars were as much as a decade older than their “young” communicator counterparts. The unions of writers and scholars were also arranged by Gutkind and Guston, leaving each pair to struggle to discern the meaning of their match.

Yet via the completed work, Finneran saw that the genre could make SIP issues dealt with in his journal more accessible and appealing. As he wrote in his “New Voices, New Approaches” introduction to the series of articles in IST, “[T]his is hard to believe [but] some people would rather read a compelling story than a meticulously organized piece of rigorous academic argument.” As much as even the published essays bear some scars of difficult collaborations in thinking and writing, as Finneran says, “the analysis is as perceptive as the story is engaging.” The pieces also show that creative nonfiction is, ultimately, a strong genre for what we in science and innovation policy want to say.

For Ottinger and Zurer, the narrative in “Drowning in Data” helped show that unknowns in science—“The Question” of whether emissions from refineries are really making people sick—are as important as the knowns. In order to expose this problem of the ambivalence of data, they had to break with conventions of both academic writing and creative nonfiction by making an author the story’s main character.

For Schmid and Carper, “The Little Reactor that Could?” demonstrated that you can’t tell the whole story of science and innovation without both people and things as actors, and without the relationships between them being part of the central dynamic. These dynamics are often acknowledged only metaphorically, and—like good creative writing—science and innovation policy can be ruled by a dominant metaphor: Schmid’s Russian informant likened supposedly identical, large nuclear reactors to “children; each one is different.” So, Schmid and Carper ask quite reasonably if small, modular nuclear reactors can really be regarded as “batteries”—or whether humans must continue to be attentive to the complexities and uniqueness of each individual machine.

For Sarah Whelchel and Elizabeth Popp Berman, “Paying for Perennialism” exposes how human lives and futures are tied up in complex systems of money, policies, nature, knowledge, and technologies. Perennial grain crops could be a great boon for the environment, reducing the stress on soil that annual plantings and regular tillage induce and increasing through larger root systems the amount of carbon that such plantings would sequester. Whelchel and Popp Berman weave together the narratives of three men—a Kansan agricultural activist, a Washington state wheat breeder, and a Cornell plant geneticist—to show how at least some in the agricultural community are attempting to perform long-term, high-payoff research on perennials even as they are opposed by declining federal research budgets, hostile corporate agendas, and a skeptical and even complacent scientific community. Yet even their colorful and moving stories may fade to irrelevance without policy makers to bestow priority on perennial research.

And for Meera Lee Sethi and Adam Briggle, “Making Stories Visible: The Task for Bioethics Commissions” performs for synthetic biology what Michael Specter’s piece did not: it shows how scientists work in stories, and potentially controversial ones at that. Detailing the personal narrative of one real life character—from comic book and science kit-loving kid to high profile SIP analyst and master furniture maker—Sethi and Briggle highlight the variety of ways we can tell stories about synthetic biology and thus the variety of policies we might have for governing it. They also wield a metaphor, the Geiger counter built by their lead character as a child, to remind us that both science and story are built from powerful but elusive elements that take technique and patience to reveal and control.

In response to Guston’s pre-pitch slam question, Finneran had agreed with his fellow editors that publishing creative nonfiction around science and innovation is “a challenge, it’s an extraordinarily difficult challenge,” especially “without becoming seen as ‘anti-science’.” But he hoped that the people involved in this project could “start us down this path.” Finneran declared that we would all like to see “a more ambiguous, more richly thought-out critique and understanding of science, so that it isn’t so remote and so distant from ordinary people… You get it right, we’ll publish it.” The writer-scholar teams thought and wrote. Finneran kept his word, and published.

Now, nearly two years later, the results of this unique experimental program are quite promising. ISThas published four of the collaborators’ essays and two more are under consideration. One of the communicators has launched an online creative nonfiction social action journal. Another “next gen” participant has become publisher of a medical science oriented book series. Three of the collaborators have been offered speaking or writing engagements as a direct result of their efforts. The NSF has recently funded a follow-up program, with a much more comprehensive plan. And the ambiguous, nuanced, and narrative critique of science that Finneran envisioned stands poised to become a force in public discourse about both science and science policy.

Lee Gutkind is a professor at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and distinguished writer in residence at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of more than twenty books, most recently, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, an examination of the work of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. His other books include,Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation; Stuck in Time: The Tragedy of Childhood Mental Illness; and The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Gutkind is the founding editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction.

David Guston is co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. He is also a professor of political science at ASU. His book, Between Politics and Science: Assuring the Integrity and Productivity of Research, won the Don K. Price Award in 2002 from the American Political Science Association for best book on science and technology policy. Among other books, he is the co-author of Informed Legislatures: Coping with Science in a Democracy. Guston is the North American editor of Science and Public Policy.

Gwen Ottinger is an assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Program at the University of Washington, Bothell. She is co-editor of Technoscience and Environmental Justice: Expert Cultures in a Grassroots Movement and author of Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges.

The Cairo Review is grateful to Matthew and Eve Levine for their permission to publish David Levine’s drawing of Lewis Thomas. Limited edition prints and licensing opportunities available through D.Levine Ink at 


Science Under Siege

In December 2007, a disputed presidential election threw Kenya into a state of violent turmoil along ethnic lines. The economically powerful Kikuyu community largely backed the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki, himself a Kikuyu. Competing against Kibaki was Raila Odinga, an ethnic Luo and son of Kenya’s first vice president. Odinga was likewise largely supported by his community, as well as by other prominent ethnic groups including the Kalenjin. After delayed results and allegations of vote rigging, violence erupted across the country when Kibaki was declared the winner.

The election brought tribal differences to the surface, and the ensuing conflict was starkly about ethnicity and access to resources. Dominant groups in mixed communities forced minorities to leave their land and their livelihoods, or be killed. Some eleven hundred people were killed and another three hundred thousand displaced within two months. Eventually, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a power-sharing agreement that ended the immediate crisis. Kibaki, leader of the Party of National Unity (PNU), and Odinga, head of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), signed the National Accord and Reconciliation Act on February 28, 2008.

Kenya’s national scientific research and higher education system is closely connected to Kenyan politics, and became embroiled in the political unrest. The system both shapes and is shaped by the key ethnic and resource-distribution dynamic underlying the conflict. Universities and research establishments, including the extensive Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, relocate people throughout the country for work or studies where they are often destined to live as a member of a minority in the community. Universities are also traditional centers of political activism, so it was no surprise that relations between normally collegial faculty and students hailing from different ethnic groups became tense during the contentious election period.

The devastation the unrest inflicted on Kenya’s knowledge system is a sobering illustration of the price that societies pay for the failure to resolve their differences peacefully. Harrowing tales were commonplace. Mobs raided research institutes, searching for tribal minorities. Test fields were burned and equipment destroyed. Junior researchers living outside of compounds were especially affected and universities delayed opening, which led to further academic disruptions and economic hardships. When political unrest affects knowledge systems, it not only impedes education and the production of new scientific knowledge. It also damages a system that is key to strengthening democracy against the pressures of ethnic-based politics.

Rumblings in the Rift Valley

The story of a junior researcher, who I’ll call Murimi to protect his anonymity, helps illustrate how the turmoil affected Kenya’s scientific research and higher education system. Murimi lives in the Rift Valley, an area where much of the violence occurred. He describes his position—an agricultural research assistant in a university agronomy department—as the “lowest in the academic cadre.” Nonetheless, he is on the front line of research and education. He works in the research fields with his hands in the soil, showing students what six centimeters means when spacing seeds. He monitors crop trials designed by professors and senior researchers.

Murimi is a Kikuyu, the largest of Kenya’s seventy ethnic groups at about 17 percent of the population. The Rift Valley Province is an economically rich region that illustrates the complexity and volatility of ethnic politics in the country. It is a huge swath of land stretching almost from the capital, Nairobi, to Lake Victoria on the western border, and covering the entire north-south length of the country from South Sudan to Tanzania. The central Rift Valley is covered with white-tented horticultural facilities filled with flowers and fruit plants. Lush tea plantations are found in the rolling green hills of the western highlands. Life and livelihoods are tied to the land.

Before the unrest, the Rift Valley’s economic resources and ethnic groups were distributed in a delicate equilibrium. Kikuyus who came to the valley over half a century ago, live in mixed communities along with Kalenjins, Luos, and people from other ethnic groups, including many who came for research or education purposes. Land was a scarce and valued resource, which created some tension. But research went on. Knowledge was generated. Students received degrees.

But the 2007 presidential election upset the balance. In the Rift Valley, Murimi and other Kikuyus are a minority in a province dominated by the Kalenjins, who comprise about 13 percent of Kenya’s overall population. During the campaign, Kalenjins supported Raila Odinga, whose Luo ethnic group is another strong force in the Rift Valley. Kalenjins themselves tasted the fruit of political power for decades during the rule of Kenya’s longest-serving president, Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin.

In casual conversations and joking between research staff from different ethnic groups­—common and non-confrontational occurrences before the unrest—Kikuyus might be stereotypically seen as enterprising, strong in business, and sometimes overly focused on money. Murimi is certainly an enterprising man. He uses the knowledge he has gained from his research position to create a harvest and a living for his family from a very small piece of rocky land on a hillside. He also assists a neighbor, who has a much larger piece of land and many more animals but lacks Murimi’s knowledge about farming and livestock management.

The majority of Kikuyus come from Kenya’s Central Province, a smaller region nestled between the eastern border of the Rift Valley and Mt. Kenya. Many Kikuyus came to the Rift Valley more than fifty years ago—around the time Kenya gained independence from Britain. Kenyans argue over why and how so many Kikuyus ended up in the Rift Valley. Some feel that the Kikuyus were the first to take up a capitalist system of land management and bought land there from departing British settlers. This is the view of one professor of agronomy, Murimi’s immediate supervisor.

Another professor in the same department expresses an opposite view. He feels that Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president and a Kikuyu himself, enabled Kikuyu farmers to acquire land for free in an exercise of political patronage. This professor is Luo, who make up about 10 percent of Kenya’s population and are historically from Nyanza Province on the shores of Lake Victoria. University students and faculty joke that Luos are stereotypically known for being smooth talkers and make good politicians. The Luo feel slighted than none of their own has ever been president of Kenya, although they did produce a president of the United States—Barack Obama’s Kenyan roots are Luo.

Regardless of why and how the Kikuyus came to the valley, the fact remains that many Kikuyus live there now. Many of these Kikuyus identify with being from the Rift Valley more than from the Central Province. Murimi was born in the Rift Valley, as were his parents.

Before the unrest, differences between Kikuyus and Luos didn’t generally get in the way of collegiate interactions at universities and research centers. The Rift Valley is home to several major universities and several campuses of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Students, professors, and researchers from many different ethnicities regularly move to the Rift Valley for work or studies. Describing the social relationships between staff at her KARI campus, one researcher stated that, “You couldn’t see that [ethnic] line between them, because we are a mix.” This is true in Murimi’s case, he and the two professors with divergent political views socialized and worked well together at their university.

Tension between Kikuyus and Kalenjins seemed to be becoming more common, however. Kalenjins are stereotypically seen as war-like because of their strong traditional hunting rituals. Kalenjins are known for producing the best long distance runners—prompting jokes among university students that Kalenjins don’t need land or a job because they can just run for a living.

Yet, land is of course important to Rift Valley Kalenjins. A soft-spoken Kalenjin student from the western Rift Valley I’ll call Kibet described the situation: “Land is almost everything in our community.” Kalenjins are farming and livestock-raising people who have had a patriarchal system of dividing land between relatives for generations. Kibet explained: “My grandfather had twenty-five acres and five sons. My father was given five acres and in our family we are five sons. So each and every one of us expects to get one acre.”

The Kalenjins are also strongly associated with Kenya’s second president. Some argue that Daniel Arap Moi effectively created the Kalenjin identity. Seeking political support, Moi brought disparate tribes together under the Kalenjin banner and through alliances with other groups, including some Kikuyus. Moi went on to rule Kenya for nearly three decades. He did oppress political opposition, which led to periods of unrest in the Rift Valley in the 1990s. Moi’s authoritarian rule also extended to Kenya’s knowledge system. He held the power to appoint the ministers who dealt with agriculture, research, and education and he influenced who would be the heads of research institutes and the chancellors and vice chancellors of universities.

The Kibaki-Odinga Divide

Like many Kenyans, researchers, students, and professors tended to support a presidential candidate based on their own ethnicity. Kikuyus backed Kibaki, Luos supported Odinga and Kalenjins aligned with the Luos, hoping that a victory for Odinga would mean regaining land in the Rift Valley from Kikuyus. Although it is an oversimplification, a professor of sociology at University of Nairobi says the election pitted “Kikuyus versus Luos, or, if you like, the Kikuyus versus other tribes.”

And the rivalry was destined to play out within Kenya’s knowledge system. Universities have always been sources of activism and political opposition, and not just in Kenya. After President Moi made Kenya a one party state, university campuses were among the rare venues where debates could be heard although protests and demonstrations were common and the regime often cracked down on dissent. A professor who was a student during this time says, “We went to the streets, protesting, and of course, as usual, we were beaten up by the police. And eventually the university was closed.”

Naturally, university students sought to be involved in the 2007 presidential election. They felt an itch to demonstrate. At the University of Nairobi, the administration narrowly averted mass protests that might have shut down the campus. Many credited this to the purportedly close relationship between the university’s vice chancellor and the president of the student government who, it seems, cooperated to head off demonstrations.

Students were involved in campaigning for their respective candidates and candidates went to great lengths to mobilize students into attending their campaign events. Organizers would contact student leaders, who in turn would forward the messages to fellow students, often along ethnic lines. The campaigning created divides among students, including between friends. Splits developed even among roommates in dormitories and stories began to circulate about students intimidating each other.

However, some students worked to dampen ethnic politics, especially in their home provinces where they enjoyed a respected status due to their education and were considered more in tune with national politics having lived in the capital. Kibet, the Kalenjin student from the Rift Valley, took this time to go to local constituency offices or small shopping centers to discuss election issues. He says that he and his friends tried to encourage people to discuss and debate the issues—such as the relations between branches of government or the distribution of development funds—rather than focus on ethnicity.

On election day, December 27, researchers, students, and professors were among the throngs of Kenyans who waited for hours in line to vote. Kibet stayed up late into the night. He and other voters in his constituency went to where the votes were being counted and insisted that votes be counted aloud in front of them.

Researchers and faculty, as a privileged social class, were plugged into more elite social networks. Through these personal relationships, they exchanged information and speculated about who the winner would be, and if there might be unrest or violence after the election. Mobile phones and other technologies served as channels of communication with colleagues in the capital and in other urban centers.

Early reports of the ballot count indicated that Raila Odinga was emerging as the frontrunner. One scientist and Odinga supporter said a friend and supporter of Kibaki called him shortly after the vote and conceded that Kibaki was going to lose. Another staff member at a research institute stated that he was concerned about violence breaking out after the election. He said that in conversations with former colleagues who were now members of Kenya’s national security service, they reported hearing chatter indicating that violence would break out, no matter what the result of the election. One researcher at a KARI campus in the Rift Valley recalls that there was “anxiety in every quarter.”

Arrows and Machetes

Suddenly on December 30, Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent president and the candidate backed by many Kikuyus, was declared the winner, and sworn in. It was a Sunday, and like most Kenyans, faculty and staff were home with their families. By almost every account—those of researchers, professors, students in the capital, Central Province, Rift Valley Province, and Nyanza Province—the reaction to the announcement was immediate. People took to the streets. Luos, Kalenjins, and other supporters of Odinga gathered in public spaces to decry the result and claim vote rigging. Kikuyus and supporters of Kibaki, meanwhile, started celebrating, sometimes in the same public spaces where Odinga’s followers were protesting.

Many researchers use the same exact phrase when describing the situation: “Hell broke loose.” Soon, violence spread outside of demonstrations and erupted from the shores of Lake Victoria to the slums of Nairobi and beyond to the beaches of the Coast Province in the east. The turmoil did not spare Kenya’s knowledge system. In the Rift Valley, Odinga’s Kalenjin supporters were expecting to win and be given some of the land back currently occupied by Kikuyus. Now that Kibaki emerged victorious, some Kalenjins became determined to take the land by force and flush Kikuyus out of the Rift Valley.

For more than two months, the unrest disrupted higher education and slowed down or froze scientific knowledge production as the conflict shifted from being a dispute about an election to one about ethnicity, land, and resources. Murimi is visibly shaken up as he describes this time period. As a Kikuyu and PNU supporter living in the Rift Valley, he found himself part of a minority group surrounded by angry Kalenjins. His land and home were in a mixed community where Kalenjins and Kikuyus had long lived interspersed in very close proximity. Everyone knew who belonged to which ethnic group. If names and appearances didn’t give it away, then style differences between Kikuyu and Kalenjin home construction did. Murimi felt, like many Kikuyus, that he was no longer welcome in his home—where he had lived his whole life.

Soon after the election, groups of Kalenjin warriors armed with bows and arrows began raiding Kikuyu homes, many of them Murimi’s neighbors. Some Kikuyu researchers and academics, being more senior than Murimi, had the advantage of living on the campuses of universities and research institutes. Campuses are fenced, with entry and exit controlled by private security guards, and provided more senior personnel with a higher level of security than their junior colleagues. Living outside the protection of the university walls and fences, Murimi’s security came from the social ties he had with his neighbors. But these were quickly breaking down.

Many raids happened after dark. One junior staff member at another university in the Rift Valley was awakened in the middle of the night by burning Molotov cocktails being thrown through his window. His home burned as he struggled to get his family out. The only remains of the structure are ash, a few stones from the foundation, and barbed wire from the fence. Murimi stayed at his home, but slept outside in the cold. He feared that if his house was found to be inhabited, it would be burned with him inside it. If it was empty, he thought it might be left alone. He says he witnessed an askari, or security guard, being murdered by a Kalenjin with a bow and arrow.

For Murimi, who armed himself with a machete, one of the worst experiences occurred when his neighbor turned violently against him. Murimi, a Christian, discussed how he loved his neighbor as a brother. He regularly helped his neighbor, sometimes spending hours helping gather his goats and cows. In return, Murimi could always depend on his neighbor supplying him with milk. But he describes how during the political unrest the neighbor “rose against me from bushes with bow and arrow. This was not the brother time.”

Similarly, Kalenjins and supporters of the ODM raided universities and national agricultural institutes across the Rift Valley and in the Luo stronghold of Nyanza Province in search of known Kikuyu researchers and staff members. One researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute in Nyanza Province describes a mob of Luos storming the research campus and coming to the gate of the compound saying, “This place is harboring Kikuyus.” After this incident and others like it, she continues, “If you were Kikuyu, you got out.” Similarly, a mob of youths pulled down a wall and overcame security guards at a Kenya Industrial Research Institute facility also in Nyanza Province. Computers were stolen and equipment was destroyed.

News of these raids spread east to the neighboring Central Province. Here, Kikuyus are the ethnic majority, but there were many non-Kikuyus working at the province’s Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute labs. Kikuyus from the towns surrounding the research facilities plotted revenge missions for what had happened at research institutes in Nyanza and Rift Valley. The director of one research institute in Central Province received death threats targeting specific non-Kikuyu researchers who worked at his lab. Mobs eventually raided this research facility. Police and security forces thwarted the raiders’ first attempt, but eventually the mob found an unfenced area and used it as a means to enter the grounds of the institute. Test fields adjacent to offices and living quarters were burned. According to the director, “There was a lot of panic. A lot of people who come from Western Kenya found it very hard to stay here. So they left, some of them left with their families.”

It is impossible to know the total number of raids or the total number of researchers who were killed or driven out. It is safe to say that almost every institute in Nyanza and the Rift Valley was raided or threatened, as were many institutes in Central Province. Of the many researchers and professors who were forced to leave their homes and their jobs, some went back to stay with relatives in other parts of the country where the situation was less tense. Some with nowhere to go went to camps for internally displaced people (IDP). Large IDP camps were set up by international relief organizations. The headquarters of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in the outskirts of Nairobi became an IDP camp and housed many researchers who had fled from institutes in other parts of the country.

Those researchers who stayed behind faced many difficulties in carrying out their work. Many are dependent on public transport to access their research field sites that are often far from research institutes or universities. During the unrest, transportation became severely hindered. Groups of youth set roadblocks on major roadways, stopping vehicles to search out people from opposing ethnic groups. Some researchers would send text messages to each other to circumvent roadblocks. But many were unable to reach their sites, sometimes ruining experiments where protocol dictated measurements be taken at certain specific times. Given the increased food prices because of difficulties in transportation, there were also instances of illegal harvesting on experimental agricultural plots.

Personal relationships between researchers and research participants changed due to the ethnic tensions. That especially affected people in the fields of medical and social science research. Even if a researcher could get to the site where they were conducting a trial of a drug or a survey to determine demand for a crop variety, they dared not go if it was within the community of a rival ethnicity. One researcher, who took the name of her Kikuyu husband, no longer uses it when she goes into the field. Her field sites are in Western Kenya where Luos and other groups were driving out Kikuyus.

Like other Kenyans, students witnessed atrocities. In the western Rift Valley, Kibet saw a mob kill an old man as he climbed a fence to reach the safety of a police station. Much of the violence was perpetrated by the ‘idle’ youth—young, jobless, hungry, and not enrolled in higher education. A common narrative during the violence was that political factions paid this demographic to carry out violent acts. A young man would supposedly receive 10,000 Kenyan shillings (roughly $100) for bringing the ear of someone they’d killed, and 30,000 shillings for burning a house. Kibet says he heard young people plotting and bragging about fights that they had been, people they had killed, and houses they had burned.

Many students were not able to get back to their studies for the start of the semester. Non-Kikuyu students from the Rift Valley faced a perilous journey through the Central Province if they needed to return to a university in Nairobi. Kibet says that he witnessed gangs of Kikuyu youth dragging non-Kikuyus off public buses and into the woods.

Most universities delayed the start of the term. At the University of Nairobi, the delay was about two weeks and inevitably affected the pattern of the semester. Professors rushed to cover the same amount of course material as in a full-term, or skipped material then sometimes testing students on that material anyway. The situation dug into university finances. The University of Nairobi’s cash flow depends on fees from part-time students who pay once term starts.

Professor-student relationships changed. New supervisors were sometimes given to masters and PhD students because previous student-supervisor pairs were from rival ethnic groups. As a result of this, research projects and topics changed, or were cancelled. Allegations arose that grades had become based on ethnicity more than merit. Professors had to take time in class to discuss their grading criteria and rubrics to quell these issues. One history professor told his students, “Although I am from another community, when I mark your essays it will surely be fair.”

Kenya’s Wise Men

Besides being affected by the unrest, universities and research institutes and the people that make up these institutions in many cases also aided the afflicted and actively tried to bring about reconciliation. Administrators sought as much as possible to turn campuses into safe havens for students from all ethnic groups. As somewhat closed systems, universities could control their own populations better than in the chaotic scenes in surrounding communities.

When campuses re-opened for classes, administrators required that lecturers talk to students about the ethnic violence and tried to minimize political posturing on campus. As one professor put it, “The vice chancellor more or less told the faculty to preach unity and understanding, and they didn’t want anybody giving speeches with any political undertones. Because that could trigger ill feeling and instability in the institution.” One professor stated that this “eased the tension.” Another professor commented, “Over time, you build bridges in class.” Universities provided food for students who lost their homes and/or families in the violence or if for reasons related to the unrest they could not afford to eat.

Similar formal and informal acts of support occurred at research institutes. Directors mandated that staff attend peace-building seminars. Researchers would keep in touch via text message with colleagues from different ethnic groups who had fled for safety, updating them on the situation at the institute and indicating when it was safe to return. Some researchers did what they could to help protect their colleagues from raiding mobs, despite being from rival ethnic groups. For instance, an acting director of a national medical institute who was a Luo taught a Kikuyu researcher a local Luo greeting so that he might be able to avoid being targeted if encountered by angry Luo youth.

Administrators, professors, and researchers also tried to negotiate peace within the wider community on whatever scale that they could. The vice chancellor of one college in the Rift Valley intervened “when a warrior came for blood” by negotiating for a cow to be sacrificed instead. Some administrators and professors ventured out into the surrounding communities to engage with those on all sides of the conflict. They believed that their status as learned members of the society could trump their ethnic identities and they could be neutral representatives in local negotiations. One professor, because of his experience working with and teaching young people, decided to go to meetings of local youth groups to discuss peace and reconciliation.

Murimi’s professor tells such a story. Many people witnessed youth being paid to commit violent acts but stood idly by. This professor was able to interrupt these transactions, at least temporarily, by asserting his status as a community elder. When a group of women came to pay youth to commit violence, the professor intercepted one of the young men afterwards. “As the leaders of this community, we are not going to allow you to do that kind of thing,” he told the young man. The professor believes that his intervention succeeded because of social ties he has built with the young people of the area.

After the formal peace process got underway, many professors and researchers brainstormed how they could promote political and ethnic reconciliation in the future. Some researchers thought that simply doing their work was the most important thing that they could do to contribute to political stability; to them, their research is a form of civic activism.

Scientific researchers framed the conflict as being fundamentally about land and resource scarcity. And they feel to address that scarcity is one of the ultimate goals of their work. Creating knowledge about better land management techniques, or designing new crops that can be more productive on the same amount of land, might lessen the tensions created by shrinking farmland. As one agricultural researcher put it, “My job is to tell you how to get more food.” Similarly, studying the vectors that spread diseases, like the mosquitos that cause malaria, would help stop these diseases rampaging through overpopulated areas of land.

Many in Kenya’s knowledge system also see higher education as a key factor in the long-term solution to conflict. Education is understood as a way to prepare youth for constructive employment and decrease the number of young men and women who are unemployed and hungry—a part of Kenyan society that participated in some of the worst violence. Some professors took this message directly to the village. “You don’t need your neighbor’s land, you need an education,” one professor told a group of young Kenyans.

These are noble notions, but there is obviously a limit to how deeply and quickly the knowledge system can be a force for peace. Even when researchers succeed in developing a new seed, vaccine, or other technology, there is no guarantee that the people who need it will be able to buy it, or otherwise have access to it. Better use of land does not alter the power relationships between ethnic groups with attachments to the land. Demand for higher education is increasing and not all Kenyans can enter university. Furthermore, education does not guarantee employment upon graduation.

The aftermath of the unrest witnessed some individual instances in which knowledge did help rebuild relationships. When Murimi and his neighbor made their own peace, it stemmed from the mutual acknowledgement of their symbiotic relationship. Murimi’s neighbor has more land and animals, but Murimi has the knowledge to maximize the benefits of these resources.

Kibet has successfully finished his studies and his parents are proud of him. He still looks forward to receiving his acre of land from his father, but he sees higher education as a way out of the shrinking land problem. He finds occasional work as a research assistant with former professors at his university and is considering a postgraduate education in Kenya or abroad.

Kenya’s knowledge system slowly returned to business after the peace agreement. However, some tensions and long-term effects remain. Some researchers never returned to their jobs. There are still campus arguments about which side was guilty of more vote rigging or perpetrated more violence.

Yet, there seems to be broad agreement on one important point: Kenya’s two-month crisis hurt everyone, and damaged the knowledge system. The events in Kenya show how political unrest can severely disrupt education and reduce technological and innovative capabilities. The crisis also demonstrated the role that higher education and research can play in strengthening a nation’s democratic ethos.

Matthew Harsh is a postdoctoral research associate at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He has served as a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh and the African Center for Technology Studies. He was the senior producer of Brother Time, a documentary film on political unrest in Kenya. He has written for the Journal of International Development, Science and Public Policy, and Development and Change.

Policy Makers Versus People

Climate change has become a major environmental issue of the twenty-first century, a threat in which humans are implicated both as perpetrators and as victims. It is a complex issue requiring thorough study. The political decisions being taken in response to climate change will affect everything from global economic development to the lifestyles and livelihoods of ordinary citizens everywhere—in short, the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

Yet, much of the climate change policy debate is limited to an elite set of people—politicians, scientists, and special interest groups. For the general public, questions and debates regarding climate change are framed as just too complex and technical. Ordinary citizens supposedly find it difficult to understand the aspects of climate change and the politics surrounding the issue. These citizens, though, will have to live with the consequences of climate change policy.

The distance between citizens and policy makers on the issue of climate change is ever widening. There must be a goal to close this gap and enable ordinary people to feel they have some stake in climate change policy. Failure to do so will make it less likely that citizens will eventually buy into behavior changes that policy to address climate change may entail. In the case of climate change, democracy is not merely the preferred approach on principle; it is a pragmatic necessity if policy is to achieve results.

World Wide Views on Global Warming, or WWViews, was a project aimed at giving a broad sample of citizens from across the world the opportunity to engage in global climate policy debates. Initiated by the Danish Board of Technology, a group overseen by Denmark’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Development, WWViews organized discussion groups on a single day in September 2009 in thirty-eight countries across six continents. In the first global citizen consultation of its kind, the participants debated and voted on recommendations for policy makers on issues already on the agenda at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summit in Copenhagen, also known as COP15, which took place in December 2009.

Citizen forums became a part of the formal policy process in the United States in the 1970s as one of the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. Citizen forums have been conducted in many countries throughout the world on such topics as genetically modified food, nanotechnology, electronic surveillance, and, of course, climate change.

WWViews proved to be a project with ambitions not only to promote greater citizen awareness of climate change but also to channel citizen views toward policy makers with the intention of influencing policy decisions. WWViews demonstrated that ordinary citizens can indeed comprehend the complexity of the climate change issue and make intelligent contributions to the debate. The project brought together a diverse set of forty-four regional and national partners ranging from some with significant experience in organizing deliberative processes to others with none. Some four thousand citizens participated at forty-four individual sites, and spent the day together deliberating and voting on twelve questions in four thematic areas—climate change consequences, long-term climate goals, greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and technology—then formulating concrete recommendations for COP15 delegates.

Overall, the WWViews participants concluded that climate change is a serious issue that affects everyone, that the negative effects of climate change are being exacerbated by a lack of action, and that immediate steps are now required to address climate change. According to the organizers, the WWViews on Global Warming produced nine clear policy recommendations to address climate change:

–Make a deal at COP15.

–Keep any temperature increase below 2 degrees.

–Annex 1 countries [thirty-seven industrialized nations including the U.S.] should

reduce emissions by 25−40 percent or more by 2020.

–Fast-growing economies should also reduce emissions by 2020.

–Low-income developing countries should limit emissions.

–Give high priority to an international financial mechanism.

–Punish non-complying countries.

–Make technology available to all.

–Strengthen or supplement international institutions.

Power to the People

WWViews provided a distinctive form of public engagement, combining the two key values of democratic governance: inclusiveness, or equal consideration of everyone’s preferences; and deliberation, a process of discussion in which people weigh competing arguments based on their merits. The idea was to create an atmosphere of mutual respect in which the participants avoided polarization or the distorting influence of special interests and instead took into account their legitimate differences of opinion.

To be better equipped for the discussions, participants received briefing materials in advance that were based on the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The design of WWViews called for approximately one hundred citizens at each site to be seated at tables of five to eight people with a facilitator trained to ensure that everyone got involved. After watching short information videos covering a theme for discussion, the participants then engaged in a facilitated dialogue, which also gave them time to reflect. Each of the four thematic sessions concluded with citizens casting their votes anonymously on two to four questions.

After concluding the thematic sessions, a final session was held at which citizens at each table wrote in their own words what they believed to be the most important recommendation to pass on to COP15 delegates. These were written on flip charts and taped to walls so that everybody could read the recommendations from each table before submitting individual ballots to select a prioritized list of recommendations. The reporting of the results took place instantaneously on the website of the project (www.wwviews.org), so that anyone with Internet access could—and still can—compare answers to the various questions across countries and regions, as well as political and economic groupings.

The participants were everyday citizens who did not have a direct stake in climate change. However, they all have an indirect stake as community members and world citizens who will have to live with the consequences of policies adopted by their political representatives. Invariably, WWViews enabled the airing of the wisdom of ordinary people into discussions. In some cases, the gatherings stimulated a passion among participants to actively engage others on climate change, and other issues.

WWViews provided a space for participants to gain a greater understanding of other viewpoints as well as generally expanding their awareness or deepening their knowledge about climate change. While some participants seemed better informed at the outset, each participant commonly found his or her voice during the process. Some realized that they had held an opinion on something that they had not been previously aware of while others perhaps strengthened their opinion of an issue through this engagement. In Phoenix, we observed that for some, the topic of global warming was new, while for others it was familiar. There were some in the group who already followed the politics of climate change very closely.

The WWViews process sought to arrive at agreement through thoughtful discussion and facilitators worked with participants to discover common ground. The idea was that a consensus should be built by people whose concern is the general good of policies likely to be acceptable within society and for the good of society as a whole. Ideally, such a consensus would place a burden on policy makers to justify policies that fall outside the consensus and thereby guide science and technology policy along paths that enjoy broad support.

From Phoenix to Cairo

We analyzed the results of the WWViews gathering in Phoenix using data from surveys taken both before (ninety-two respondents) and after (eighty-eight respondents) the event. On the question of interest in the subject of climate change, nearly 80 percent of the participants expressed a strong interest in learning about the topic. However, only a small minority felt well informed about it, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the participants underlined the importance of the subject for everyday life and within scientific studies. It is interesting to note that approximately 90 percent of the participants stated that they want to be involved in decision-making on climate change, but only about 60 percent expressed interest in taking part in deliberation processes.

Prior to the WWViews forum in Phoenix, a clear majority of 64 percent of the participants agreed that climate change already has had a negative impact on the quality of their life. This figure jumped to 74 percent following the deliberations. The vast majority of participants were aware of the seriousness of the climate change problem. For example, more than 80 percent believed that climate change will certainly reduce the quality of life for future generations. In the pre-event survey, only 62 percent expressed confidence in technology to solve the climate change problem. This figure increased to 81 percent in the survey taken afterwards.

Only 33 percent of participants in the first survey were willing to accept a significant reduction in income and lifestyle comfort for the sake of policies tackling climate change. That figure increased to 44 percent afterwards. Put in other words, a full majority of these Arizonans were not ready to give up their lifestyle in order to help address threats posed by climate change. Fewer than 30 percent of the Arizonans agreed that the U.S. is a world leader in reducing energy use to mitigate negative impacts on climate. In the pre-event survey, 62 percent of participants in Arizona showed confidence in international agreements on CO2 reductions to combat global warming. The degree of confidence soared to 85 percent after the deliberation. A sizable majority of the Arizonans, 70 percent, rejected the notion that environmentalists have exaggerated the threats posed by climate change. And nine out of ten believe that citizen action will be crucial in persuading national leaders to combat global warming.

Looking at the global results, it is remarkable how consistently citizens across different demographic groups and geographic regions agree on the urgent need for unified and strong policy to address climate change. Citizens across the globe want to keep any temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius; to set carbon reduction targets not only for industrialized countries but also for fast-growing economies and low-income countries; to give priority to the creation of international financial mechanisms and technology transfer programs; to strengthen international institutions and introduce both rewards and punishments for countries to reach their carbon emission goals. Nearly half of all the participants want to limit future temperature increase to current temperature levels, or even to decrease to pre-industrial levels. Countries projected to be hit hard by the impact of climate change showed the highest level of support for a return to pre-industrial temperature levels.

Approximately 74 percent of the 341 participants in the U.S. (Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Phoenix) reported being “very concerned” about global warming. This is in sharp contrast with recent public opinion polls in the United States indicating somewhat diminishing popular concern with climate change. A striking nine in ten Americans who took part in WWViews—as well as nine out of ten citizens in the other thirty-seven countries taking part—agreed that a new climate deal during COP15 was a matter of urgency.

Approximately 90 percent of Americans who participated in the deliberations agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 25−40 percent (or more) below 1990 levels by 2020. (This is the emissions target that the Obama administration is seeking.) Additionally, 48 percent of the four thousand WWViews participants want nations that fail to meet their obligations under a new climate deal to be severely penalized. More than half of the citizens who participated in WWViews voted that the price of fossil fuels should be increased as a means of encouraging alternatives to carbon-emitting energy sources.

The response of the citizen forum in Egypt is of special interest given how it differs from the global norm. For example, across all the WWViews forums 28 percent of the citizens said they knew a lot about climate change and its consequences before joining the project (and 53 percent said they knew something). In Egypt, however, a higher number, 49 percent, said they knew a lot (while 24 percent said they knew some). When asked the extent of their concerns about climate change, at the global level 62 percent said that they were “very concerned” about the possible impacts. In Egypt, this number reached 85 percent of participating citizens.

Egyptians also expressed a much higher degree of concern towards climate change than the citizens in much of the rest of the world, including the U.S. and Western Europe. Ninety-four percent of the Egyptians expressed a sense of urgency for a deal at COP15, whereas the global average on this question was 90 percent. When asked about whether the politicians in their country should give high priority to joining a new climate deal, 83 percent of Egyptians answered yes—this was prior to the January 25, 2011 revolution that toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime—while the global average was 91 percent. Compared to global and U.S. averages, Egyptians expressed a lower level of confidence in their politicians.

Finally, the results in Egypt may be indicative of heightened climate change concerns in the developing world for, in many cases, such countries are the most vulnerable to the potential negative consequences of climate change. In the survey, 39 percent of Egyptians sought a return to pre-industrial levels of GHGs; only Malawi, at 48 percent, voiced stronger sentiment on the question.

Challenging the Elites

The WWViews results represent a tangible airing of citizen voices that has been largely absent from policy-making arenas. The organizers of WWViews believe that the deliberations provided valuable insight into the views of ordinary people in a way that provides credence to the policy process by expanding the debate beyond the elites represented by politicians, scientists, and special interests.

It is not easy to quantify how it may have actually influenced policy making, but the WWViews organizers were disappointed that the project did not have a greater immediate impact. Nine out of ten WWViews participants urged their countries’ delegations to reach a new, binding climate change agreement at COP15. But that did not occur.

There is no doubt, however, that WWViews did contribute to raising awareness about climate change—certainly among the participants themselves but also in the wider communities that heard about the forums through local news coverage. Certainly politicians took notice of the events. In the Phoenix area, U.S. Representative Harry Mitchell, an Arizona Democrat, made welcoming remarks at the WWViews forum held at Arizona State University. “What’s important about this event is community engagement,” Mitchell said. “Citizen participation and input is important to any public policy change.  If you truly expect it to work, you’ve got to have citizen participation.”

And that may be the most important lesson policy makers should take from the WWViews project.


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Bedsted, B., and L. Klüver, L., eds. World Wide Views on Global Warming, From the World’s Citizens to the Climate Policy-Makers: Policy Report. Copenhagen: The Danish Board of Technology, 2009.

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Hendricks, C.M. “Consensus Conference and Planning Cells: Lay Citizen Deliberations.” In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, edited by J. Gastil and P. Levine, 80−110. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2005.

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Netra Chhetri is an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is a fellow of the Natural Research Institute at the University of Greenwich in London. He is a contributor to the International Panel on Climate Change assessment reports and has written for the Journal of Disaster Research, Applied Geography, and the Journal of Water and Climate.

Gary M. Grossman is an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Letters and Sciences, and directs the Global Technology and Development master’s program based at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow. By Daniel Kahneman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 512 pp.

The popular American television series Mad Men depicts a stereotypical workplace dynamic that never seems to go out of style: the brilliant manager who takes all the credit for closing the deals while delegating “the details” to his assistant. The bosses can come in late and take leisurely lunches, but the assistants are the ones who know where the clients’ files are and make sure their bosses show up to pitch meetings on time. I kept thinking about Mad Men as I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman’s treatise on what influences human behavior. The TV characters may be clichés, but they are part of the everyday patterns of behavior that Kahneman, the recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, explores and explains with brilliant observation and insight.

The book tells a story that captures the states of both the art and science of human nature, as chronicled by the prophets of experimental cognitive psychology over the past half-century. The story is about two likeable but flawed characters, who Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the under-appreciated administrative assistant of our mental life, the one who is constantly vigilant for any signs of danger or opportunity and “thinks fast.” System 2 is the “slow-thinking” rational manager who shows up at the last moment and yet truly believes he or she deserves all the credit. System 1 handles routine day-to-day matters using highly efficient filing systems and makes quick judgments with impressive accuracy. However, System 1 is also prone to certain systematic errors, such as assuming that the information at hand is the sum of all the relevant information to be gained, or assigning causal relationships to unrelated events. System 2 is capable of more refined, critical thinking, but is also lazy and prefers to allow System 1 to handle as much as possible, even when a given task is probably above the assistant’s pay grade. By allowing these characters to emerge through pithy descriptions of key psychological experiments, Kahneman gives meaning to a vast range of real world experiences.

For example, why do people tend to buy insurance right after a disaster? One of the quirks of System 1 is that, in order to make judgments rapidly and constantly, we have a tendency to substitute easy questions in place of hard questions, without even realizing that we are doing so. So, instead of asking about the overall likelihood of earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods, we ask how recently one of these disasters occurred. We use that answer to determine whether we need insurance.

Or why can it be advantageous to be the first person to name a figure when negotiating a salary, the price of a new car, or a divorce settlement? If we aren’t sure the exact worth of something, our System 1 will accept any suggested figure as a starting point—even a number tossed out at random—and tweak it upward or downward until it lands on a number that feels right. The upshot is that if you start out with a high anchor number, the final figure is likely to be much higher than if you start out with a low anchor number.

And why do we assume a nerdy, anti-social guy is more likely to be a computer science major than an English major, even though we know that English majors dramatically outnumber computer science majors? Because, once we have information that seems to correspond to a stereotype, System 1 values that association more than any statistical information it would pass on to System 2.

Kahneman concludes that System 2 is who we all like to think we are—the rational manager making conscious judgments based on all the relevant information. And System 1 is who we really are—the highly-efficient assistant making countless snap decisions based on mental shortcuts that work most of the time, i.e. except when they don’t. System 1 gets blamed for all the mistakes, and System 2 takes credit for the all the successes, but in reality, System 2 is responsible for letting the mistakes slip in, and also for making some errors of his own. Kahneman observes wryly that, in principle, it’s easy to avoid mistakes—simply slow down and put in more effort. Unfortunately, in practice, it’s precisely when we should slow down and reflect that we’re most likely to forge ahead on instinct alone.

Why does it make sense when Julia Roberts’ character, Shelby, in Steel Magnolias explains to her mother, played by Sally Field, “I’d rather have five minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special?” Here, Roberts’ character has a choice between a comfortable, happy life with a husband who loves her but no children, or the risk of carrying a child but damaging her fragile health. System 1 doesn’t track the duration of events but is more interested in the peak of an experience and the way things turn out in the end. System 2 constructs a life story based on major events and moments, so the two systems together favor choices that will produce more intensely positive outcomes. In this case, Shelby chooses to risk the health consequences of pregnancy in order to have the peak experience of motherhood, though she knows that the duration of that experience may be tragically short.

Kahneman dedicates this book to Amos Tversky, his longtime collaborator and good friend. The story of their friendship, which is inextricably linked to the breakthroughs they made together, is a rich, human narrative of the scientific method at work. No one jumps out of a tub shouting “Eureka!” Rather, two friends take long walks, talk about their observations, and discuss hunches about why people make the decisions they do. They figure out ways to test these hunches, proving some and rejecting others along the way. Sometimes, they get caught in intellectual dead ends, held up by related concepts that haven’t been thoroughly explained, or innovative research methods that haven’t yet been developed. In a few moving instances, Kahneman describes how their students, or their students’ students (that is, their intellectual children and grandchildren in academic parlance) overcome these limitations.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is not merely a résumé of Kahneman’s work with Tversky. He also gives credit and attention to the contributions of many scholars who came both before, during, and after his most productive years with Tversky. One particularly interesting section in this vein weighs the relative merits of expert versus public perceptions of risk, and the real-life implications of policies based on each. For example, he writes, “terrorism speaks directly to System 1.” Deaths from terrorism, even in places like Israel, rarely approach the number of deaths in traffic accidents in any given week. The novelty of terrorist attacks, coupled with their powerful narrative and visual impact, guarantee media coverage that make these events loom larger than their statistical likelihood of occurrence would seem to warrant. That accessibility to System 1 makes the public demand protective policies even if the more rational System 2 response would allow experts to make a more judicious response.

Kahneman claims that as he was writing, his imaginary audience consisted of office workers gathering around the water cooler to share opinions and rumors. His ambition was to enhance their understanding of how the objects of their gossip affected their decision-making, and to give them a better vocabulary to talk about it. Despite this deceptively humble objective, Thinking, Fast and Slow is profound in its result.

Sheila Peuchaud is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo.

Carbon Democracy

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. By Timothy Mitchell. Verso, 2011 288 pp.

As oil prices rose to more than $105 per barrel in March, Ali Al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, took to the Financial Times to reassure gas-guzzlers that scarcity is a “myth.” The kingdom, he claimed, could increase its production by 25 percent, if necessary. Not only has oil driven “incredible, and unprecedented, economic and social progress,” Al-Naimi wrote in the FT, its supply has also limited the imagination of all governments, democracies and autocracies alike.

We live in an era where reliance on fossil fuels has come to restrict the menu of energy supply policy options available. Our carbon dependency has essentially undercut democracy. The ostensibly endless supply of a nonrenewable resource has set a trap. Rather than putting forward energy alternatives, politicians prioritize low prices at the pump. Saudi’s oil surplus has become a tool to superficially alleviate the global financial crisis. Energy reliance is further aggravated by the nature of the international economy, which is accountable to market rather than democratic forces. How did government policies, financial markets, and indeed our everyday habits, become dominated by carbon?

In Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell links dependence on fossil fuels with the withering of democracy. While coal actually helped shape modern democracy, he writes, oil has set some of its limits. Oil producing and consuming states appear equally incapable of addressing the root causes of climate change or the prospect of energy shortages stemming from over-consumption. Carbon Democracy is at once a biography of energy, an intellectual history of economic theory and interventions, and a revisionist account of Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Mitchell draws connections between the sites of production and shipping routes, the influence of U.S. dollar and transnational economic institutions, and weapons deals and trade imbalances, to demonstrate that just about everything we think we know about energy is wrong.

Mitchell takes issue with the oil ‘curse’ argument, an oversimplification of the relationship between energy and governance. Conventional wisdom hangs on the correlation between the lack of democracy in the Middle East and the region’s copious energy stores, as if undemocratic symptoms in oil-states are triggered by profits in isolation. Mitchell argues that in the course of exploration, extraction, and movement, oil and democracy have mixed considerably. In fact, democracies were active partners in setting into motion oil’s global hegemony.

To appreciate oil’s negative impact on democracy, one must first consider the nature of its predecessor, which fueled both the industrialization and political activism of an earlier era. Mitchell details the emergence of “carbon democracies” in the nineteenth century through a study of the coal industry, where concentrated energy supply traveled in networks that offered workers a new kind of autonomy. Each step—mining, loading, transporting, and ultimately consuming—was susceptible to sabotage. In demanding better pay and work conditions, labor activists achieved egalitarian breakthroughs by way of their intransigent actions, notably mining and refinery strikes. In response, captains of industry persuaded governments to reorient markets toward petroleum in a way that weakened domestic labor movements.

Oil production benefited anti-democratic, corporate forces by design; pipelines in particular, provided a means to obstruct organized labor. The first pipeline was unveiled in the 1860s to bypass a teamster strike in Pennsylvania. That an abundance of the resource was found in the Middle East further disempowered workers in the West. Oil was easily transportable by tanker across continents, “menacing the world with additional supplies,” as Mitchell puts it.

The U.S. went to great lengths to secure oil’s predominance in the post-war period, from dubbing it a strategic resource to reorganizing Europe’s financial system around petroleum via the Marshall Plan. It makes one wonder whether Western democracies could take a similarly muscular approach to achieve a renewable energy breakthrough.

In this era of declining carbon resources, democracy will be further tested by the increasingly desperate quest for fossil fuels. The U.S.’s efforts toward energy independence push two forms of  extraction, namely offshore petroleum drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’)— a method of mining oil and natural gas from underground rock formations, which has not yet been federally regulated. From the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico to mini-earthquakes near fracking sites, both processes have proven to be dangerous, not only for the environment, but also for workers.

That the U.S. Congress is particularly oblivious to the bounds of oil production and prefers “drill, baby, drill” to sustainable outcomes, depicts the staying power of carbon. Neither drilling nor fracking is a quick-fix for the real issue at hand: oil fields the size of Saudi Arabia’s cache will need to be discovered every four years to keep up with increasing global consumption levels and exponential declines in production. Unwilling to tackle this challenge, Congress has refused to pass a climate bill or draw up a new energy policy. This is not merely imprudent, it is the product of the status quo lobby. Last year alone, ExxonMobil PAC spent nearly $1 million lobbying Republican representatives.

If policymakers want to imagine a post-petroleum future, then they first must understand how carbon’s ascendency has constrained representative government and reinforced an addiction to capitalism’s undemocratic character. The embrace of renewable sources of energy, Mitchell suggests, demands not only innovation but also a thorough reassessment of the global economy’s foundations. Carbon’s seemingly absolute power is not derived from dictatorships alone; it is very much dependent on democracies as well.

Jonathan Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He previously served as a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force in Washington, DC, and as assistant editor of Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has contributed to the Guardian, Inter Press Service, the BBC, and France24. He can be followed on Twitter at @mideastXmidwest.

Our Carbon Footprint

Of all the countries in the Arab world, Egypt may be the most vulnerable to global warming. The rising sea level predicted by climate change models threatens to flood large swaths of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket, undermining Egypt’s food security and threatening the livelihoods of millions of agricultural workers. Key population centers are also at risk, most notably the city of Alexandria.

It was this realization that led the Desert Development Center and the Sustainability Office at the American University in Cairo to undertake what appears to be the first carbon footprint study of an institution of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa. The study also responds to concerns raised about the sustainability of AUC’s own operations since the university moved most of its activities from a small ninety-three-year-old campus in downtown Cairo to a new 260-acre campus in the sprawling desert suburb of New Cairo, about thirty-five kilometers to the east.

Carbon footprints are widely used as a measure of the impact of human activities on global warming. In AUC’s case, a principal goal of the study is to develop information that can be used to mitigate climate change by reducing AUC’s own greenhouse gas emissions. Another important goal is to strengthen the university’s finances for the long term by permanently reducing its appetite for carbon-based energy sources such as natural gas, electricity, and gasoline that must be purchased from third parties. Thus, the carbon footprint research team, consisting of faculty, staff, students, and recent graduates, zeroed in on cooling, heating, lighting, and transportation, the usual suspects when it comes to wasteful uses of energy. Additionally, the AUC carbon footprint team sought to focus the attention of the region and the world on the little-understood connection between water consumption and energy use.

AUC’s research team started with carbon footprint calculation software (Campus Carbon Calculator, developed by Clean Air-Cool Planet, a U.S.-based non-profit group) used by higher education institutions across North America. This turned out to be far from a simple matter of plugging in some numbers; in many instances the features of the software had to be adapted to work in Egypt and modified to meet AUC’s particular circumstances. When it came to gathering the necessary data, student researchers fanned out across the New Cairo campus to study records of operations and collaborated with staff members in numerous departments to refine raw data into formats usable for carbon footprint calculations.

Finding data on commuting to and from campus by private car was a particular challenge since the university maintained no records. Undaunted, students devised and administered an online transportation survey that generated more than two thousand responses. In addition, AUC’s researchers, with the assistance of a team of outside experts, calculated the energy used and the carbon emissions resulting from pumping water from the Nile–more than fifty-four kilometers away–and more than three hundred meters uphill to the elevation of the New Cairo campus.

The AUC team found that the overall carbon footprint of the New Cairo campus—using the university’s 2011 fiscal year (September 2010 to August 2011) as the baseline—is the equivalent of about sixty thousand metric tons of carbon. This is comparable to the footprints of colleges and universities in North America of a similar size. As expected, the largest sources of carbon emissions are the use of natural gas to produce chilled and hot water for the university’s heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system, and the use of electricity (both purchased from the public utility and generated on campus) for circulating the chilled and hot water through the HVAC system, for lighting, and for operating mechanical equipment.

Given the location of the New Cairo campus on a high desert plateau and the need for air conditioning for more than half the year, the team initially assumed that it would find outsized carbon emissions from the HVAC system. However, the study demonstrated that to the contrary, features included in the original campus design to minimize energy use have indeed had a positive impact. Importantly, the footprint analysis shows that carbon emissions can be reduced from 2011 levels by generating more (and cheaper) electricity on campus and buying less from the public utility. This is because electricity is produced on campus by burning natural gas, while the public utility uses a less clean burning fuel mix. Further significant reductions in carbon emissions and additional cost savings can be achieved by using treated wastewater to irrigate campus landscaping.

The second major contributor to AUC’s carbon footprint is transportation, including the commuter bus system operated across Cairo by the university, commuting in private cars by students, faculty, and staff, and business air travel by faculty and administrators. The transportation survey revealed a growing interest on the part of students and others in carpooling as a way to save energy and reduce emissions from car exhaust. The university is working on ways to encourage carpooling through parking fee incentives, creating a car-pooling website, and changing working hours and event schedules.

While most universities attempt modest carbon emission reductions once they have established a baseline, the truly ambitious seek a goal of climate neutrality or net zero carbon emissions. AUC is still far from such a goal, but the pathways to reach net zero are clear from the footprint. The footprint can be reduced by drastically cutting energy used for cooling, heating, and lighting, and by reusing and recycling water and solid wastes. The transportation system can be transformed by strategies such as converting the university’s buses to natural gas, a much cleaner burning fuel than gasoline or diesel. Public awareness campaigns can be used to modify individual and institutional consumption patterns so that conserving energy and water become new habits. The university can bring its own considerable scientific resources to bear by using and thereby promoting the use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power on campus. An underlying objective in measuring AUC’s carbon footprint: to help raise climate change awareness and serve as a regional example for combatting the causes of global warming.

Oriental Hall, etc.

At AUC in March, Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Guardian columnist, launched the Arabic version of Free Speech Debate, an online user-led think-tank that seeks to set the terms for a global conversation on human rights. Garton Ash believes there must be a conversation about the global norms of free expression in an interconnected world in which private powers are at least as important as public powers. “At nine hundred million users, if Facebook were a country it would be the third largest country in the world,” he says. “What Facebook decides will be the rules of expression on Facebook is actually more important for global free expression than what Germany or France does.” Free Speech Debate organizes discussion and debate in thirteen languages around ten draft principles for global free expression modeled on those in the United Nations’ International Declaration of Human Rights. The difference, says Garton Ash, “Now the we is first. It’s a statement of what we as a people believe first, not only a demand to the state.”

The father of Libyan novelist Hisham Matar was imprisoned and tortured under the regime of former Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. During a talk at AUC in February, Matar discussed the difficulty of resisting his impulse to self-censor in fear of the regime while writing In the Country of Men, his 2006 novel that was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. The novel is set in Libya and describes the terror of Gadhafi’s rule through the daily life of a Libyan family in their private quarters. Giving into fear, Matar explained, “would have turned my work into a dead corpse”—and, in effect, into another victim of Gadhafi’s regime.

When Kiichi Fujiwara visited Tahrir Square in February, it brought back memories of his time in Manila’s Rizal Park, the epicenter of the 1986 People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines. Surveying the protesters still camped in Tahrir, the University of Tokyo professor, a specialist on democratic transitions, recalled the masses in Rizal Park singing Bayan Ko (My Homeland), the anthem of the opposition. Fujiwara, who lectured at AUC in February, notes the similarity in the way that established factions and institutions moved to push people power aside in Egypt, just as in the Philippines. About Manila he says, “The people stood up, but then they sat right back down again.” He cautions Egyptians against doing the same.

Nile View: Science and Responsibility

A case in point is the argument about the brain drain from developing countries to the developed world, as a result of the disparity of resources ever so important for scientific research. For decades, the imperatives for the development of science could in fact be considered a form of neo-colonization.

However, as the science behind communications has evolved, and the commercialization of technology has made it accessible to a wider playing field, the brain drain has slowed, if not yet ceased. The pursuit of science, especially in the educational context, is expanding more rapidly in the East, in Asia in particular, and to a great degree throughout the developing world. In the United States, for example, there is a disproportionate number of students from Asia and the developing world studying science. While market forces have continued to allow developed Western societies to depend on a global scientific education base rather than solely on their own, more and more often, we are witnessing the emergence of centers of scientific educational excellence in Asia and elsewhere, with all of the political, economic, and social results that come with them.

The impact of scientific advancement on the nature and tools of international relations and governance should not be underestimated particularly with respect to the communications industry. With easier access to information and the ability to communicate it more rapidly, the media and the NGO communities have become players and stakeholders in the public affairs arena. They often compete with diplomats and politicians in influencing international norms and changing how diplomacy is pursued. Global governance concepts such as the ‘responsibility to protect’ emerged as a reaction to the public outcry over the international community’s failure to prevent the Rwanda massacre. Actions by NATO and a United Nations Security Council resolution for a ‘Coalition of the Willing’ against Iraq were influenced by the public’s exposure to the atrocities of Slobodan Miloševi´c and Saddam Hussein. And needless to say, the Arab awakening we are witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria has been fundamentally driven by the scientific advancement of communications—the snowball effect of the call for freedoms, or the communication effect of satellite television and social networks.

The free, rapid, and accessible flow of information to the media, citizens, and private foundations has often made them diplomats without borders. The resulting enhanced level of transparency has had a positive effect on diplomacy by making it more publicly accountable. It is noteworthy that, as another result, traditional diplomacy may also have become more complicated and less effective by in essence curtailing the percolating period that is often required for diplomatic efforts to achieve results.

In fact, while scientific advancement has enhanced the instruments of power by expanding both their reach and their destructive capacity, it has also limited their maneuverability by increasing the number of stakeholders in the decision-making process. This heightened accountability also carries with it formidable challenges. For example, science has been used to develop weapons systems that allow politicians to wage war with ever greater power from increasingly remote distances—a dynamic that may even encourage the use of force at the expense of diplomacy.

The balance sheet of scientific achievement is overwhelmingly positive. But as the pursuit of science creates more opportunities for human progress, it requires a solemn responsibility towards the greater good—the collective interest of mankind.

Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo

To Mars and Beyond

To illustrate the extraordinary scientific ambition entailed in space exploration, Charles Elachi used a sporting metaphor during a recent lecture at the American University in Cairo. This August, he said, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will attempt to land a mobile laboratory on Mars. The remarkable journey of the rover Curiosity, as the $2.5 billion lab is called, will take eight months to reach a destination some two hundred million kilometers from Earth. This feat of engineering, explained JPL’s director, is the equivalent of a golfer teeing up in Los Angeles and driving the ball all the way to Cairo—and making a hole-in-one.

Elachi’s talk in Cairo, part of the Zewail Foundation Public Lecture Series in Science and Culture, was also a homecoming to the Middle East. He was born and raised in Lebanon, before going off to earn degrees in everything from engineering and geology to business administration in France and the United States. He is a vice president and a professor of electrical engineering and planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA. He joined JPL in 1970 and as director since 2001, leads an institution of five thousand employees with an annual $1.6 billion budget that has long been in the forefront of man’s search for knowledge about the universe. In JPL’s latest mission, Curiosity will scoop up rock samples and perform on-site tests on them for signs of organisms—and possibly the first proof that life existed on another planet in the solar system. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Elachi at JPL’s headquarters in Pasadena, California, on February 29, 2012.

Are those your “toys” on the shelf there?

CHARLES ELACHI: Yes, these are models of all spacecraft which are flying now or which I was involved in. We have about twenty-three spacecraft operating from JPL. If you take NASA, it’s much larger. But these are all from JPL, and they are all crafts out in the solar system: from the Earth’s orbit all the way out to the edge of the solar system. And they are all being monitored from the building just behind us. That’s where we have mission control. So, we are the center of the universe here.

CAIRO REVIEW: So, is there life on Mars?

CHARLES ELACHI: I don’t have proof. I would say that there is a high likelihood that there is some kind of life in our solar system—either in the present or the past. The reason I say that is because Mars basically at one time had a very similar environment as Earth. Now you ask, why do I say that? Well, from our missions here we believe that a few billion years ago there was actually a liquid ocean on the surface of Mars, which may imply that the temperature was pretty good—if it was liquid. That’s what we see in the rocks and chemical composition of the rocks. So, the immediate question is: if we once had oceans on Mars and the temperature was similar to ours, could life have evolved in it? And the answer would be equally exciting either way. If it did evolve, the question would be: what happened to it? Why did the environment change and the ocean disappear? Can we see any signature of something left from that time? But if life did not start, then that’s equally puzzling. Why did it start on Earth but not on Mars? So, the key objectives we have in all our missions, particularly the one that’s heading to Mars now, which will arrive in August, are: Was Mars habitable? Does it have the chemical material which could allow life to evolve? We aren’t looking for a bug or anything like that—but if there are the right chemicals, if there are long chains of carbon. Are the materials on Mars similar to that on Earth, which could then lead to life evolving if you had the right environment? So, in a sense, it’s like Sherlock Holmes trying to see all the signatures that could have led to life. Now, we might be surprised and we might find some old cells in the rocks, and that would be a very positive surprise.

CAIRO REVIEW: Talking about “life,” do you mean just an organism, or do we mean people walking around, and animal life?

CHARLES ELACHI: No, we’re talking more about organisms at that time. We are clear on Mars now; we know there is nothing on the surface because we have mapped it, in extremely high resolution. So, if there was any activity or life on the surface we would have detected it. Now, there could be some below the surface, but that would be organisms like those we find on earth. You go to an oil well and you’ll find an organism, you go to the water table and you’ll find an organism. So, that’s more likely when we say “life.” And we’re finding it’s not only Mars, [but] particularly satellites of other planets, like Enceladus, which is a satellite of Saturn, Titan, another satellite of Saturn, and Europa, which is a satellite of Jupiter. We can see now they have oceans below the surface. So, the question is: could life have evolved in these oceans? I mean, if you have a huge frozen lake, the top is frozen but then you can have life in the liquid ocean below it, like you have in Antarctica or in the Arctic. So, what we’ve found in the last decade is that water is much more common in the objects of our solar system than we originally thought, in the past and in the present, and that organics exist. If you have liquid water then that means the temperature is very comfortable. So again, it begs the question; could life have evolved the same way it started on Earth? And which track did it take? Like, it could’ve evolved, but took a different track, or started evolving then stopped? So, these are the questions we’re trying to answer.

CAIRO REVIEW: Curiosity will land in August. What is the prognosis for that? You had a lot of failures in these missions.

CHARLES ELACHI: When you are exploring, it’s always a challenge; when you’re doing something for the first time. There is always a risk of many things that could happen. We have a very good record over the past ten years, not only to Mars. We’ve had almost twenty missions and all have been successful. We hope we can keep that trend going. It [Curiosity] is a very sophisticated and complicated mission. We are highly confident that it will be successful, but there is always a small chance that something could go wrong because there are so many things that have to go right. And then you have the environment on Mars as well, which is a fairly unknown environment. You might get a gust of wind [during spacecraft landing] or something else that we hadn’t expected could happen. So, there is always a small risk. But as of now, the spacecraft is doing well; it’s almost halfway to Mars. The landing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on August 6, Cairo time. And it’ll be transmitted in real time on our website and on CNN. So, you will know as soon as we know how well, or not, it’s working.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are the outer limits of your imagination on what you’re going to get on this mission?

CHARLES ELACHI: There was much debate in the science community to select the site where we will actually be landing on Mars. The science community, with hundreds of scientists involved, started with hundreds of sites. Each one had different features and they had to work their way [through them all] in order to reach a consensus on the specific site that we now have. The chosen site, the reason it’s interesting is because it’s at the bottom of a hill. When I say a hill, it’s really a mountain about fifteen thousand feet high with layers of different material, which will allow us to learn about the history of Mars. Just like what you see in the Grand Canyon; there are different layers of different rocks. So, we are going to be driving up the side of that hill and taking samples from its different layers. Many of these layers have the characteristics of what you find in the bottom of dried up lakes; phosphate, chloride, and so on. So, as we come across areas of interest, we take samples and analyze those samples and see what its composition is, and we will be looking—as I said—for organic material, or material which could mean that life could grow in those areas. So, we are really doing two things. One is to find the characteristics of the area which might be habitable. And number two, as we go up the side of the hill, the side of that mountain, it will give us a history because bottom layers are older than upper layers and so on. It’s like you’ll be going through a chapter of a book, one page at a time, and hopefully write the story of what happened in that region. The mission is scheduled to go for two years, but it’ll most likely go much longer than that. (The rover we have now on Mars was supposed to work for ninety days, and that was eight years ago.) So we could now drive to the fifteen-thousand-feet-high top of the hill. If we do that, it’ll be driving slowly. So, we would do it at one hundred meters a day. We will drive, look, examine the rock, and maybe take samples. A scientist decides whether we take samples or not because of the limited number of samples we can analyze. We are confident about analyzing twenty-five to thirty different samples, but we’ll probably aim for about one hundred samples. We will have to select them carefully so we don’t consume the material and everything in the first month.

CAIRO REVIEW: And what would you learn from that?

CHARLES ELACHI: Hopefully it will tell us, number one, what the chemical composition of the material is. Number two, whether the composition at some time in the past was an environment similar to the Earth’s environment, and do we find organic material? If we find organic material, then that will tell us immediately that we have all ingredients for life which were present. Will we see life there? That would be a pleasant surprise. We don’t know for sure.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mean a living organism?

CHARLES ELACHI: No, it could be an organism which evolved then died. You look in the rocks and see organisms from a billion years ago, but they are not alive today. So, that would be equally exciting, because where we see them in these rock layers tells us what date or what period that organism would have been alive, and why it became extinct.

CAIRO REVIEW: Till now, there is no confirmation of that kind of organism life on Mars.

CHARLES ELACHI: That’s correct.

CAIRO REVIEW: So, if you find an organism…

CHARLES ELACHI: That would be a huge scientific event. Who knows? We always get surprised.

CAIRO REVIEW: What have you learned from the rover missions?

CHARLES ELACHI: The ones that we have there now are more like roving geologists. They are the ones who have demonstrated by analyzing rocks that an ocean existed in the past. Where we stand today, we know that there are polar caps on Mars. We know that they have water in them, but they’re all frozen. We know there is a drainage channel—which looks like in Egypt, you know, when you go to the western or eastern deserts, you see drainage channels but they are dry. But that says at some time in the past there were rivers that made those channels, you know, on Mars. So, the big puzzle is, where did this water go? Was it on the surface for some period of time? We know from the rover that, at some past period of time, water was on the surface. So, the puzzle now is where did it go? Did it all evaporate or is it in water tables below the surface? So, on future missions, not this mission, but future missions, we want to be able to look below the surface either with a radar system, or from the surface with a sounding system or with drills, to see if we can access that water. Now, when we landed Phoenix a few years ago, pretty close to the pole, we did see ice, just literally a few centimeters below the surface. We were able to expose ice. The question is: at lower latitudes, would that water be in ice form, or could it be that if we drill one hundred meters down, just like in the desert in Egypt, you actually get to a water table? That would have two implications. Number one, are there any organisms in that water? Number two, could it be a source for when we send humans [to Mars] in the future? Then you would not have to take your water with you because there is a place to access water there. That could make a huge difference because if you want to spend six months there, then you need to take a lot of water with you. The other benefit of water is that you can break the water molecule to get oxygen and hydrogen then you can use that for fuel for the spacecraft to return a human back [to Earth]. So, the presence of water is a key element, and that’s one of our long term objectives: finding where it is, if it’s accessible, what’s it made of, can we make it, can we drink it, and so on.

CAIRO REVIEW: What have we learned about Earth itself from these Mars missions so far?

CHARLES ELACHI: There is no direct learning, but [in Mars] we have a model of a planet that somehow evolved differently to our planet. So, if we understand how it evolved, this could shed light on the differences, because one of the key questions we have is, how did our planet evolve? How did life start here? What were the ingredients that were so amenable to have life put here? One method of science is that you look at something that had a positive result and you look at something that started with the same initial conditions and got a different result, and you try to understand the differences between them. So, we are still early in the stages of understanding.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the potential value in what you can learn from Mars about life on Earth?

CHARLES ELACHI: If we could understand why life became extinct on Mars, if that’s the case—if it started and became extinct—that could have an implication on how we manage our own planet to make sure we don’t end up in the same situation. Also, it could be a possibility that at some future time we could modify the environment on Mars and make it more amenable for life and that could be a place for humans to go, another place to explore and survive. And then you have the benefit of technology. Every time we do these missions, we have to develop advanced technology to do them. And then some entrepreneur will figure out a way to use that technology on Earth. To give examples, cell phones, GPS, infrared cameras, and so on. These are all side benefits. The approach that we find more successful in science and technology is to take a very tough problem and put smart people to work on that problem. They have to invent new things. And as you invent it, entrepreneurs will have access to this technology and will use it. So, that’s what we find here in the United States as a successful model of how to advance technology. Nobody thought of the Internet! When people started developing the Internet, which was purely for communication between scientists, nobody had any idea that it would become what it is. We can’t live without it now. Who knows when the invention comes out that could change our lives ten years from now?

CAIRO REVIEW: Putting a man on Mars?

CHARLES ELACHI: And a woman.

CAIRO REVIEW: Of course!

CHARLES ELACHI: The way it was laid out was that NASA’s long-term vision was always to go beyond Earth’s orbit. I mean, we’ve already put a human in Earth’s orbit; we’ve gone to the moon. But that’s as far as it is. So, the long-term vision for NASA was to expand the reach of humans by robotics, which we do now all the time, and then in time to enable humans to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. Mars is a natural place. Also asteroids, and other locations. So, one of our goals is, twenty years from now, thirty years from now, one goal is to enable humans to go to Mars. Either to go in orbit or to land on the surface. Moving backward from that, if we say we want to send someone to Mars in the late 2030s, then what things do we need to do now, to make sure that will happen? We need to learn more about the environment around Mars, we need to see what the scientific questions are. Where would we send them? It is a huge planet; it’s the same size as Earth without the oceans, the same size as the land mass on Earth. So, first you would send robots and say, “Well, this area looks much more interesting than this area,” or, “This area has methane being emitted from the surface, maybe there is some life activity.” So, the goal of the robotic missions is number one, to fully explore Mars so we can select the right sites. And number two, it’s kind of like a dry run. If we want to land, rove around, take off, and come back, then it’s a good learning experience before you actually send a human, which would be more expensive and, you know, have lives of people involved. And that’s the same thing we did on the moon. On the moon, we had almost twenty robotic missions to the moon before we sent a human to it, which allowed us to characterize and learn how to land, take off, and come back.

What’s the value of actually having a human being go to Mars? Given the amazing talent of the robots?

CHARLES ELACHI: Rovers can do a lot, no question. But still, they cannot make a judgment. There are many things to do and currently people on Earth decide them. Considering the signal takes twenty minutes round trip there are a lot of things that are hard to do because of that time delay. If you have human there, he can make decision in real time. So, I think it’s going to be a combination of humans and robots. Robots are very good to go to hazardous places the first time, to explore before you take the risk of sending a human. Humans have judgment, which is very hard to add to the rover particularly because of the time delay that we have between the two places.

CAIRO REVIEW: Can you give an example of that? What kind of judgment do they need to make on the spot?

CHARLES ELACHI: Like if you’re drilling for deep water; doing that completely by robot will be a challenge. It could be done, possibly, but it would be extremely challenging to do it. If something breaks, we wouldn’t know about it for ten minutes, then we’d sit down, think about it, and then send a command, but it might be too late, if something is already going wrong. So the way we do it now, as soon as something goes wrong, you stop, you don’t do anything. And that’s not an efficient way of doing things. If you have a human there, they can react in real time and find solutions. We’ve already had examples, like when we repaired the Hubble telescope. That could’ve been done robotically, but it was much easier in that case because we had a human. It was much more efficient to do that repair with humans. And then there is the ultimate goal of human exploration, of actually being there. So, that adds an additional feature to it. So, it’s not driven by science, it’s driven by having a goal in the long term of possibly sending more people to Mars. And that would be an extension of Earth. So that’s really the benefit of it.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the outer limit of your imagination about what man would do on Mars?

CHARLES ELACHI: Ultimately, we could transform the environment on Mars and have it habitable like Earth. We could send colonies to Mars. That’s an expansion like, you know, we expanded to the Americas after Columbus. I mean, it’s a little bit different. There were people in the Americas and we don’t expect there to be people on Mars. So, that’s possible: it could be an extension of Earth.

CAIRO REVIEW: That’s not science fiction?

CHARLES ELACHI: No, it’s not. It could be done. It’s at the edge of science fiction, but if we go back fifty years, what we are doing today was science fiction fifty years ago. People didn’t even dream of having rovers on Mars. It was all science fiction. People did dream of it, but it was purely in the domain of science fiction, having rovers on Mars, going to Europa, watching volcanoes on Europa, and so on. Now it’s common for young people to just go on the web, google Europa, then “fly” over Europa.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mentioned in your talk in Cairo that the last generation or two have made tremendous advances in science.

CHARLES ELACHI: When I was in high school, the planetary chapter was just a couple of pages and pictures of the planets were just little dots of light and that’s what we knew about that. When my daughter was in high school, she had CDs where she was flying over those planets. So that was just one generation. We have changed the whole textbook. And I never imagined when I was in high school that all of this would happen. So, we have to stretch our imagination to what my grandchildren, when they are in high school, what they’ll be doing. I don’t know. But I think it could be they’ll sit down and operate robots on Mars for their high school project. Or somebody doing a PhD will be given time to go and drive rovers on Mars, do some drilling, do analysis on another planet, on Europa, or something like that. So, it could be that if we have interplanetary Internet then anybody could sit down and communicate immediately with his rover or with a human, if they’re there. And then you have an exchange on Twitter or do something with people on other planets. So, that’s all possible in the next thirty to forty years.

CAIRO REVIEW: If there’s money. It seems that the more imagination you have about where you can go, the budget seems to shrink.

CHARLES ELACHI: It’s always a challenge.

CAIRO REVIEW: Science needs funding to achieve the goals you have, but this is a matter of public expenditure. How do you assure the budget is there?

CHARLES ELACHI: This is always a debate: how much you invest in the future versus investing in today’s problems. I’m sure many people asked Thomas Jefferson, “Why are you sending Lewis and Clark out west, for heaven’s sake? It’s costing five thousand dollars. We could solve more problems of poverty on the east coast.” But he invested in doing that, and opened a whole new frontier for the United States. I’m sure the same thing happened with Columbus. I think the key point is that we are convinced that the future of economic growth anywhere in the world is based on gaining new knowledge. And we can’t predict this knowledge ahead of time. So I think if we want to solve our problems today, we have to invest in gaining more knowledge for the future. That’s how you get yourself out of the problems of today. So, fortunately, in the U.S., we have in general, despite all the budget issues, we have a fairly receptive Congress and administration, which do believe that the investment in science, technology, and gaining knowledge is very important for the economic health of the country.  So, in the end, I think the society that invests in knowledge is the one that will really thrive in the future.

CAIRO REVIEW: There have been questions about the value of the space shuttle, whether the results were a good return on the investment. Is that a valid comment in terms of the short perspective?

CHARLES ELACHI: The way I look at it, when investing in knowledge, some are willing to pay a lot of money and some might not pay a lot of money. The purpose of the shuttle was always to build a space station, not just to build a shuttle. It’s basically the truck that allows you to build stations in Earth’s orbit. So, the station is built and now the challenge is to conduct research in the space environment to see if there is any benefit from it. Are there any new drugs you can develop, any new material that  in zero gravity you can develop? So, I think the jury is still out on whether it’s a good investment or an average investment or not a good investment. But again, as I said earlier, when we invest in technology and knowledge, we need to expect that some of these investments are not going to lead to any major development. So, for me, that’s not usually a factor. The factor is we should do the best we can to invest in knowledge and then hopefully a few developments will materialize and we should be happy with that. There are a lot of applications, to give you an example, that were direct benefits from the shuttle. Today we have 3D images of the Earth, on the Weather Channel or for topographic mapping. When you see 3D images of Egypt, for example, all of that was acquired from the shuttle program. People don’t associate them, but this was something we built at JPL. We put it on the shuttle, we flew it, and we generated three-dimensional maps of the whole world in digital format, which pilots now use. People who install cell phone towers actually use our 3D imaging. So, all of that came from a mission we flew on the shuttle. People don’t remember that because it was twenty years ago, but that’s one example of a benefit.

CAIRO REVIEW: Can you talk about President Obama’s plan for the Space Launch System (SLS)?

CHARLES ELACHI: There are enough companies which know how to take people and cargo from Earth to Earth’s orbit. And the idea is to make that a commercial endeavor. And then we can have NASA focusing on going beyond that orbit, be it with humans or as we do now with spacecraft. To get beyond the Earth’s orbit, and send a human beyond this orbit, you need two critical things: a habitat for the people, that’s what we call the CEV, or Crew Exploration Vehicle. And the second, when you send a human, you need to take a lot of equipment so you need bigger rockets than we have now. And that’s what the SLS is. These are the two foundational developments to being able to carry humans beyond Earth’s orbit, not only to the moon, but ultimately to Mars. That launch vehicle will need to be even more powerful than Saturn V, the launch vehicle that took astronauts to the moon. So you need that kind of power for a launch vehicle to carry human habitats beyond the Earth’s orbit.

CAIRO REVIEW: And even beyond Mars?

CHARLES ELACHI: Yes, it could be. We are now looking at how to send a robotic mission using this heavy launch vehicle, particularly when we go to the outer planets beyond Mars. We don’t yet have rockets powerful enough, so what we do now is we launch a spacecraft and we have it fly by, say Mars, or do multiple fly-bys of Earth, and use gravity to help us, to speed it up. It’s called “gravity assist” in technological lingo. And that’s why it takes seven years to get to Saturn. If we have a heavy launch vehicle, we can get to Saturn in about two and a half years. So, it would cut the trip by a factor of two for a robotic mission. So, that could enable us to send more robotic missions and further than we have done in the past.

CAIRO REVIEW: You talk about how science produces advances for humanity. What about the survival of humanity? Stephen Hawking made his famous comment, “Maybe we have a thousand years left on this planet.”

CHARLES ELACHI: I don’t know how he came up with that number.

CAIRO REVIEW: Do we depend on space exploration for survival?

CHARLES ELACHI: Well, there are a number of aspects. There is the aspect that if something really bad happened on Earth, we could go to another planet. Or there is the aspect if we see an asteroid heading for Earth that could destroy life here, is there a way to divert it? We know for a fact that there have been major impacts on Earth over history. Every crater you see means something hit Earth. Now, most of them are small, but some of them are huge. The whole Gulf of Mexico was formed by a huge impact on that area, and that’s what people believe caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some event like that could happen again. It’s not going happen tomorrow, but something like that might happen in the next few hundred or thousand years. That could be possible. So, some of the things we are looking at are, number one, to track all of these objects and know if it is possible that one of them might hit the Earth. Number two, if we find that some of them have a high likelihood of hitting the Earth, if we knew that early enough, we could divert it and make sure it avoids the Earth. So, that’s one other benefit, it could be kind of a protective shield if you want to think about it that way. And another one is, remember Earth’s orbiting satellites, which work on monitoring our planet, looking at what damage we are doing, the carbon dioxide emissions, the warming of the planet. That’s all part of the space program. There is a network of satellites in Earth’s orbit, they are learning about how we can protect ourselves if there are asteroids which might hit the Earth. There is also the benefit of learning about other planets. We know what led Venus to be so hot, because it has a lot of carbon dioxide. Could our planet become like Venus and become inhabitable? All the way to, if things go wrong, is there a place we can go to continue humanity? So, I think there is a whole spectrum which benefits us directly. But it won’t be tomorrow. It won’t make the person who doesn’t have food on their table happy, because they are worried about tomorrow. But we also have to worry about the longer term.

CAIRO REVIEW: We know there were oceans on Mars, and we know they are not there now. Is that possibly from global warming? Can we learn something about global warming?

CHARLES ELACHI: We don’t know for sure about that. We know that on Venus, it was a result of global warming. Venus is very hot now, it has a lot of carbon dioxide. What we call the ‘greenhouse effect’ is happening on Venus. Mars, we don’t know for sure, because it’s much colder now. Mars is not having any global warming effects and we don’t know exactly why that is. There are different theories. We know the climate on Mars changed but we don’t know the reason behind it. Is it that Mars kind of drifted away in its orbit? Or that the sun was warmer in the past and is cooling now? Maybe Mars was once a friendly place and Earth was not, and then the sun cooled and Mars became too cold but the Earth became a little bit warmer? These are the things that we don’t understand at the present time.

CAIRO REVIEW: I take your point of the need to explore for the future, but what about the current challenges? A huge expenditure is required to go on a Mars mission. How can you weigh that against fighting the poverty on the planet that we live in today?

CHARLES ELACHI: Let’s first start with a reference. The budget for NASA in the United States is 0.3 percent of the national budget. A comparison we give is that it’s like you buying chewing gum every day. People think it’s huge, but it’s a minute cost relative to all other expenditure. And we still believe that this is a very good investment for gaining knowledge. If you take all research that the U.S. government funds, it amounts to just 3 percent of the national budget. So, this is not the way to solve poverty. You can’t take your 3 percent and think you can solve the whole thing. This is the investment for the future. For a country to put 3 percent into investment for the future, despite its day-to-day issues, I think that’s a great trade-off. I don’t have the magic formula—maybe it’s 2 percent or 4 percent—but I believe that the investment being made now is toward the low end because potentially, in the longer term, it could have a great impact.

CAIRO REVIEW: Some people argue that we can’t be stingy when it comes to investment in space technology, because we need science for our future and that the U.S. is actually falling behind in science. Would you agree with that?

CHARLES ELACHI: There is a concern. It’s a combination of, not that the U.S. is falling behind, but that other countries are moving at a faster rate. The U.S. made a tremendous investment [to space technology] during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, which made a huge difference. Now other countries, like China, see what’s happening in the U.S. because of education and investment. Look at the economy we have here. Western Europe saw the same thing. India. So, they are putting more and more investment in that area and they are kind of catching up. The challenge for us in the U.S. is to keep running as fast as we were running before, because the world is becoming more competitive. With the Internet, knowledge is getting everywhere. So yes, it’s a concern and it’s a combination of, not only investment in space, but investment in research, investment in education, and investment in technology. So yes, we have a concern that, even when we are still ahead of everybody else, the rest of the field is getting much closer to us than in the 1950s and 60s. So yes, it’s an area of concern.

CAIRO REVIEW: You mentioned China. Is the U.S. facing another ‘Sputnik moment’ with the advances the Chinese are making?

CHARLES ELACHI: I’m not sure if it’s a Sputnik moment. But, yes, China is catching up. They have a much larger population than the U.S. and economically they could become a very major competitor. So, we should continue to collaborate with China but we need to learn to run faster. That’s where the investment comes from. So, it’s not a matter of slowing China down, because it benefits everybody when economic wealth is everywhere. But to remain a leader, you just have to keep running faster.

CAIRO REVIEW: What do you make of China’s program? They made a lot of announcements about huge investments.

CHARLES ELACHI: Yes, I know. It’s a serious program and I think they have a lot of capabilities in China. But we have to wait and see. Now, it’s still heavily military-oriented. So, we have to wait and see whether they will get there. But they have a lot of capabilities that they are developing.

CAIRO REVIEW: How much potential is there for U.S. collaboration with China? Is the U.S. really a rival of China in this field?

CHARLES ELACHI: That’s in the domain of politics. It’s interesting. You know, we collaborated with Russia during the Cold War. We were against each other and rockets were pointed at each other, but we still collaborated. So, I think, always, collaboration opens you. In fact, it helps defuse tension, because you get to know other people, you find out they are similar to you, they have kids, they care about their family, and so on. So, I think collaboration, if done properly, is always to the benefit of everybody.

CAIRO REVIEW: In the U.S. science community, how much collaboration is going on with the Chinese program?

CHARLES ELACHI: Not very much, I should say. It’s still at a very early stage and that is, as I said, in the domain of politics. But we have a lot of collaboration with India, or we are expanding our collaboration with India. Russia, we still have a lot of collaboration and we built the space station together—thirty years ago that would have been unthinkable. So, I could imagine ten to twenty years from now that relations with China will be much better, we’ll start having more confidence and it will grow.

CAIRO REVIEW: As you look at it, not as a politician, but as a scientist, is there really reason to be concerned about an arms race in space vis-à-vis the Chinese? You mentioned they are very security-oriented in their program.

CHARLES ELACHI: No, I wouldn’t be very concerned about that if it’s done in the right environment. Again, you don’t collaborate with them on a ballistic missile. You collaborate on exploring Mars. That collaboration wouldn’t have any implication for security or anything. So, I think there are a lot of areas where you can collaborate on peaceful things and not for military purposes.

CAIRO REVIEW: In all the advantages you mentioned in the space program, you didn’t mention advantages to the U.S. on the military side. Is that a benefit to the U.S. space program that Americans need to know about?

CHARLES ELACHI: Clearly. No question about that. There is always benefit when you develop a new capability. You can use it for peaceful purposes or you can use it for national security purposes. And even national security could lead to a peaceful thing. When we and the Russians were competing, the fact that we knew what they were doing because of our assets in space, helped to make them a little bit more careful about what they did. And as you know, the nuclear treaty, the foundation of it is that we tell each other what we are doing. The worst thing to happen is when I’m against you and I don’t trust what you might be doing to harm me. But if you show me exactly what you’re doing, that could create a little bit more confidence in building good relationships. So, no question, developing space capability has been used and could be used for creating a peaceful environment between nations.

CAIRO REVIEW: One of the things that struck me in your talk in Cairo was when you mentioned that the sun will definitely explode. And it made me think that the Earth will eventually be totally wiped out.

CHARLES ELACHI: But I said this may be a few billion years from now. I’m not losing any sleep over that.

CAIRO REVIEW: It does raise questions of a spiritual nature. As scientists, does this knowledge you gain about the future of the Earth reinforce spirituality or does it make you feel more inclined to think that this is just science?

CHARLES ELACHI: There are two steps. The reason I don’t worry about the fact that the sun will explode is that life is probably all over the universe. You have billions of stars and probably billions of planets and most likely many planets have life on them. So, it’s not the end of life in the universe. It might be the end of life in our neighborhood, but not in the universe. Number two, about the question of belief, people do say when a scientist gets more knowledge, he becomes less of a believer. I’d say it’s the reverse, because the more you gain knowledge, the more you are awed by the universe around us. And you have to believe that there is some kind of power that made it happen. If there is a God that’s more a question for religious debate—but the belief that there is something really overwhelming that created this universe makes you believe more. When you look at billions of stars and galaxies, you ask “How did that happen?” It just didn’t happen by itself. If that leads to God or something different, I don’t know. But it makes you believe in a higher power.

CAIRO REVIEW: There is political pressure, at least in our part of the world, in the Middle East, but also in the United States from religious fundamentalists about creationism versus evolution. Are scientists affected by that? Does that pressure affect our progress in science?

CHARLES ELACHI: Not necessarily. I mean the way I get asked this question particularly in the Middle East, I keep saying that knowledge is for the brain and religion is for the heart. And they don’t contradict each other. So, in my mind, gaining more knowledge doesn’t go against religion at all. And being more religious doesn’t go against knowledge.

CAIRO REVIEW: How does it feel to have an asteroid named after you?

CHARLES ELACHI: Ask my daughters! They are very proud of it. It’s “4116 Elachi,” I think, or something like that, I’m not sure.

CAIRO REVIEW: As a scientist from the Middle East, how do you see the education challenges in the Arab world?

CHARLES ELACHI: I think that’s a very good topic. I personally believe that there is no reason the Arab world cannot be as scientifically capable as the U.S. Look at people like Ahmed Zewail, myself, Farouk El-Baz. We were educated in the Middle East, we have the same genes as everybody in the Middle East, but we came to the U.S. and were given the opportunity in the U.S. to strive. So I think the challenge in the Middle East is for the government and industry is to provide young people the opportunity to start, by investing in research, investing in education, investing in technology. And people in the Middle East can strive as much as other places. There is no monopoly on being smart or being knowledgeable. It’s really more a question of the opportunity and the Middle East has a lot of potential. As you know, Saudi Arabia has a lot of investment in advanced universities and research centers like the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. That’s what Ahmed [Zewail] is trying to do with his foundation [in Egypt]—to provide an opportunity and a place for young people to go and do their research. And I think they can strive like anywhere else. You just need the political environment and will, societal will, to actually invest in knowledge and new technology.

CAIRO REVIEW: Do you watch sci-fi movies?

CHARLES ELACHI: I’m not a science fiction person. I don’t know why everybody thinks I’m a science fiction person, but I’m not. I don’t read science fiction books. I liked Star Trek and Star Wars, but more because of the fun of watching than anything else. I was at a dinner with one of the actors from Star Trek [who played] Jean-Luc Picard, and he wanted to meet the director of JPL. He said, “I do science fiction in the movies. You do it in reality.” So, yeah, I live in it. So for me, maybe that’s why it’s not science fiction because I think my normal job is doing these things.

The Shape of Things to Come

What is a revolutionary foreign policy? Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr provided a broad sketch during a talk in March at the American University in Cairo. With a battery of foreign ambassadors listening attentively from the front rows, Amr spoke reassuringly of continuity. Egypt’s foreign policy, he noted, has seen no dramatic changes since former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in the January 25, 2011, revolution.

And yet, at the same time, Amr asserted the need for change. During the Mubarak decades, he explained, “stability” rather than sustainability was the Egyptian government’s priority. But the result was “real stagnation,” as he put it—an apparent reference to the domestic political and economic malaise that gradually diminished the country’s regional clout. “Egypt was an international leader and was powerful from the era of Mohammed Ali to our success in the 1973 war,” Amr said. “But what has happened from the 1980s until now? After being unique in our own ideas and thoughts and leading the region, at times the whole world, we started to be followers.”

Whether or not that was meant as a swipe at Mubarak’s tight ties with the United States, many in the audience—and beyond—wonder about the future of Egypt’s relations with the U.S., and with Israel, especially after Islamists won a majority in Egyptian parliamentary elections earlier this year. Indeed, there have been calls across the political spectrum for Egypt to demand changes to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Amr stopped short of forecasting a dramatic breach, but called the framework of ties with Israel “very old,” and added, “We need a new basis to build this relationship on.”

Amr downplayed the diplomatic brouhaha that ensued after Egyptian authorities stormed the offices of international Non-Governmental Organizations, notably pro-democracy groups funded by the U.S. government, and launched criminal investigations into their activities. Yet, Amr seemed to echo a widely held sentiment in Egypt that ties with the U.S. must be reappraised. Amr complained that Washington’s $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt “distorts the nature of bilateral relations.” Aid, he argued, should be temporary, not permanent, and never the basis of a nation’s foreign relations.

A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who has also served a stint at the World Bank, Amr dropped additional hints at what may be the contours of Egypt’s future foreign policy. He advocated stronger relations with Asia and particularly with China, and noted that he has traveled extensively in Asia as well as in Africa in his capacity as foreign minister. He also noted that Egypt’s ambassadors have been “very active” in expanding economic relations with Brazil, China, and India. He said that Egypt is currently pursuing cooperation with Libya and Sudan, and an expansion of cooperation with Nile River Basin states. Not to forget Egypt’s Arab neighbors, with whom Cairo is eager to develop a closer bond. Amr said that he speaks with his counterpart in Tunisia—where an anti-regime revolt in December 2010 launched the Arab Spring—about twice a day.

Democracy’s Growing Pains

As Egyptians prepare to vote in the first presidential election since the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the old aphorism comes to mind: “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Egypt seems to be getting the presidential election it deserves—one reflecting the social and institutional weaknesses that have plagued the country for too long. There is confusion, suspicion, polarization. Conspiracy theories abound. And there is the mounting anxiety over the economy and public security. Increasingly, it seems, nervous citizens are pining for the stability—or at least the predictability—of Mubarak’s three decades in power.

Thirteen politicians are standing as candidates in the May 2324 balloting. Scarcely a month before the polls were set to open, there was the shock of eleventh-hour candidacies announced by powerful Muslim Brotherhood financier Khairat El-Shater and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief; then came the dramatic last-second disqualifications of both men, and of popular Salafist preacher Hazem Abou Ismail, as well as of seven other hopefuls—all on technical grounds.

That basically leaves a three-way contest pitting Amr Moussa, the ex-foreign minister and former secretary general of the Arab League, against two Islamists; former senior Muslim Brotherhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Mohammed Morsi, the official candidate of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Moussa, who announced his bid as an independent within months of Mubarak’s fall, banks on his longstanding popularity as an outspoken critic of Israel and stature as an international statesman to overcome the baggage of his ties to the ousted former regime.

But the resounding victory of Islamists in the parliamentary voting held earlier this year seems to presage the election of an Islamist president. The question is: Who? Aboul Fotouh, running as an independent, casts himself as an Islamic liberal—who would appoint a Christian or a woman as vice president—but it is unclear how much he will ultimately appeal to either Islamists or liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood is putting its considerable machine at Morsi’s service. But even if he does emerge victorious, Egyptians cannot be entirely certain about what it will mean to have an Islamist president; the FJP downplays the old Brotherhood slogan of “Islam is the solution” in favor of emphasizing a “Renaissance Project” as its platform.

The top contenders are striving to entice the disparate elements of the voter blocs left adrift by candidate disqualifications. Fringe Islamists, like Mohamed Selim El-Awwa, seek to attract supporters of El-Shater and Abou Ismail. A notable factor in the race is the absence of a strong secularist candidate—or, one without connections to the former regime. Secularist candidates with revolutionary credentials, such as longtime activist and former parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahi and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, have been relegated to the fringes.

What the candidates have been saying on the campaign trail reflects the anxieties of a nervous nation. They highlight the economy, as well as the need for Egypt to resume its rightful regional leadership role. A common refrain—but not a major focus for any candidate—is a call for reassessing Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. The political pageant is unfolding as uncertainty lingers over the role of the future president, an office whose powers and limitations have yet to be defined. The Islamist-controlled parliament is overseeing the drafting of a new constitution by a one-hundred-person constituent assembly; yet an April court decision disbanded that committee, further confusing the transition process.

There is also the related question of what happens to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals who have run the country since giving Mubarak the final shove from power in February 2011. SCAF’s track record has been checkered, causing Egyptians to speculate whether the generals were actively devious or just plain incompetent. SCAF promises to hand over authority by July. Protests spiked in the run-up to the election, sending a message to the generals to keep their word.

Through the years, Egyptians became accustomed to elections—Mubarak faced voters five times—but they gained little experience in democracy. Little wonder then, that the democratic transition has been so muddled. It may be that the country will spend considerably more time at the crossroads, without moving decisively on issues ranging from the powers of the state to the role of Islam in society. Egypt’s next president will take the helm of a country on the cusp of a renaissance and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Whatever the outcome, the presidential election of 2012 is giving Egyptians the first real choice they have ever had to select one of their own to lead their country.

The Cairo Review 2012 Egyptian Presidential Elections Guide

Ashraf Khalil is a journalist in Cairo who writes for the London Times and Foreign Policy. He was previously a correspondent in Baghdad and Jerusalem for the Los Angeles Times. He is the author ofLiberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. He can be followed on Twitter at @ashrafkhalil.

Knowledge Without Borders

In his important new monograph on the American research university, Jonathan Cole, provost emeritus of Columbia University, describes his experience as an advisor to Chinese provincial leaders determined to build an institution to rival Ivy League schools “starting from scratch.” The assignment, writes Cole, was to “create a blueprint for greatness.”1 China is in the midst of a massive investment in its national infrastructure for higher education and policy makers there understand well the correlation between higher education and competitiveness in the global knowledge economy, as attested by an editorial that appeared in the China Daily in October 2009.2

While the editorial takes the commendable position that government planning for the development of a consortium of world-class institutions places undue emphasis on exclusivity and international status at the cost of access for the majority of citizens, the inherent idealization of this set of elite American research universities underscores the imperative to reconsider the model these institutions represent in the twenty-first century. The commitment to build research universities from scratch offers China the opportunity to design universities that transcend historical models, which in the case of the American research university, as we contend in the following, is to some degree limited by its entrenchment in obsolete institutional design, lack of scalability, and residual elitism.

From the perspectives of policy makers as well as average citizens of nations throughout the world, the United States offers what by general consensus is held to be the definitive model for higher education. In reality, however, it makes little sense to speak of a single model, as if American higher education were governed by a centralized national authority or even guided by a unified and cohesive vision. Contemporary American higher education is in many important respects the product of a range of institutional ‘birth parents’ and a long trajectory of ad hoc negotiations taken in response to historical exigencies or fraught political circumstances. The evolution of this set of heterogeneous institutions and the dynamics of its current success are not easily replicated by fiat, and efforts by policy makers in developing economies to emulate its broad contours are unlikely to produce the same results or outcomes. The time and place are different and the definition of success in the future remains to be written. And the “blueprint for greatness” will almost certainly require adaptation depending on organizational type and national context.

The focus on American universities represents widespread recognition by ruling elites and average citizens alike that higher education is the single most critical adaptive function in our society, aligning the most certain prospect for personal success with national economic competitiveness as well as our collective best hope in resolving the intractable challenges that confront the world community. Because higher education has been one of the primary sources of the knowledge and innovation that have driven the global economy, the demand for advanced teaching and research, and for the new ideas, products, and processes that it yields, has reached fever pitch and exceeds the supply currently available. While the production of human capital will always remain the primary role of higher education, in recent decades awareness has emerged in both developed and developing economies that scientific discovery and technological innovation are major drivers of national economic growth and competitiveness, and in terms of their contributions to economic development, American research universities have been uniquely successful.3 The consensus that new knowledge contributes to economic competitiveness has pushed higher education to the forefront of policy discussions, corresponding to a ubiquitous new emphasis on science and technology education. In the decades ahead, decisions taken by policy makers regarding higher education will be major determinants of a given country’s economic competitiveness and ability to enhance the well-being of its citizens.

A Competitive Academic Marketplace

The American research university combines teaching with advanced research and a commitment to societal well-being. The status of these preeminent institutions in international assessments reflects the esteem in which they are held worldwide. American institutions consistently occupy seventeen of the top twenty slots in the authoritative ranking of world-class universities conducted by the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and fourteen of the top twenty in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (2011–12).4 The number of international students seeking enrollment at American colleges and universities attests to the perception that these institutions offer opportunities found nowhere else. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, projections from the British Council suggest that by the end of the decade, American universities will enroll 118,000 students from India, surpassing the projected enrollment of Chinese students.5 To cite but one further example, the National Science Foundation reports that over two-thirds of the engineers who receive PhDs from American universities are not citizens of the United States.6 The intent of policy makers to emulate American higher education reflects their realization that this institutional framework represents a uniquely successful model, which not only excels in educating students but also contributes inestimably to economic growth and competitiveness.

While there are approximately five thousand institutions of higher education in the United States, no more than roughly one hundred of these, both public and private, are classified as major research institutions in the categorization established by the Carnegie Foundation for Higher Education. Approximately one hundred additional universities with less extensive research portfolios comprise a second research-grade level.7 While research universities are the most complex and comprehensive knowledge enterprises, committed as they are to discovery, creativity, and innovation, they represent only one of any number of institutional types in American higher education, which includes liberal arts colleges, regional colleges, community colleges, professional schools, and technical institutes, as well as for-profit enterprises focused primarily on workforce training.

American higher education is the product of a decentralized approach that from the outset led fortuitously to the establishment of a plurality of institutional types, i.e., a variety of public and private institutions that perpetually engage in what has been termed a highly competitive “academic marketplace.”8 The decentralization and relative lack of regulation that has characterized the American approach stands in marked contrast to the centralized national administration of higher education found throughout much of the world. The U.S. Department of Education does not function in the manner of most state ministries in this sector, which exercise the authority to determine policy as well as the allocation of resources for instruction and research. Public and private universities alike in the United States enjoy relative autonomy and are free to shape their institutional identities as well as their respective missions, values, organization, operations, and practices.

A Trajectory Toward Innovation

The American research university assumed its present structure and purposes in the final decades of the nineteenth century when, following the lead of Johns Hopkins University, established in 1876 in Baltimore, Maryland, a small number of institutions added programs of specialized graduate study modeled on the practices of German scientific research institutes to their residential undergraduate programs.  As enumerated in the definitive account of historian Roger L. Geiger, paralleling the transition of the elite Ivy League colleges into universities were a set of state, i.e., public universities, including the University of Michigan and University of California.  During this pivotal era in American higher education, a handful of private institutions were also conceived from their inception as research universities, including Stanford University and the University of Chicago.9

The establishment of the state universities must be considered within the context of another formative influence on the evolution of the American research university.  In July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which provided funding derived from the sale of federal lands to state governments to build new colleges and universities or transform existing schools to provide instruction in practical fields to the sons and daughters of the working and middle classes.  The legislation set a precedent for federal support for higher education, and as a consequence of its mandate, the land-grant institutions shaped the research enterprises of the emerging American research universities through an emphasis on scientific inquiry and technological innovation.10

Following the Second World War, American research universities assumed a commanding lead in the discovery and dissemination of the new knowledge that has fueled economic growth. The war effort had set the stage for federal government support of science in exchange for academic research focused primarily on national defense, economic prosperity, and public health. Influenced by the success of the scientific contribution to victory, the government expanded its investment in all forms of scientific research. The contribution of this set of institutions to the global community thus arises from their combined production of human capital, which includes a significant portion of international students, and useful knowledge, which not only improves our collective quality of life but also sparks innovation and spurs economic growth. These institutions produce leaders in all spheres of human endeavor as well as perpetual innovation in ideas, products, and processes.

While the research sector is largely distinct from higher education in many nations, the American research university combines undergraduate and graduate instruction with its research enterprise. Germany and France have been cited for establishing exemplary national systems with parallel and differentiated research sectors that compete with universities. The eighty institutes of the Max Planck Society, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), respectively, comprise each nation’s foremost research organization.11 American research universities, both public and private, compete openly for federal research dollars and private investment, whereas in some countries funding is allocated to institutions or distributed to various sectors by formulae. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), for example, determines priorities for expenditure each year and apportions total funds accordingly, while in the United States individual faculty members or research teams compete for research grants. Richard C. Atkinson and William A. Blanpied (former president of the University of California, and former analyst at the National Science Foundation, respectively) have underscored the extent to which this competitive process has engendered quality in American research universities and contend that efforts to replicate the model in other national contexts could falter if participants are culturally averse to such competition.12Most public universities receive a portion of their general funding from their respective state legislatures and are distinguished from their private research-grade peers less by their shared commitment to the public good than by their funding model and generally larger enrollments.

The role of research universities in producing knowledge-based technological innovation and thus promoting economic development in no small measure accounts for the relevance of this institutional model in developing nations. The economic contribution of research universities is closely tied to the basic and applied research conducted on their campuses, which sometimes permits the commercialization of intellectual property through technology transfer. Through the development of products, processes, and applications across a range of markets, academic research has the potential to generate economic returns to institutions, a process that in turn further invigorates the broader economic impact of universities.13

Since 1945, the growth of the American economy has been largely driven by science-based technological innovation. Research cited by a committee of the U.S. National Academies indicates that in the second half of the twentieth century, as much as 85 percent of measured growth in per capita income in the United States derived from technological change.14 In addition to their critical role in discovery and innovation, universities mediate the relationship between fundamental research and industrial application, spawning entire industries and anchoring innovation clusters. According to some estimates, 80 percent of new industries may be derived from academic research.15 The centrality of research universities as hubs of regional innovation clusters is most famously epitomized in the relationship between Stanford University and Silicon Valley, and between Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Route 128 in the Boston area.16

Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to national competitiveness, efforts to increase the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of students are entirely appropriate. But curricula expressly tailored in response to the demands of the workforce must be balanced with opportunities for students to develop their capacity for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, creativity, and leadership—all of which one finds in the disciplines associated with a liberal arts education. It is essential that higher education develops in students the ability to understand the complexity and interrelatedness of our cultural, economic, natural, political, social, and technological systems. We must educate individuals capable of advancing civic participation and creative expression and communicating insights across borders. The potential for an educated citizenry to contribute to the resolution of complex challenges entails more than just calculus. As Jonathan Cole argues in this context, “Almost all truly distinguished universities create a seamless web of cognitive influence among the individual disciplines that affects the quality of the whole.  That is one reason I believe you cannot build great universities without representation of the humanities as well as the sciences.”17

Overcoming Design Limitations

An assessment of limitations in the design of a contemporary American research university might reasonably begin with consideration of the reciprocal interrelationship between society and its institutions, because American higher education, and especially public higher education, is often represented as a ‘social contract’ or ‘social compact.’ John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, articulates the implications of this commitment: “To a degree perhaps unmatched by any other single institution in our society or by any other nation in the world, America’s public universities were conceived, funded, and developed as tools of socioeconomic engineering… These institutions were to benefit the individual not as a goal unto themselves but as a means to shape a more progressive and productive society.”18

And, indeed, public sector investment in higher education in the United States during the twentieth century produced a level of educational attainment unmatched anywhere in the world, which served as a catalyst for innovation and thus economic growth. Yet with this very success, public investment in higher education has progressively declined. While nations worldwide are investing strategically to educate their citizens, America’s educational infrastructure remains unable to accommodate projected enrollment demands. Accordingly, America’s leading institutions have become increasingly exclusive and define their excellence through admissions practices based on the exclusion of the majority of applicants. In this sense, status is attained through the maintenance of scarcity, and academic elitism may be perceived as a defensive posture and abdication of implicit responsibility.

Following nearly four centuries of advancement in the standard of living and quality of life, the present generation of younger Americans is very likely to witness the commencement of incipient decline across a spectrum of indicators. Projections cited by the U.S. National Academies suggest declines in educational outcomes, health indicators, and prosperity and the evidence is apparent at every turn.19 A recent report on high school graduation rates in fifty of the largest U.S. cities, for example, finds that seventeen had graduation rates lower than 50 percent meaning untold numbers of high school students lack the qualifications even to submit applications to top universities and colleges.20 Despite the conventional wisdom that America is a classless society, socioeconomic disadvantage based on family income and the educational attainment of parents remains a barrier to economic mobility and access to higher education. According to research conducted by former Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President William G. Bowen and colleagues, the percentage of first generation college students from families with incomes in the bottom quartile of distribution comprises no more than 3.1 percent of university enrollment nationwide.21 Demographic trends suggest that the United States is becoming a nation hopelessly divided between a vibrant and dynamic upper class, a static and challenged middle class, and a disadvantaged class increasingly defined by the working poor and those socially and economically unable to realize the American Dream.

If we assume a commitment to societal well-being is implicit in the mission of American research universities, we are left to ponder why some of the most vaunted institutions in the world seem to fall short of their potential to broadly advance the public good. We would argue that this limitation is a consequence of entrenchment in an obsolete model, which largely assumed its present contours in the nineteenth century and has not evolved sufficiently since. It is a model that favors the pursuit of increasingly specialized knowledge over explicit commitment to the application of knowledge. If research universities are to create knowledge that responds to the ‘grand challenges’ of our epoch—public health, social justice, poverty alleviation, access to clean water, sustainable development, climate change—these institutions must integrate their quest to advance discovery and innovation with an explicit mandate to assume responsibility for the societies they serve. All of these challenges are global in scale and their resolution will require a coordinated and international response from research universities, business and industry, and governments throughout the world.

Historical models, such as the American research university, will inevitably require varying degrees of adaptation, especially if they are to serve regional interests and address the challenges that confront developing nations. For research universities emerging worldwide, a commitment to local, national, and regional priorities will leverage the collective stock of knowledge and focus the pursuit of new knowledge and innovation. Adherence to filiopietistic conventions derived from another era hinders both adaptability and the capacity for rapid response to real-time demands, and will impede the potential of new institutions to develop appropriate organizational platforms, learning technologies, and transdisciplinary curricula. The perpetuation of discipline-based departments corresponds to an academic culture that prizes individualism over teamwork and the discovery of specialized knowledge over problem-based collaboration. Arbitrary disciplinary boundaries will not facilitate appropriate responses to emergent, non-linear, and unpredictable new complexities. Only an amalgamation of transdisciplinary, transinstitutional, and transnational frameworks has the potential to advance broader social and economic outcomes.

The Emergence of Global Institutions

As comprehensive knowledge enterprises, research universities are key institutional actors in national systems of innovation, a concept that embraces economic, political, and social institutions relevant to discovery and innovation, spanning academia, business and industry, and government.22 The imperative for transdisciplinary organization of teaching and research is obvious, but we must foster transinstitutional as well as transnational collaboration involving universities, industries, and governments, which both facilitates scholarly and scientific exchange and aggregates knowledge, thus preventing unnecessary replication of effort. The differentiation of knowledge enterprises facilitates their integration into coordinated and synergistic networks, thus expanding our potential to offer multiple solutions and exert greater impact across broader swathes of knowledge. Transnational endeavor to lend direction and purpose to the humanistic insight, social understanding, scientific discoveries, and technological adaptations that are the product of academic culture represent our best hope as we choose between alternative trajectories in the coming decades.

Inasmuch as knowledge and innovation flourish when embedded in and interrelated through transinstitutional and transnational networks, each nation must proactively look beyond its borders to advance connectivity. In this context, the emergence of “mega-research universities”—a set of large American research universities with an expansive global presence and research expenditures that for each presently total more than $750 million per year—promises to engage institutions worldwide even as it affects their competitive posture. Following the lead of such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Washington, mega-universities are generating ambitious portfolios of intellectual property and engaging business, industry, and governments around the world. For some of these institutions, the establishment of full-scale operations abroad—one need only think of Cornell University, for example, setting up a medical school in Qatar and the University of Chicago a business school in Singapore—instantiates this trend. The emergence of these global institutions is only the most recent stage in the millennium-long trajectory of institutional evolution that characterizes the history of the university. Research universities have historically played a leading role in facilitating mutually productive international exchange as well as the formation of strategic alliances between the public and private sectors. Scholarship, scientific research, technological innovation, and creative endeavor all implicitly address a global audience and thus international engagement must become an explicit design criterion. In order to accelerate their engagement as transnational knowledge enterprises, research universities must develop new models focused not only on discovery but also access to a broad demographic and greater engagement in order to maximize societal impact. Despite the imperative for new and differentiated institutional models, however, academia must never retreat from its core values.

The Imperative to Adapt

The increasing interconnectedness and integration of societies and economies worldwide makes us more and more interdependent. The nations of the world are confronted by an extraordinary array of challenges, from endemic regional conflicts to international terrorism to worldwide health crises to the depletion of natural resources. Perturbations from economic crises continue to threaten an interrelated global economy that until quite recently had seemed to offer only boundless promise, while each news cycle delivers horrendous accounts of violence, poverty, inequity, and injustice. Institutions, organizations, and private sector enterprises, many construed as multinational, operate within a web of dynamic systems on so many scales that few among us even glimpse their shifting interrelationships. And while the diffusion of information and ideas has become instantaneous, opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict proliferate exponentially as byproducts of knowledge are disseminated worldwide in milliseconds.

Against this backdrop of massively accelerating complexity, the global infrastructure for even the most rudimentary levels of higher education is incommensurate in scale to demand. But solutions to the challenges that confront humanity are most likely to come from this one source, which produces broadly educated graduates possessed of the knowledge to drive forward humanistic understanding, scientific discovery, and technological innovation, thereby spurring on both the personal success of individuals and international economic development. Although universities throughout the world have long been transformational catalysts for innovation and societal advancement, what remains to be determined is whether they can adapt rapidly enough to resolve the problems of the global community in the decades ahead.

1 Jonathan R. Cole, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 2.

2 China Daily, “Chinese Ivy League” (October 21, 2009) .

3 The literature on the economic impact of science-based technological innovation is vast. A useful introduction is to be found in Nathan Rosenberg and Richard R. Nelson, “American Universities and Technical Advance in Industry,” Research Policy 23, no. 3 (1994): 323–348. For an overview that introduces discussion of research universities in various national contexts, see Richard C. Atkinson and William A. Blanpied, “Research Universities: Core of the U.S. Science and Technology System,” Technology in Society 30 (2008): 30–48.

4 Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Academic Ranking of World Universities:  http://www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU2011.html.

5 Chronicle of Higher Education, “By 2020, India Will Be Top Country Sending Students to the U.S.” (March 13, 2012).

6 National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Earned Doctorates: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf09311 /pdf/tab3.pdf, cited in Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the Twenty-First Century (U.S.), Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2010).

7 The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching designates institutions formerly termed “research-extensive” as either RU/VH (“research university/very high research activity”) or RU/H (high research activity). For a discussion of the methodology, involving both aggregate and per capita levels of research expenditures, see http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/methodology/basic.php.

8 Hugh Davis Graham and Nancy Diamond, The Rise of American Research Universities: Elites and Challengers in the Postwar Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 1–25.

9 Roger L. Geiger, To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900–1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 2–3.

10 Rosenberg and Nelson, “American Universities and Technical Advance in Industry,” 323–348.

11 Atkinson and Blanpied, 41–43.

12 Atkinson and Blanpied, 41–42.

13 A useful overview of the economic impact of academic research worldwide is to be found in the collection of articles edited by Shahid Yusuf and Kaoru Nabeshima, How Universities Promote Economic Growth (Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2007).

14 Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the Twenty-First Century (U.S.), Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2007), 1.

15 Richard C. Atkinson and Patricia A. Pelfrey, “Science and the Entrepreneurial University,” Issues in Science and Technology 26, no. 4, Summer 2010: 39.

16 Anna Lee Saxenian, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

17 Cole, The Great American University, 5.

18 John Aubrey Douglass, The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 7–8.

19 Rising Above the Gathering Storm Revisited, 65–66.

20 Christopher B. Swanson, “Closing the Graduation Gap: Educational and Economic Conditions in America’s Largest Cities.” Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education, 2009.

21 William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 98–99, figure 5.2.

22 Jorge Niosi, Paolo Saviotti, Bertrand Bellon, and Michael M. Crow, “National Systems of Innovation: In Search of a Workable Concept,” Technology in Society 15 (1993): 207–227.

Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University. He is the founder of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at ASU. Crow served as executive vice provost of Columbia University between 1998 and 2002, and was founding director of the Earth Institute there. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Crow is the author of Limited by Design: R&D Laboratories in the U.S. National Innovation System.

William B. Dabars is a research fellow in the office of the president at Arizona State University. He has served in various research capacities at the University of Southern California, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Getty Research Institute, a program of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He was previously an editorial consultant for the Getty Conservation Institute and the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Disciplinarity and Interdisciplinarity: Rhetoric and Context in the American Research University.

Energy Justice

When my flight landed in Ottawa last January, the news had already begun to circulate. The United States government had rejected a proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would have carried oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, creating an immediate burst of construction jobs in the U.S. and helping enhance U.S. energy security. In Canada, it would have ensured the continued expansion of the country’s oil boom for decades.

As I saw first-hand, many Canadians were deeply angered by the decision and supported Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s reaction to pursue a Chinese offer to buy tar sands oil via an alternative pipeline to British Columbia. Only a few Canadians, however, seemed to acknowledge either the local devastation that oil sands development has already wrought in Alberta, or the serious challenges for climate change that would result from opening new distribution pathways for a pool of oil that, in the end, may rival Saudi Arabia’s. Prospects of new oil wealth have a tendency to overshadow a wide range of potential environmental and social risks.

Alberta’s tar sands are a key battleground in the global fight over the future of energy. Environmental groups from the U.S. and other countries have funded their Canadian counterparts for years in a pitched battle to halt the development of Alberta’s energy resources. Canadian officials cry foul over this foreign interference but for years, multinational oil companies have also lobbied the Canadian government in favor of this development. At stake in this fight is the direction the world will take in responding to an ever increasing energy demand, a decline in conventional sources of oil and natural gas, and the consequences of unconventional fossil fuels for the climate system and the global economy. Oil from Alberta’s tar sands will help perpetuate dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels for another generation of humans, thereby further exacerbating climate change and weakening arguments for investing in renewable energy technologies. Indeed, Alberta’s oil will be even worse for the climate system than Saudi Arabia’s, putting more carbon in the atmosphere for each unit of energy that is eventually obtained. Yet, it will also make Alberta—and Canada—very, very rich.

The fight over Keystone XL is thus as much about justice as it is about energy. Energy choices are, while obviously technological, also thoroughly social. How societies produce and consume energy is intimately tied to the function and organization of not only ecological but also social, political, and economic systems at scales ranging from one village to the whole planet. Energy is vital to the success of modern societies, the smooth functioning of the global economy, and the day-to-day lives of the world’s inhabitants. It is one of the largest sources of wealth on Earth and the driver of some the planet’s gravest risks. Over the next fifty years, humanity will face hundreds of choices like Keystone XL: choices about what kinds of energy systems to build for the future, where to build them, and how to distribute their benefits, costs, and risks. These choices will play a key role in shaping the human consequences of our energy future, and will ultimately help determine which communities flourish and which deteriorate over the course of the twenty-first century. No wonder it’s a fight.

Humanity cannot rely on its current sources of energy. This is a historical fact that results from four important trends. First, energy demand continues to grow; hence, communities must continue to add new capacities to generate energy over time (or they must find new strategies for reducing the growth of energy demand, through energy efficiency for example). Second, energy infrastructure ages and must be replaced over finite periods of time in order to update technologies, retire old facilities, and meet new regulatory requirements. In the United States, for instance, the electricity grid infrastructure is already over half a century old and most nuclear and coal-fired power plants are forty to sixty years old. The joke goes that the United States has the best grid money could buy–in 1947. Third, current energy resources become depleted and must be replaced with new resources. According to the International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook, existing sources of crude oil will supply no more than 20 percent of the world’s demand for oil by 2035. Therefore additional oil supplies will need to be found or be replaced with other forms of energy in the intervening years.

Fourth, energy prices are rising in an unsustainable fashion, especially in the oil sector. Blame for this rise is often placed on new demand from China and India, prompting calls for more drilling, especially in the United States. The truth is more complex. Exploration costs and the politics of oil wealth increasingly combine to put a high floor beneath world oil prices. New oil is expensive to find and produce, as the search for conventional oil moves to more extreme environments and the bulk of new oil finds are unconventional, such as Venezuelan heavy crude and Canadian tar sands. At the same time, the major oil producing countries need high oil prices to balance their budgets.

None of this is a new phenomenon in the energy sector. We often think of the energy system as remarkably durable, while in fact the energy system is in constant flux. New power plants replace old ones. New oil and gas wells are drilled as old ones dry up. Since the 1970s, for example, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming has emerged as a major source of both coal and natural gas, with seven companies now operating coal mines in the region, tens of thousands of natural gas wells dotting the landscape, and new infrastructures connecting the region to major railways. This burst of development occurred in large part as a result of 1970 amendments to the 1963 Clean Air Act, which put a high premium on the region’s coal resources; containing little or no sulfur, the region’s coal significantly reduced the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions. At current rates of extraction, however, most coal mines in the Powder River Basin have only about twenty years of active life left, and any new mines in the region would require new federal permits. Hence, the basin’s economic future remains deeply uncertain.

Fashioning an energy future can seem, therefore, as if it is simply a matter of choosing what kind of energy technologies to deploy in the replacement and expansion of existing infrastructures. And, indeed, widespread deliberations are now occurring both within the energy sector and societies across the globe about energy technology choices for the next fifty years. Yet, to describe these choices as merely about technology does a gross injustice to their import and complexity. Energy choices are ultimately choices not only about what technologies to deploy but also about what societies want to build around those technologies. They are about how people will live and make their livings in the future and how the benefits, costs, and risks of energy systems will be distributed across diverse communities. They are, in other words, choices about energy justice.

Energy and People

To fully appreciate the subtle complexities of concerns about energy justice requires an exploration of the many and varied ways that human lives and livelihoods are bound together with technologies that produce and consume energy. Social scientists refer to such interconnections as socio-technological systems, acknowledging that the social and technical dimensions of such systems can be difficult—at best—to make sense of separately. These ties between the social and the technical range across many facets of all human society. Social identities (and imaginaries) exist around machines—why else would someone pay a large sum of money for a Jaguar, a Ferrari, or a Maserati? So, too, do patterns of human relationships, organization, and work. Human values and objectives are inevitably designed into technologies and technological systems. Indeed, the defining characteristic of technology—its use as a tool to serve human purposes—invariably shapes the crafting of the technology. Modern human activity and organization and their technical foundations thus come together in tightly coupled socio-technological systems.

The significance of the ties between patterns of energy and patterns of human organization and activity is clearly evident in other energy systems: electricity generation and distribution from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants; the production and refining of oil; and the mining and transport of natural gas for household and industrial use as well as for automobile, railway, and ocean transportation. Collectively, energy systems comprise the largest and most important of all human enterprise. Energy infrastructure—electricity grids, oil and gas pipelines, road and rail networks—span continents. Oil production, refining, and distribution is a global system involving oil wells, including massive offshore oil platforms, in dozens of countries, transport ships, pipelines, refineries, gas stations, and hundreds of millions of gasoline and diesel engines in cars, trucks, airplanes, trains, boats, tanks, lawnmowers, generators, industrial facilities, etc. It is no accident that nine of the twelve largest companies on the Fortune 500 are energy companies.

Consider, for a moment, one particular socio-technological energy system: air transportation. In technical terms, the air transportation system comprises a wide range of technological elements designed to convert jet fuel into the ability to move passengers and freight rapidly around the globe. This system is integral to modern social order. Companies, governments, universities, and tourists all depend on its smooth functioning to carry out their business, activities, and operations. In a globally networked society, new technologies of transportation and communication mix to make patterns of human activity and organization never before possible in human history.

Yet, the system also depends fundamentally on patterns of human activity and organization. The smooth functioning of air transportation relies on a large and diverse workforce of highly trained pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ticket salespeople, baggage handlers, fuelers, de-icing machine operators, meteorologists, air traffic controllers, managers, accountants, software programmers, and many others—not to mention the people and institutions required to train and certify all these individuals. Of course, airlines also need investors, airplane manufacturers, and the companies that drill oil and refine it into jet fuel.

Most important of all, airlines require passengers, as became abundantly clear after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. A renewed fear of flying led to a roughly 25 percent drop in ridership and nearly bankrupted several U.S. airlines in the ensuing six months. To ease travelers’ concerns and restore their trust in the system, the U.S. government established the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and radically increased security operations at U.S. airports, including the short-term deployment of U.S. military personnel. Airlines also need to be able to trust their passengers not to hijack or otherwise exploit airplane technologies for non-authorized purposes. This trust must either come via a voluntary compact or through robust security procedures to ensure that no passenger carries any other technology onto the plane that could be used as a weapon.

In addition to highlighting the ways in which the social and the technological merge in modern systems, the air transportation system also reveals two other important dimensions of such systems. The first is complexity.  Air transportation operates at the intersection of several distinct systems—airplane manufacturing, air travel, fuel production, airport maintenance and operations—as well as a range of social, economic, and political, processes, and phenomena. Routine air travel has increased mobility, for example, for students going to college, grandparents visiting their grandchildren, and middle class families going on vacation to Disney World and Las Vegas. Multinational corporations have become common—as have global supply chains. The floral industry is now global, linking consumers in Europe and the United States with producers in Africa and South America. Some of these processes, such as national air safety policies, are highly top down in organization. Others, such as the flight plans of casual and business travelers, accrete from the daily decisions of millions of individuals, families, and organizations.

The transformation of the air transportation industry after 9/11 also reveals, secondly, the implications of socio-technological systems change. If taken in the context of the global air transportation system, as a whole, the addition of new security procedures at airports constitutes a relatively modest overall change. We might say that passengers must merely now pass through a somewhat more rigorous security evaluation before boarding aircraft. Yet, the depth and implications of this modest change have nonetheless turned out to be quite significant for social and political organization. In the United States, the change ushered into existence an entirely new, if modestly sized government agency, with sixty thousand employees and an annual $8.1 billion budget (roughly comparable to the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. National Science Foundation).

Security technologies have been upgraded throughout the industry, including onboard planes as well as in airports. The TSA maintains a list of passengers who are not allowed to fly and screens every passenger before allowing them to fly. Airport buildings have, in some cases, been significantly reconfigured. New scanning machines have raised, for some passengers, difficult questions about privacy and propriety. Alternative screening practices involving hand searches have also piqued the ire of passengers and raised unsettling ethical questions about the suitability of professional security behaviors in a civilian setting. All foreign visitors to the United States must now be fingerprinted and photographed at the border, be registered upon entry and exit, and have their visits to the country tracked. In sum, changes to air travel have altered not only the technological infrastructure of airports and airplanes but people’s relationship to one another, their expectations of fellow travelers and foreign visitors, and the organization of government.

Energy systems help define not only what we do and where we go but also who we are and how we live as human beings. When electricity grids began being constructed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their predominant customers were industrial factories replacing water wheels or steam engines. Those factories were primarily daytime operations. Early coal-fired power plants didn’t like to shut down, however, and so operated twenty-four hours each day. Our 24/7 culture derives from the design of those early power plants. Electricity utilities, looking for ways to improve business, created ways to sell electrons in the evenings, at night, and at weekends. They invested in electric streetcars to move people to and from work in the early mornings and late evenings. They also invested in amusement parks to provide entertainment for evenings and weekends, entertainment that required moving people around the city on streetcars. All of which, incidentally, consumed energy.

Firms like General Electric, one of Thomas Edison’s inventions, began manufacturing and marketing electrical devices for the home: lights, stoves, irons, toasters, basically anything to get us to consume more electricity in the mornings and evenings. Today’s televisions, microwaves, stereos, video game systems, and the multiplicity of other devices owe much to the original infrastructure of household electric delivery—power lines connected to homes and electric wires and outlets run throughout the walls—built to handle the earliest electrification of the home. In order to push sales of electric lighting, early utility companies sponsored massive lighting displays to illuminate the power of light and its ability to transform night from a time of sleep to a time of play. Early generations were encouraged to use light profligately, and even now sumptuous electric light shows reminiscent of these earlier displays—and still sponsored more often than not by utility companies—remain popular holiday traditions. Perhaps most significantly, lighting extended the business day. Shops remained open longer. Factories moved to double and then triple shifts, benefiting from the sale of cheap electricity at night, when utilities still had excess power to give away. Ultimately, dark cities became symbols of fear, giving rise to widespread street lighting to help ensure the safety of people now out on the town until all hours.

Automobiles, too, have shaped patterns of human settlement and activity in fundamental ways. In postwar cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, the car freed urban developers from the need for density in order to accommodate human transportation by foot. Cities, suburbs, and exurbs continue to sprawl across vast distances, with daily commutes to and from work still extending to an hour or more. The family home, on its own plot of land, has become the de facto American dream—albeit one temporarily set back by the collapse of the housing bubble in the late 2000s. Paved streets and parking lots have become ubiquitous to ensure easy transportation from the home to work, to the shops, and to entertainment. Nor are these trends limited to the United States. Private automobile ownership has exploded around the world as the burgeoning global middle class demands access to this powerful technology of personal transport.

Addiction and its Consequences

The depth of energy’s role in constituting modern societies has turned energy into an addiction. That addiction is fueled by a global energy industry primed to provide cheap, reliable energy. Indeed, these two criteria—the cost of energy and its reliable availability, where and when people want it—have defined energy policy and energy business in much of the world over the past several decades. It is hard to gainsay this emphasis. The Arab oil embargo in the 1970s caused major problems for economies highly dependent on cheap oil. More recently, a rapid rise in the price of oil—to well over $100 per barrel in 2008—has contributed to major social and economic dislocations in many parts of the world. In the United States, gasoline prices over $4 per gallon threw poor households, who are often more dependent on automobiles than richer families, into disarray, which helped undercut consumer spending and push the nation further into recession. The continuing high price of oil worldwide has contributed to rising food prices and, with them, a wave of global social and political unrest. Cost and reliability matter in the energy business. In many respects, they are the energy business.

Nonetheless, over the past twenty years, energy policies have added a third major criterion to energy analyses: carbon. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coupled with projections regarding the resultant climate change, have fundamentally altered energy policy debates. Energy’s carbon content has become almost as significant as its cost and reliability. Carbon-based energy sources—oil, coal, and natural gas—have seen their long-term prospects challenged by other, non-carbon energy technologies, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear. Countries now face stark choices between continuing to rely on carbon-based energy, and risking the resultant disruptive shifts in the Earth’s climate system, or adopting newer energy technologies that remain, for the most part, more expensive and less reliable. These choices largely pit current stability against long-term climate change for future generations.

Yet, as critical as these three criteria are (cost, reliability, and carbon content), they cannot remain, I argue, the only standards for making energy choices in the twenty-first century. It is critical, I believe, that human societies develop robust frameworks for assessing the human consequences of energy system change. There must be a quest for energy justice.

Meeting this challenge will require two fundamental shifts in energy governance. First, the ends of energy governance must change. If societies are to go to the trouble of transforming the largest human enterprise on the planet, they should set higher ambitions than just reducing carbon emissions. Large-scale energy system change should be an opportunity to significantly improve the flourishing of human communities and to markedly reduce the risks energy production and consumption impose on many of the world’s communities. Second, the processes of energy governance must be reinvented. Today, energy planning is largely designed to handle incremental changes and to privilege incumbents. Indeed, in many parts of the world, energy production is a monopoly enterprise. Procedures for siting new energy facilities in the United States, for example, allow only for the proposal and evaluation of specific facilities at specific locations. Instead, new strategies are needed that enable communities and energy industries to partner in reimagining and redesigning broad energy futures.

 The need for these changes is particularly urgent given the magnitude and complexity of potential transformations of energy technologies and their associated socio-technological systems. For most of the past century, energy change has been largely incremental. Energy supply and demand grew so energy systems expanded geographically. Major changes occurred slowly, however, and did not fundamentally alter basic patterns of energy production and consumption, giving individuals, communities, and societies time to adapt. Key exceptions to this rule—the rise of nuclear energy in the 1950s and the 1960s and the regulatory push toward low sulfur coal in the United States—are illustrative in their human consequences.

Like it or not, energy systems change will bring fundamental technological and social change in the twenty-first century. Even the established fossil fuel industry faces reformations far removed from those experienced in the past. Drilling for conventional oil has delved into more extreme and difficult environments, including deeper offshore waters. In turn, these operations carry greater risks, as became apparent from the massive economic and environmental damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, the oil industry will rely more heavily over time on unconventional sources of oil, such as Venezuelan heavy crude and Canadian tar sands, which not only pose greater risks of environmental degradation during drilling and extraction but also result in even greater carbon dioxide emissions per unit of fuel produced and consumed. Likewise, the current boom in the natural gas industry has resulted, to a large extent, from unconventional sources of methane stored in shale in places like the Marcellus Formation in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and New York, and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Extracting these resources uses a technology called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ that injects high pressure water and chemicals deep into the ground. This method is now under attack by activists and communities concerned about the consequences of the extraction process to land, water, and health.

Nor are renewable technologies exempt from concerns about human consequences. Solar panels on rooftops have transformed energy consumers into energy producers, for example. A good thing, yes, but in large numbers, they threaten the stability of the existing electricity grid and the business model of utilities. This in turn threatens the reliability of the income stream for utility investors, the majority of whom are retirees. Utility companies are energy providers of the last resort and their failure would threaten those who rely on such services, especially the poor who cannot afford their own rooftop energy. Yet, solar panels also grant a degree of freedom to homeowners and businesses, changing their relationship with the centralized socio-technological systems that are modern utilities today. Solar panels may also infect behavioral patterns, reversing incentives that utilities have given us to consume energy at night instead of during the day. Over the next century, our energy consumption patterns may change as much as they did during the last.

Large-scale solar farms need land that must be acquired. For a while yet, already disturbed agricultural and public lands will suffice for building solar power plants, but meeting the energy demands of the future will ultimately require building on wild lands. Biologists already worry about the impacts of large-scale solar facilities on biologically diverse deserts. Some solar power plants also consume very high levels of water that can strain water supplies, especially in the arid lands that seem to have so much of the world’s available sunlight. Many rural residents complain that solar and wind projects alter rural landscapes largely for the benefit of urban communities. And indigenous communities worry that future renewable energy projects will be carried out with the same disregard for their heritage and history as previous generations of energy projects.

Upstream, Midstream, Downstream

In evaluating the human consequences of energy systems change, it is useful to differentiate the benefits, costs, and risks that occur upstream, in energy production, midstream, in energy consumption, and downstream, as choices about production and consumption ripple through society and the environment. Upstream benefits, costs, and risks occur in the production, distribution, and sale of both energy and the fuels used to produce it. Owners of energy resources and infrastructure often create enormous wealth for themselves and the communities they invest in. Thanks to the coal mines mentioned earlier, the state of Wyoming, when I grew up there, had no state income tax and one of the nation’s lowest sales tax rates, yet it spent more per student on education than any other state but one. Alberta—and Canada—are quickly learning this lesson, too.

Yet, the downsides of energy wealth are also apparent. For decades, the U.S. and Europe helped authoritarian rulers retain power in oil-rich states in order to ensure control over reliable energy supplies. Even after last year’s Arab Spring, the relationship between power and oil remains relatively unchanged in the region. Of the major oil producing nations, only Libya ousted its dictator. Leaders in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere remain firmly in control, at least for the moment. Oil revenues provide the central resource via which the Tehran government maintains the fealty of both its military and security forces in the face of the very real threat of widespread political unrest. Even in democratic societies, energy producers often use their wealth and position to secure power. It may not be a coincidence that Canada’s current prime minister hails from Alberta. The United States has had several presidents and other national leaders with close ties to the oil industry—and widespread concerns persist in the United States about the corrupting influence of the coal and oil industries on American politics.

Changes in energy systems can also have profound consequences for communities and regions. In 2010, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama declared a six-month moratorium on offshore drilling in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The outcry from Gulf Coast states was immediate. A region already reeling economically from the spill’s impacts on coastal fisheries and tourism now faced at least a short-term halt in revenues from offshore drilling platforms, as well as the longer-term threat that platforms would leave the region in favor of less regulated waters. These events offered a window into the long-term economic consequences that could occur, both regionally and nationally, should the U.S. opt to transition from oil to other energy resources. A quick glance at renewable energy resource maps shows that the geography of renewable energy across the nation overlaps little with the geography of oil, coal, and natural gas. A large-scale shift from coal-fired to solar-fired electricity would bring a financial boom to California, Nevada, and Arizona while undermining the economic futures of states like West Virginia and Wyoming, although the latter also has some potential wind energy resources.

Nor, of course, are the risks of energy production solely financial. American Indian tribes in the desert Southwest have felt the environmental and health impacts of coal and uranium mining for decades, as have miners in many parts of the world. Alberta’s tar sands operations have had significant impacts on water and forests in the province. Louisiana workers whose communities are utterly dependent on the oil industry also face highly polluted environments, as do the predominantly African-American communities who live in the state’s ‘Chemical Alley’—a concentration of industries that process oil into a wide range of energy and other products. Even solar panels are not free of concern. Life cycle assessments of the industry are only beginning to estimate the potential environmental and social impacts of large-scale solar manufacturing and deployment, and to design strategies for ensuring that ‘green’ energy is really as green as its image.

Energy is extraordinarily valuable to those who have access to it at low costs. Energy consumption and its midstream benefits are at the heart of modern industrial and post-industrial economies. While Saudi Arabia has grown wealthy from selling oil to the United States and Europe, it is the United States and Europe that have transformed the resulting energy into the world’s most powerful economies. China, too, has long recognized how central energy is to economic growth and has gone to great lengths both to secure access to reliable and inexpensive energy and to diversify its energy resources: China today has the largest solar energy manufacturing facilities in the world.

Lack of access to reliable and inexpensive energy can also impose severe limits on poor communities. These poor communities, many of which are just as dependent on energy as anyone else in modern societies, often pay a significantly higher proportion of their income for energy as a result. In the United States, where automobiles are all but essential transportation tools in many cities, families made homeless often face just as difficult challenges from the loss of their vehicle as their home. Without a car, they must rely on minimally available public transportation to get children to and from school and parents to and from work, an exercise that can often require hours at the beginning and end of each day. The resulting time loss makes it even more difficult to seek out new housing arrangements or new jobs that might transform the family’s fortunes.

Energy consumption technologies can be just plain dangerous. Anyone living with a toddler in the house knows that children must become thoroughly socialized in order to avoid highly dangerous encounters with electrical cords and plugs, irons, fireplaces, lawnmowers, automobiles, and many other modern technologies. Until they are socialized, children must be carefully protected to avoid injury or death. Even adults are at risk: so dependent are modern societies on technologies that convert energy into transportation that those societies willingly ignore high rates of injuries and deaths from transportation accidents. In the United States, tens of thousands of individuals die in automobile accidents each year, and hundreds of thousands are injured. In Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes by the threat of radiation exposure after the accident at Fukushima. Yet societies seem perfectly willing to simply ignore these harms in planning for energy futures. Finding ways to make future energy technologies not only clean but also friendly to all of the world’s inhabitants seems an important criteria for future energy justice.

Last but certainly not least, it is critical to remember that the evolution of energy systems can create a range of benefits, costs, and risks well downstream of energy production and consumption. These indirect human consequences stem from the evolution of energy systems as they expand, engage, and transform larger patterns of social, economic, and political organization. Suburbs, for example, are not an energy technology, but they resulted from the choices made by individuals, institutions, and communities as societies reorganized themselves around the rise of the automobile and the availability of inexpensive gasoline. Not surprisingly, therefore, when gasoline prices soared in 2008, it had enormous consequences for the lives of, especially, less wealthy families who had moved to the extreme edges of suburbs to take advantage of new low-cost housing. For the first time, significant numbers were forced to quit secure jobs in search of new ones, closer to home, in order to reduce rapidly rising fuel costs—a choice that turned disastrous for some in the subsequent global economic collapse, when employers tended to shed their newest employees first.

The downstream human consequences of energy systems can flow in other ways, as well. Historically, oil has shaped geopolitics and played a major factor in conflict in the Middle East. The resultant patterns of political oppression, ethnic conflict, and social mobilization helped produce terrorist networks partly financed by oil wealth. The geography of energy geopolitics continues in the rise of Venezuela, Canada, Australia, and Russia as regional energy suppliers. The climatic consequences of oil and coal consumption are also already flowing downstream, challenging communities around the globe. The World Health Organization estimates conservatively that one hundred and fifty thousand people have died as the result of shifts in disease patterns in Africa and Asia due to climate change. Scientists have also begun to link the recent extreme flooding events that have devastated many parts of the globe to climate change. The geography of climatic vulnerability is still being debated in detail, but its patterns will have enormous social, economic, and political consequences for decades to come.

The Search for Energy Justice

Energy system change will arguably remain one of the most important policy domains throughout much of the twenty-first century and energy technologies will make regular headlines throughout this period. Alberta’s fight against an international coalition of environmental groups to build an infrastructure to channel its oil to the world is one such story, but hardly the only one.

An Ecuadorian court recently ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion in compensation for damage inflicted on the Amazon jungle. In Japan, after the Fukushima nuclear accident, public confidence in government efforts to ensure the safety of Japan’s food supply has collapsed in the face of new revelations regarding radiation-tainted food. Around the globe, communities are mobilizing against the human consequences of energy systems, giving rise to a wide range of social protest. The government of India has faced extensive social opposition, protest, and even violence over its decision to accelerate the growth of the country’s nuclear power industry. Elsewhere, wind and solar farms face strong opposition, too. These events now rival new technologies for energy headlines, introducing world publics to the deep questions of energy justice pervading humanity’s choices about energy futures. At stake in these choices is not just how humanity will produce and consume energy but what kind of societies people will live in and how those societies will distribute power, wealth, and risk.

Energy stagnation is not the answer, of course. It cannot be. Energy systems must change. But the world’s leaders—in the energy sector and in every other aspect of society—must acknowledge the fundamental questions of justice and injustice that inevitably accompany every energy transformation. Energy assessments must supplement technological and environmental assessments with assessments of the human dimensions of new energy technologies. The energy industry–and society more generally–must learn to ask: “Progress for whom?” and “According to what criteria?” It must find ways to approach communities as honest partners, both in the opening of new energy systems and the closing of old ones. Energy system design and redesign must, from the outset, fully engage the public in thorough deliberations about broad energy futures, alternative energy technology options, and specific energy system design choices. Such strategies will never eliminate the politics of energy change, but they may help mitigate its worst excesses while helping ensure that energy systems of the future are not only more environmentally friendly but also more just.

Clark A. Miller is associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and associate director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. He is also an associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at ASU. He serves on the advisory committee for the Nanotechnology Informal Science Education Network and the Bovay Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society at the National Academy of Engineering. In 2003, he served as a consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Miller is the co-editor of Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance.

Quest for Water

Arab countries lie within a band roughly between fifteen and thirty degrees north of the Earth’s equator. This desert belt stretches for eight thousand kilometers, from the coast of the eastern Atlantic to the Arabian Sea. It encompasses the Great Sahara of North Africa and the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. In this region, only three major rivers, the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, supply narrow strips of land with year-round water. The rest of the region must depend on groundwater resources.

The Arab desert belt is among the driest regions of the world. The Great Sahara constitutes the largest and driest stretch of land on Earth, extending nearly six thousand kilometers from east to west. In its eastern part, the received solar radiation is capable of evaporating two hundred times its actual rainfall. This measure of dryness, the Aridity Index (AI), for the rest of the Arab deserts varies from 100 to 50. By way of comparison, the driest place in North America is Death Valley in California; its AI is 7.

The hyper arid conditions in most of the Arab lands necessitate dependence on groundwater resources. The quest for water is an urgent priority for people and policy makers alike in the countries of the Arabian Gulf region, for one example. These countries are endowed with plentiful oil resources, which are used among other things for local sea-water desalination to produce water for human consumption. Agriculture, however, must depend on groundwater, and population growth has exacerbated the scarcity of water.

A Plentiful Resource

The Earth is aptly called the Blue Planet because water covers over 70 percent of its surface. Views from space clearly depict continents as islands floating in a vast sea. The salt water in the oceans and seas constitutes 97 percent of all water on Earth. Tangible, visible fresh water bodies constitute a negligible fraction of the store of sweet water in the remaining 3 percent. Polar ice masses and mountain glaciers contain nearly 70 percent of all Earth’s fresh water. Groundwater represents the remaining 30 percent, while surface water amounts to less than 1 percent of fresh water resources. This means that there is thirty times more water beneath the ground than in the fresh water of all the rivers, fresh water lakes, and swamps on Earth.

There is little question, then, that we must ponder where these invisible water resources are hidden in order to wisely locate, use, and manage them. In the Arab region, groundwater is both more prevalent and more extensive than generally believed, particularly in sand covered deserts far from population centers. However, it is important to note that such water accumulated during wetter climates in our geological past. This means that they are being infrequently replenished today, and must be properly managed to ensure sustainability.

There is a common misperception in the Middle East that groundwater resources are limited and undependable. This belief arises in part because too many wells are drilled within close distance of each other and, in most cases, are drilled to the same depth. Another reason for the misperception is that water is typically pumped at rates that are much higher than the mobility rate of water through the pore spaces in the host rock. The practice of unregulated water extraction has led to the notion that groundwater resources have been depleted in much of the Arab region. However, the resources are there but they must be mapped thoroughly, used wisely, and managed properly.

The groundwater story begins when rainwater accumulates on the Earth’s surface. The driving force for its movement into the ground is gravity, which causes water to move from higher to lower elevations. Water moving beneath the surface is protected from the heat and evaporation caused by solar radiation, and will remain trapped in the fabric of the rock for thousands of years. During its journey, water will move through primary porosity (the open spaces between grains of soft sedimentary rocks) and/or secondary porosity (the faults and fractures in any rock type). Many people erroneously believe that water beneath the surface takes the form of underground lakes and rivers. In fact, the water in the ground exists mostly in pore spaces between rock grains.

Rock composed mostly of adjoining sand grains, sandstone, and others, such as limestone, have irregular yet connected pore spaces that allow water free passage. Water percolates through such rocks to move from higher to lower areas. Sandstone is generally salt free, and its confined water remains sweet and drinkable for thousands of years. On the other hand, limestone rocks contain soluble chemicals and passing water dissolves the salts and in some cases, the dissolution of salts within the host rock renders its water reserves saltier than that of the sea.

Vast groundwater basins may be up to hundreds of meters in capacity as is the case of the Nubian aquifers of North Africa, and the Empty Quarter basin of the Arabian Peninsula. Here and there, such extensive, seemingly horizontal sandstone aquifers are interrupted by non-porous rock masses, including igneous and volcanic rocks.

The direction of surface water runoff depends on topography; the greater the degree of tilt, the faster the runoff. However, the pattern usually depends on the orientation of faults and fractures in the surface rock. As surface water denudes the rock to establish an easy passageway, a drainage pattern emerges. The pointed tips of the often V-shaped pathway intersections indicate the direction of downward water flow. As such, dry wadi patterns indicate topography at the time of formation. Therefore, the analysis of patterns visible on land from running surface water is essential to the prediction of groundwater accumulation sites.

Pictures from Space

The modern search for groundwater has been aided immeasurably by satellite technology, but signs of the resource have always been apparent. Sparsely populated areas in the Middle East have depended for generations on water that percolated through fractures from higher topography to exit in the form of springs, or oases. These are called wahat in North Africa, oyoun in the Eastern Mediterranean, andaflaj in southern Arabia.

In some cases, water is known to follow such fractures for extended distances and release water for long periods of time. For example, Bir Zamzam is an open well near Mecca in the Hijaz Mountains of western Saudi Arabia. It receives its water, via fractures in the surrounding rocks, from seasonal rainfall or snowmelt—as it has done for thousands of years. The water level may increase or decrease occasionally, but the flow of its highly prized water is constant.

Pearl divers in the Gulf, in fact, benefited from this phenomenon for centuries. Prior to the modern oil era, the economy of the region depended on harvesting pearls from the sea. Rainwater from the Hijaz Mountains also found its way through fractures in the rock to exit at the bottom of the Gulf, a distance of nearly one thousand kilometers. To obtain drinking water supplies during their hunt in the sea, a pearl fishing party would send a diver carrying a rock—for fast descent—tied to a rope. The diver would locate the fresh water emanating from the bottom of the otherwise highly saline Gulf water and fill a goat skin girba. When finished, the diver would signal by tugging the rope and would be pulled back to the vessel. The process was repeated until the party had enough drinking water for their pearl-foraging mission.

Until recently, no one had established a plausible explanation as to the source of the fresh water springs on the Gulf floor. Most experts had discounted the distant Hijaz Mountains as its source, suggesting instead that the water must have seeped from nearby rocks. However, the latter are composed mostly of limestone, which contains, as mentioned, salts and so the groundwater in these rocks is rather saline.

The Hijaz theory gained tangible support after field exploration of the environmental effects of the Gulf War of 1991. My own observations of the desert surface of Kuwait suggest that the whole area is basically the dry delta of an ancient river. The surface was covered by round cobbles, pebbles, and grains made of the igneous and volcanic rock found in the Hijaz Mountains. This led me to map the “Arabia River,” a passageway of surface water from the Hijaz all the way to western Kuwait, a distance of 850 kilometers. The theory being that if surface water made the journey along a fracture that crossed Arabia from west to east, then similar cracks in the subsurface could do the same. These findings were established not only by field observations but also via essential satellite images.

The Arabia River case illustrates how, for every surface feature that we can distinguish in the arid lands of today, there is the backstory of how, when, and by what mechanism it was created. The variety of such features makes it essential to study, in detail, the entire surface of the desert in order to be able to understand its history. Thus, the study of landforms over vast areas of the Arab region requires a bird’s eye view and satellite images are the best source of information on desert regions, especially for groundwater exploration.

Imaging the Earth from space has progressively advanced over the past forty-five years. In the mid-1960s, photographs were taken by the astronauts on the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Apollo-Soyuz missions using hand-held cameras with color film. Ancient rocks, with much iron and other dark elements appeared brown, limestone looked bright, sands appeared golden yellow, and ocean currents became discernible. And so we began to map Earth’s hard to reach regions based solely on views from space.

The detail of images from space depends, of course, on the altitude of the spacecraft; the lower the orbit, the higher the resolution. It also depends on the focal length of the camera lens; the longer the length, the greater the detail. In the first satellite images, a whole town appeared as a dot. Today a car can be clearly identified in high-resolution images.

Digital imaging from space allows the use of filters to separate the reflected light into various wavelengths. For example, when certain bands of Landsat are used, they become equivalent to visible light. These multi-spectral bands could be combined with an infrared band, or a thermal band that measures differences in the temperatures of rock, soil, and sand.

There is the promise of expanding efforts to utilize satellite imaging for groundwater discoveries in the Middle East. In the past few years, several Arab countries have launched imaging satellites. Saudi Arabia was the first, followed by Egypt, which operates a multi-spectral imaging system with 7.8 meter ground resolution. Algeria is planning one and the United Arab Emirates is also considering one such project.

A combination of all available satellite image data is ideal for investigating the probability of groundwater concentration in the Arab desert. These data include:

  1. Multi-spectral images that clearly depict the surface features and allow the deduction of their geologic history.
  2. Thermal images that show the location of rainwater accumulation just below the surface, which may replenish groundwater aquifers, as well as seepage of groundwater into the sea along coastal zones.
  3. Radar waves that penetrate sand cover to reveal buried river courses.
  4. Elevation data that depict the direction of surface water flow in the past as well as in the present.

The correlation of such data using Geographic Information System (GIS) methods allows us to define the best way to locate and utilize groundwater resources.

Case Studies: Egypt and Sudan

Egypt and Sudan are two examples of locating previously unknown groundwater resources using satellite images in the heart of the eastern part of the Great Sahara. Although the Sahara is now dry and is subject to the action of strong winds from the north, archaeological evidence indicates that it hosted much wetter climates in the past allowing rainwater to accumulate in depressions and seep through the substrate to form the Nubian aquifers. These aquifers were confined to two distinct basins—rather than the one vast layer extending from Chad to the Mediterranean Sea as has been previously postulated.

In southwest Egypt, a three-hundred-kilometer flat and sand-covered area straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. This region is called the Great Selima Sand Sheet, with the Selima Oasis on its eastern border. This oasis is a prominent way station on the Darb El-Arbain (the forty-day trek) of camel caravans from Darfur in northwestern Sudan to the Nile valley in Egypt. Faint drainage lines that led to the sand sheet from the west and its general setting suggested the potential of groundwater accumulation within the basin, although there was no tangible evidence of water.

In 1980, the Egyptian government planned to establish a military base in southwest Egypt. As a science advisor to President Anwar Sadat, I completed a survey of Egypt’s Western Desert. The survey proved that sand in the vast dunes originated from water and was deposited in topographic depressions during previous wet climatic eras. The sand was later shaped into dunes during dry episodes. However, neither the transportation pathways nor the depositional basins could be seen in early satellite images, and the theory lacked tangible evidence.

In November 1981, during the first flight of the Space Shuttle Imaging Radar mission, the instrument was aimed at a flat region in northwest Sudan. Its imagery revealed sand-buried courses of river channels just south of the border of Egypt. I then postulated that the flat area in southwest Egypt—part of the Great Selima Sand Sheet—was one depression where water collected during past humid episodes.

The site was approved for groundwater exploration wells in 1982. However, when the strategic need for the military base ended, so did the interest in the wells. I continued to campaign for test wells to evaluate the groundwater potential of the region. It took thirteen years before testing finally began, and proved the existence of sweet water in vast amounts. Water showed up at one hundred meters below the surface and rose to twenty-five meters below the ground under its own pressure. The water had only two hundred parts-per-million salts, which made it sweeter than that of the Nile River.

In 1995, the Egyptian government offered a number of ten-thousand-acre plots to agricultural endeavors in order to develop the land. Today, 750,000 acres utilizing nearly one thousand wells are actively producing wheat, chickpeas, peanuts, and other crops at considerable profit. The proven water reserves in the region would support agriculture over at least 150,000 acres for one hundred years. Since then, my team has mapped five main stream channels emanating from the Gilf Kebir highlands in southwest Egypt that fed rainwater there in the past. The accumulated water in the depression seeped into the porous sandstone substrate as groundwater and this suggests that the resource might be even greater than estimated.

The second case is just south of the Egyptian border in the Darfur region of northwestern Sudan. This arid home of the Fur tribe is presently divided into three governorates: north, west, and south. (It is now being considered for division into four governorates.) The governorate of North Darfur in particular hosts an environment typical of the eastern Sahara of North Africa: the farther north one goes, toward Egypt and Libya, the greater the aridity.

A mountain range, Jabal Marra, straddles the three governorates. It does receive some annual rainfall, particularly at the end of summer, but severe droughts over the past two decades have caused population migration along the fringe of the Sahel belt of North Africa. Competition for the meager water resources in the Darfur region contributed to the conflict there as farming communities settled around wells that were considered to belong to nomadic populations. The latter inflicted much damage to the numerous farms and caused the severe humanitarian crisis. Darfur is yet another example of the desperate need for additional water resources.

Interpretations of space-borne data were then conducted at the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing and resulted in the identification of horizontal lines at an elevation of 573 meters above sea level in northern Darfur. Detailed geologic analysis of these discontinuous lines confirmed that they were remnants of shorelines of an ancient mega lake.

Modeling of the ancient lake basin showed that at its maximum extent, the lake had occupied an area of about 30,750 square kilometers, the size of Lake Erie in North America. It would have contained approximately 2,530 cubic meters of water when filled. The enormity of the lake’s size and the topographic setting of the area suggest that this lake was formed during wet epochs, when rain was plentiful, over a protracted period of time. And, just as in the case of the basin to the north in southwest Egypt, much of the rainwater would have seeped into the substrate to form groundwater.

After completing the mapping of the lake boundaries using the space data, I conveyed the outcome to officials of the Sudanese government, prompting them to launch the “One Thousand Wells for Darfur” initiative. The map survey was also conveyed to and welcomed by officials in North Darfur, as well as at the United Nations.

Water for the Future

Vast tracts in the Arab region have not been similarly explored for their groundwater potential. This includes the extensive sand covered plains of the Great Sahara and the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Ongoing geological discoveries could make such exploration even more fruitful. For example, there are new indications that desert sands were transported and deposited by running surface water during humid climates that alternated with dry phases in the geological past. The last of the wet phases ended about five thousand years ago. During dry phases, like the present one, the wind acts on the sand deposits to shape desert dunes. As discussed earlier, because desert sands were formed and transported by water, their locations might be underlain by groundwater.

The evaluation of such resources belongs in the policy domain. Government bodies must collect and analyze the required data to regulate groundwater use. It is also essential that the attention of policy makers be sustained in the long term, because data collection and evaluation require a great amount of time. Thus, it is instructive to consider the major issues that require institutional regulation by policy makers. The primary need is to map the boundaries of each groundwater basin or aquifer using all available space images and field-collected data. This should be followed by exploration wells to establish the depth of the groundwater level. In many cases, the water exists in several levels beneath the surface.

Next, modeling should be performed to establish how much water is contained in each aquifer. Data on salinity must be integrated into the models with emphasis on changes over time. In some cases, over-pumping draws water from saline sources and contaminates sweet water. This modeling is essential to establish safe pumping rates to assure sustainability. A glaring example of over-pumping with little or no regulation is that of the Al-Qasim region in central Saudi Arabia. There, unregulated extraction of groundwater for wheat production in the 1980s and 1990s exhausted the resource and led to the abandonment of numerous fields.

Furthermore, regulations are necessary to establish the proper use of the water. In some cases, it is best to use the water for in situ agriculture, such as in southwest Egypt. In other cases, the water should be transported to populated areas, such as Libya’s “Great Man Made River Project.”

In the case of groundwater in desert basins, it is essential that regulations consider the resource fossil water. It accumulated during wet episodes that lasted for thousands of years in the mists of our geological past. It must be remembered that replenishment may occur in some minimal locations along mountain ranges, but the open desert very rarely receives any rainfall, let alone enough to replenish groundwater below. From a policy regulation point of view, this groundwater must be considered a finite resource that will run out in a given period of time.

Clearly, where groundwater aquifers extend beyond national boundaries these extensive areas require study and evaluation to establish regulations for the equitable distribution of water resources. In this case, policy regulations and governance need to be inter-governmental. And it is advisable to collect the necessary information now, to avoid future problems when the available resources will be insufficient to satisfy increasingly desperate needs.

The current major shared groundwater aquifers in the Arab region include:

  • The Palestine expanse in Israel and the West Bank;
  • The Jordan River system in Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank;
  • The Hamad basin in Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank;
  • The eastern Mediterranean system in Lebanon and Syria;
  • The Tabuk fracture zone aquifer in Jordan and Saudi Arabia;
  • The Selima basin in Egypt and Sudan;
  • The Siwa-Jaghboub system in Egypt and Libya.

While the Arab region’s groundwater resources remain to be comprehensively charted, the already voluminous literature on groundwater in the region indicates four noteworthy points:

  1. Vast areas of the Arabian deserts have not yet been studied or explored.
  2. Current water scarcity will be further exacerbated by rapid population growth and increasing water usage.
  3. Productive aquifers are being over-drilled and over-pumped with little regulation to assure their sustainability.
  4. Aquifers shared by multiple nations have not been quantified for equitable use.

Thus, a major study of the Arab region should be initiated, with the purpose of identifying regions of potential groundwater accumulation. All available data must be collected for each country or region; because using only parts of the data might be misleading. The data should be processed, analyzed, correlated, and updated in an active GIS database. The information within this database should be freely exchanged for the planning of equitable uses of groundwater resources in adjacent countries. And countries should place a high priority on proper utilization of this valuable resource.

In addition, it is essential to construct a complete digital database for currently exploited groundwater resources. The database should be regularly updated based on new findings or more advanced analysis and modeling methodologies. The same should be done for currently shared water resources to establish inter-governmental agreements for utilizing resources that straddle international boundaries.

Data collection should be required in all regions where water might be extracted for human consumption as well as for agricultural or industrial uses: data such as geo-coded locations of the wells, their depth, and the type of host rock; water salinity; pumping rates; and historical illustrations of changes to water levels over space and time. All such data are essential for the proper assessment of actively mined resources and the establishment of a proper water extraction rate to assure the longevity of a given aquifer.

Arabian groundwater resources require more study and better regulation. These objectives need sustained attention by policy makers, who must put their emphasis on long-term sustainable development. Concerted efforts are needed today, so that there is water tomorrow.

Farouk El-Baz is a research professor in the Department of Archaeology and of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University, where he also directs the Center for Remote Sensing. He served on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) committee that selected landing sites for the Apollo lunar missions and trained the astronauts in observation and photography. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and an adjunct professor of geology in the Faculty of Science at Ain Shams University in Cairo.

India’s Nuclear Power Problem

In January 2010, before the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and before the anti-nuclear protests in India spread nationwide, Anuradha Talwar was tallying up a demographic survey of the people of Haripur, a rural coastal village in West Bengal. Sitting on a tiled veranda, alternating between using her cell phone and directing the small army of young women sifting through spreadsheets, Talwar was determined to count every man, woman, and child who would lose their homes to accommodate a 10,000 megawatt nuclear reactor complex, the largest on the subcontinent. According to a senior government official, Haripur is an inhospitable environment where “most of the land [has] a high saline content and cannot be used for agriculture.”1 Talwar knows better. The nuclear power complex would in fact evict some two hundred thousand farmers and fishermen. She dismisses the government’s claim that Haripur is a barren wasteland by recalling the sumptuous meal of home-grown vegetables and fragrant fish curry that villagers prepared for her the previous evening.

A plump, soft-faced, middle-aged woman with thinning grey hair and sizeable bindi, she does not come across as someone who would lead the opposition against the West Bengal state government’s attempted land grab. But Talwar, whose surname means “sword” in Bengali, has spent decades fighting for human rights and sustainable development in sectors as diverse as health care, gender equality, labor practices, disaster relief, malnutrition, and starvation. To her and to the villagers in Haripur, nuclear power is nothing special. They are not impressed by the prospects of developing a carbon-free energy system that would mitigate climate change. Nor are they drawn into the debate over the risks and uncertainties of generating nuclear energy. To them, what matters is that livelihoods are in jeopardy.

Similar scenes of resistance are rippling throughout India as the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh undertakes a massive expansion of the nation’s nuclear energy program. In communities affected by India’s growing nuclear power infrastructure, activists like Talwar are conducting surveys, handing out pamphlets, forming committees, contacting journalists, and staging protests. In some places, including Haripur, resistance to nuclear energy plans has even turned violent.

What is noteworthy about the bourgeoning local activism is how often it differs from the campaigns led by established anti-nuclear groups, who typically focus on the morality of nuclear weapons or the risk of a cataclysmic nuclear power plant accident. Instead, India’s new grassroots activists are struggling against the government’s nuclear energy plans for a wider variety of reasons, ranging from ingrained distrust of the government due to corruption and lack of accountability, to tangible local concerns such as losing land rights and economic livelihoods. The affected communities, largely comprised of farmers, fisherman, and miners, are essentially concerned with the broad and deep issues of democracy, citizenship, and government responsibility. At its core, the resistance is challenging the distribution of power and how it governs relationships between the state, citizens, and private interests.

A dramatic case in point is the rising furor over the Koodankulam nuclear plant in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India. Protests that intensified after the Fukushima accident forced officials to delay the commissioning of the plant, scheduled to go critical last December. In March, hundreds of protesters from farming and fishing communities, many of them women, converged on the nearby village of Idinthakarai in an effort to halt construction activities at Koodankulam. Led by local resident and long-time anti-nuclear activist S. P. Udaykumar, they organized demonstrations and began a relay fast. In response, authorities placed Idinthakarai under martial law and arrested some two hundred protesters. Reports say that activists were beaten and subjected to religious profiling and open mob violence, while Singh apportioned the blame for the protests against Koodankulam on foreign hands.

The stirring of Indian unrest over a program ostensibly intended to boost India’s broad economic fortunes and reduce the nation’s contribution to global warming is a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when policies are formulated primarily around technological considerations at the expense of profound concerns related to community well-being, culture, and justice. In undertaking a massive project destined to directly impact the lives of millions of citizens, the Indian lesson shows it is essential that governments bolster democratic institutions and foster a transparent airing of all concerns. These would include questions about whether and how land should be acquired for nuclear infrastructure development, what kinds of compensation and rehabilitation would be due to displaced communities, how the government should recognize tribal identity and sovereignty over resources, and what responsibilities the government has towards safeguarding the health of communities, such as uranium miners, who are embedded from the very start in the nuclear economy. The debate from the community to the national level should include the question whether nuclear energy is even the right choice for Indian energy security.

Onward Toward Modernity

Indian leaders grasped the significance of harnessing the atom after Independence in 1947. Nuclear technology was a potent sign of all things modern, synonymous with progress, self-reliance, and development. It would catapult India toward parity with the West by supplying the country’s farthest reaches with energy as well as further securing its borders with nuclear weapons.

The government of Jawaharlal Nehru, tapping the nuclear physicist, Homi J. Bhabha, established the country’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1948 and then the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1954. From the outset, India’s nuclear establishment operated with an obsession for secrecy. The government barred other public and private institutions from studying nuclear issues. The AEC and DAE were, and remain to this day, solely accountable to the prime minister.

After Independence, India decided that nuclear technology should be used to develop weapons for national security rather than to power economic growth. India refused to sign the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a pact designed to curb nuclear weapons that has now been joined by 190 nations and in 1974, ten years after neighboring China conducted its first nuclear weapon test, India detonated a nuclear device at the Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan. It was the first confirmed such test by a nation not serving as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and was followed by another nuclear test in 1998 under the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. India’s nuclear ambitions, though enhancing its military strength, risked isolating the country in international affairs and the nuclear establishment’s culture of secrecy deepened.

India shifted course dramatically after Singh’s election in 2004. His government now openly sought foreign assistance to develop nuclear energy, in sharp contrast with India’s prior focus on creating a homegrown system that would exploit India’s vast thorium reserves. Citing reasons such as combating climate change, galvanizing its innovation economy, and reducing dependence on coal energy, Singh promoted nuclear energy as a major component of India’s future energy portfolio.2

Political ostracism quickly turned into talk of partnership and new beginnings. The United States saw in India a strategic counterbalance to China, a partner in climate change mitigation, and a necessary foothold in a region characterized by turmoil in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2005, Singh and then-U.S. President George W. Bush initiated the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which was completed and signed in 2008. The bilateral accord for peaceful, civilian nuclear cooperation allows India to pursue nuclear commerce with the Nuclear Suppliers Group, without being required to sign the NPT. In exchange, India ceded oversight of self-identified civilian nuclear energy facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In addition to the United States, nations such as Australia, France, Argentina, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Korea pledged technological know-how and access to uranium reserves to help India achieve its nuclear energy ambitions.

Currently, nuclear energy provides less than 3 percent of India’s electricity needs. Since Apsara, India’s first nuclear reactor and built from British plans, became operational in 1956, only twenty more reactors have been constructed and they all are operating well below capacity. India’s nuclear endeavors have become notorious for cost overruns. Nonetheless, Singh has set his sights high. His target is to increase India’s installed capacity more than sevenfold to 35,000 MWe by the year 2022, and to 60,000 MWe by 2032.3

India’s 1998 nuclear weapons test galvanized the anti-nuclear movement, which has since greeted Singh’s plans for developing nuclear energy with deep suspicion. Consisting of middle-class journalists, writers, scientists, and academics, the movement repeats a mantra that warns of the possibilities of nuclear war and of nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. They also question the morality of nuclear weapons, the geopolitical downsides to being a nuclear power, the undemocratic nature of India’s nuclear establishment, and the impact of radioactive waste on the environment and public health. The movement sees the need to mobilize political support and scientific expertise in the cause; it conducts its own studies, stages protests, publishes articles, and participates in national and international workshops and conferences.

What these vanguard anti-nuclear activists—not to mention the Indian government—have failed to fully appreciate, but are now rapidly taking seriously, is the stirring of unrest in local communities far removed from expert debates over technical pros and cons. Socio-economic as well as environmental grievances are being voiced in disparate regions of the country, from West Bengal4 and Tamil Nadu to the states of Haryana5 and Maharashtra,6 where new nuclear power plants are planned in primarily fertile farmlands near fishing grounds. Protests are also rising in the historically marginalized tribal communities in the states of Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh, due to central government’s redoubled efforts to open new mines in these regions, believed to contain large reserves of high-grade uranium needed in nuclear technology.

The Case of Haripur

In trying to build nuclear power plants in West Bengal, the state has been confronted by a number of legacies: the history of local Communist rule; a cultural memory of violent resistance to British colonialism; a movement against Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in response to neo-liberal economic policies in the 1990s; and a deep suspicion of the nuclear establishment. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) governed West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. It is a pro-peasant party that favors rural development over industrialization. The neo-liberal policies that brought wealth to technopolises like Bangalore and Chennai sidestepped West Bengal, leaving it impoverished and economically stagnant. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya defied the party line and attempted to usher in liberalization and industrialization through strong-arm tactics. In 2006, the state forcibly acquired land—via the colonial Land Acquisitions Act from 1894—in order to establish SEZs. These industrial enclaves bypass bureaucratic red tape and cumbersome legal technicalities, including labor laws, to rapidly create products for export and service markets.

Public uproar ensued. Anger boiled over when the West Bengal government sought to acquire the villages of Singur in 2006, and Nandigram in 2007, for a Tata Nano car plant and a chemical factory, respectively. The villages are located near Haripur in an area with a history of bloody violence around land rights during colonial rule. One morning in January 2007, without warning, the government posted public eviction notices in Nandigram. Thousands of villagers swarmed to the state police department in protest. West Bengal police and CPI-M thugs alike fired on a group of around four thousand villagers. Official estimates say that fourteen people were killed, but villagers place the number in the hundreds. Reports said that countless women and girls were raped, and hundreds of village homes were burnt although atrocities were committed on both sides. In the previous year, the state government suspended democratic rights in Singur amid bloodshed that included the rape and murder of an eighteen-year-old activist.

The SEZ violence, while not directly related to anti-nuclear protests, nevertheless helps illustrate how local political and social dynamics, rather than technological issues alone, have an important influence in the campaign against the government’s nuclear energy ambitions. In Nandigram and Singur, community activism was spearheaded by Anuradha Talwar’s organization, the West Bengal Agricultural Workers Union, also known by its Bengali acronym, PBKMS. For example, the group pursued an independent fact-finding mission to investigate police atrocities, violence committed by villagers, and Communist party infighting. Earlier, in 2006, PBKMS mobilized six thousand villagers to create a bamboo barricade to prevent scientists, engineers, and police from entering the village to perform soil tests for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. Talwar and her colleagues opposed potential human displacement and the lack of transparency concerning its consequences.

From the West Khasi Hills to Jadugoda

Protests against uranium mining have evolved as an integral part of the grassroots movement against India’s nuclear energy program. Until the ban on nuclear trade with India was lifted, the lack of sufficient reserves of high-quality uranium was considered the Achilles’ heel of India’s nuclear program. After the U.S.-India nuclear deal, the central government set its sights on the West Khasi Hills in the state of Meghalaya to open a new uranium mine believed to contain some two hundred and seventy-five thousand tons of uranium. If the project does go through, as many as thirty thousand Khasi adivasi, or tribal people, may be displaced, and 351 hectares of land will be acquired from seventy-two villages. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), a public sector arm of the Department of Atomic Energy, built the first open cast uranium mine in Jadugoda in Jharkhand in 1967. (Jharkhand became India’s first tribal state in 2000, carved from the state of Bihar.)

The Khasi opposition to uranium mining must be taken in the context of an ambivalent colonial and post-colonial tribal policy. Colonization was a force of economic, political, and cultural transformation that displaced and dispossessed adivasi communities. After an early history of violent and brutal repression, the British created protective enclaves for tribal groups, which were adopted by the post-colonial government after Independence, and are governed by the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Indian Constitution. The Schedules allow tribal regions to create self-governing, autonomous districts, to give tribes jurisdiction over land use, property inheritance, marriage, and social customs. The Khasis are protected under the Sixth Schedule.

The Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), formed in 1978, has a slogan: “We are Khasi by blood, Indian by accident.” The KSU’s opposition to uranium mining stems partly from its history of xenophobic activities. Alleged KSU members killed a bus-load of non-tribals in 1979. The group has sought to ban non-tribals from the local economy unless they joined adivasi business partners. They have opposed the construction of railroads in the fear it would facilitate the influx of outsiders. In opposing uranium mining, the KSU’s primary target is the intrusion of foreign technicians, engineers, and cheap labor.7 A KSU letter written to the state of Meghalaya’s chief minister in 2004 stated: “We will not part with even an inch of our ancestral land to the foreigners who we consider our enemies.”8 A member of the Meghalaya People’s Human Rights Council presents a more measured but no less alarmist view of the threat mining poses to the Khasi: “The illiterate and semi-literate indigenous Khasi will be forced to move out of their homes and landholdings to be supplanted by technologically advanced communities from outside the state. The mining township will become like military cantonment prohibited to all local people. This will upset the demographic structure of the areas, and ultimately of the entire state, thus not only rendering us a minority but also reducing us to the level of unwanted outsiders in our own land.”9

Other Khasi complaints derive from the rhetoric of identity politics. Khasis question why adivasisshould be sacrificed for the greater good of India, an entity they see as a colonizing force. Why should the Khasis, activists ask, be forced to forfeit their rights to their land, subject themselves to grave health hazards, and face displacement to make room for uranium mines that will supply fuel for remote nuclear plants and a national nuclear weapons program? Furthermore, uranium mining exposes fault lines within Meghalaya, pitting landowners who want uranium mining for jobs and economic growth, against villagers who refuse to relinquish commonly-owned land, to which they have cultural, economic, and emotional attachments.

The Jharkhand Organization Against Radiation (JOAR) in Jadugoda frames its grievances quite differently. Although almost all of the Jadugoda uranium miners belong to the Santhal and Ho tribes, JOAR does not pitch the struggle in terms of identity politics, but as a shared experience of suffering related to health and occupational hazards. Those working and living in Jadugoda want to be seen as “radiated bodies” suffering at the hands of the nuclear economy. A villager tells a reporter fromTehelka magazine, “We have seen too many deaths due to cancer and tuberculosis, too many deformed children, too many miscarriages among women. Too much sorrow. Our lives are governed by radiation. There is no escape from it.”10

The origins of uranium mining in Jadugoda are murky. No one seems to know exactly how land in the village, protected under the Fifth Schedule, was transferred from the state to central government. Anecdotal accounts are infused with a sense of betrayal, loss of autonomy, and intrusion. Radiation awareness came gradually, only when people began to notice that “rashes, deformities on fellow beings, cows were born without tails, fish with unknown skin diseases were being discovered, small animals, including mice, monkeys and rabbits were disappearing from the area.”11

Activists established JOAR in 1979, more than a decade after the first local uranium mine was opened. The group stepped up its campaign in 1996 when the UCIL, with the help of the district police and paramilitary forces, razed thirty homes near Jadugoda to build a third tailing dam.12JOAR stages rallies, sit-ins and marches, and calls attention to its cause in national and international forums. Shriprakash Prakash’s 1999 documentary, Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda—a title that mocks the codename for India’s first nuclear test, “Smiling Buddha”—explores the devastating impact of uranium mining on local villagers.

JOAR also attempts to seek recourse through legal and scientific institutions. It has tried to produce policy-relevant science data through health surveys and studies that tested the effects of low-level radiation. None of its efforts, however, met the scientific rigor expected for epidemiological surveys, and as a result have not been taken seriously by UCIL. For example, in 1988, UCIL and the state conducted their own health surveys, but did not see enough evidence to establish a connection between leached uranium and adverse health and environmental impacts.13 The UCIL maintains that it has always followed proper, scientific protocols in monitoring uranium mining operations. In response to the accusations of health hazards, the UCIL chairman said, “Cancer in this region is not beyond the national average. Illnesses are largely due to malnutrition and an unhealthy lifestyle.”14JOAR also filed a public interest lawsuit, accusing the DAE and UCIL of dumping nuclear waste from hospitals and other nuclear facilities into Jadugoda’s tailing ponds. The UCIL and DAE denied the charges and the case was dismissed.15

UCIL, in turn, accuses JOAR of working against national interests, spreading misinformation, and inciting fear.16 Its behavior illustrates the monumental task that organizations like JOAR face in contesting the government’s nuclear policies. UCIL held public hearings in 2004, 2005, and 2009 about opening new uranium mines in the Jadugoda area but the hearings were carefully staged. The UCIL was accused of providing villagers with placards that read, “We will die later of alpha, beta, gamma, but we are dying everyday of hunger,” and “We are not afraid of pollution; those who give us food, clothing, and shelter are our own people.”17 A video captured and posted on YouTube purports to show paramilitary forces flanking a UCIL official during a hearing in December 2005. The official threatened in Hindi that the hearing was only for listening and not for speaking, and anyone caught voicing their opinions would face severe penalties.18

Democracy and Citizenship

The Indian government’s handling of its nuclear energy plans highlights the flaws in Indian democracy and the deep distrust that citizens have for government institutions. Cases such as Haripur, Khasi Hills, and Jadugoda underscore the need for robust and responsive democratic institutions, such as courts of law and other policy instruments, to mediate the relationship between the government and citizens. Citizenship is fundamentally about the social contract between an individual and the state, with the implicit understanding that power over individuals will not be exercised arbitrarily. A social contract implies certain rights for an individual and a government responsible for protecting those rights. Citizens should have recourse through institutional channels and have sufficient trust in such institutions that a fair and impartial judgment will be passed. In India, the terms of the social contract seem up for grabs and, increasingly, the only language understood by both parties is one of public protest, whether through peaceful civil disobedience or violence.

Opposition to the Haripur nuclear power plant is part of an older, violent struggle against land acquisition in West Bengal and its newest manifestation, the SEZs. For the villagers of Haripur, citizenship, in the sense of having rights to property, land, and fair treatment by the law, is not automatic but something to be fought for, violently if necessary. Violence is understood as part of a common political repertoire by both sides. The West Bengal state, for its part, with its eventual capitulation to the violent protests against SEZs, implicitly views the use of force as an acceptable (but not desirable) form of voicing grievances.

In contrast, the KSU’s fight against the decision to begin uranium mining in the West Khasi Hills enlists the politics of identity, and to an unsettling degree, of xenophobia, to reject the conventions of Indian citizenship. The most fundamental question of power raised by the KSU is who gets to decide who lives where. Khasi suspicion of “mainland” India stems from decades of policies that controlled and developed tribal regions in ways that damaged or destroyed communities. Khasis see economic development in general, and uranium mining in particular, as a ploy for further marginalization. Protecting Khasi identity and culture in a way that does not engender violent identity politics and allows the benefits of economic development to come to the region in a sustainable and socially just manner will require the coordination of policies in a host of areas beyond the narrow field of nuclear energy. Policies such as land use, tribal development, and rehabilitation of displaced people.

The struggle of JOAR to receive national and international recognition for the health and environmental damage experienced by the adivasi community is a story about knowledge: about who has it and whether it counts, and how it can be turned into policy-relevant knowledge. JOAR and the people of Jadugoda attempted several times to speak to the government and UCIL on their terms—in terms of science and law—and thus employ the tools granted to them through citizenship. But at every turn, they were prevented from entering the corridors of power and expertise because those were precisely the two qualities they did not possess. For the people of Jadugoda, the power, secrecy, and absolute unaccountability of the nuclear establishment closed down any options of dialogue.

Just, Sustainable, Feasible

More than 412 million Indians have no access to electricity, and 668 million depend on biomass for cooking19 but it remains to be seen whether nuclear energy will help alleviate poverty. The concerns that Indian citizens have about nuclear energy, however, cannot be addressed solely by nuclear energy policy. A myriad of other policies and accompanying institutions must also be involved in the process. Yet, the Indian government has aggressively pursued a nuclear future without sufficient deliberation about how to create an energy development strategy that goes beyond the narrow scope of technological tools and economic growth.

India’s checkered history with development projects, such as its building of large dams, shows that the state tends to equate public debate with automatic opposition to any development plan the government puts forth. This approach sets up false and unhelpful dichotomies between progress and tradition, modernity and backwardness, science and superstition, government and citizens. In this stark view, victims and villains are easily created in the public consciousness. The adivasi, women, forest-dwellers and fishermen become the heroic defenders of culture and tradition; state officials, entrepreneurs, and the affluent elite are scorned as the agents of a neo-colonial order. The stories from Haripur, Khasi Hills, and Jadugoda, however, resist easy classification or stereotyping. Political mobilizations against Indian nuclear energy plans are diverse and throng with competing motivations and values.

With the demand for low-carbon energy sources in the fight against global climate change, India’s nuclear establishment sees itself as a major player in de-carbonization efforts. It likes to claim that the world, especially the South, is on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance. But, due to public distrust, the activities of India’s anti-nuclear movement, and technological breakdowns in other sectors, the establishment is having an increasingly difficult time communicating its message. In the wake of Fukushima, Indian nuclear officials are portrayed as laughably out of touch when they go on record stating that the nuclear disaster in Japan was “purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency” and that “there was no nuclear accident or incident.”20

The Indian government would be wise to reconsider its vision of nuclear energy so that it does not seem limited to simply getting its technology right. Creating robust policy debates across domains such as solar and wind power will benefit India’s energy development as a whole. Sociological and anthropological perspectives must be integrated into policy discussions. Advancing the principles of democracy such as citizenship rights and government accountability will promote critical thinking about maximizing the public good beyond a simple cost-benefit analysis of market economics. That is the best approach, if India is to have a nuclear energy program that is socially just, environmentally sustainable, and economically feasible.

1 “Atomic Energy Panel Head Upbeat on Haripur N-Plant,” Indian Express, (July 17, 2010), http://www.indianexpress.com/news/atomic-energy-panel-head-upbeat-on-haripur-nplant/647823/0.

2 Malini Parthasarathy, “India Linking Climate Change Commitments to Energy Security,”The Hindu, (November 23, 2009), http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article53206.ece

3 Manmohan Singh, “Statement by Manmohan Singh at Nuclear Security Summit,” The Voltaire Network, (April 12, 2010), http://www.voltairenet.org/article164929.html.

4 Parmanu Chulli Birodhi O Bheete Mati Jeeban Jeebika Bachao Committee, “Letter to Medvedev: Expect Stiff Resistance to Haripur Nuclear Plan,” Khet Majoor Samity, (December 22, 2010), http://khetmajoorsamity.blogspot.com/2010/12/haripur-peoples-letter-to-medvedev.html.

5 “Haryana Minister Wants State Govt to Review Land Acquisition,” Zeenews.com, (January 6, 2011), http://www.zeenews.com/news678842.html.

6  T. N. Raghunatha, “Jaitapur nuclear power project gets conditional clearance,” The Pioneer, (January 13, 2011), http://www.dailypioneer.com/299823/Jaitapur-nuclear-power-project-gets-conditional-clearance.html.

7 Vasundhara Sirnate, “Students versus the State: The Politics of Uranium Mining in Meghalaya,” Economic and Political Weekly 44 (47), (November 21, 2009), 1823.

8 Bengt G. Karlsson, “Nuclear Lives: Uranium Mining, Indigenous Peoples, and Development in India,” Economic and Political Weekly 44 (34), (August 22, 2009).

9 U. A. Shimray and M. V. Ramana, “Uranium Mining in Meghalaya: A Simmering Problem,”Economic and Political Weekly 42 (52), (December 29, 2007).

10 Vinay Upadhyay, “High-Grade Energy, Low-Grade Safety,” Tehelka 7 (38), (December 25, 2010), http://www.tehelka.com/story_main46.asp?filename=Ne250910HIGH_GRADE.asp.

11 Tarun Kanti Bose, “Challenging the Nuclear Heart: The Movement Against Uranium Mining in Jharkhand,” in Dissent, Self-Determination, and Resilience: Social Movements in India, ed. Smitu Kothari, Savyasaachi, and P. T. George (New Delhi: Human Resources Development Foundation, 2010).

12 http://jadugoda.jharkhand.org.in/.

13 http://www.scribd.com/doc/2605958/Radiation-hazards-at-Jaduguda-and-Kerala.

14 Vinay Upadhyay, “High-Grade Energy, Low-Grade Safety,” Tehelka 7 (38), (December 25, 2010), http://www.tehelka.com/story_main46.asp?filename=Ne250910HIGH_GRADE.asp.

15 Xavier Dias, “The Jadugoda Case,” Wise News Communique 542, (2001),  http://www.klimaatkeuze.nl/wise/de/node/3288.

16 “Myths,” Uranium Corporation of India Limited,  http://www.ucil.gov.in/web/myths.html.

17 Moushumi Basu, “Who Pays the Price for Uranium Mining?” Economic and Political Weekly 44 (49), (December 5, 2009), 1516.

18 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxhBs86q_hY.

19 “Beyond the OECD – India: Energy Poverty in India,” International Energy Agency, http://www.iea.org/country/country_subform.asp.

20 “Japan Nuclear Crisis: No Nuclear Accident in Fukushima, say Indian N-Experts,” The Economic Times, (March 15, 2011), http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-03-15/news/28691538_1_japan-nuclear-crisis-nuclear-accident-nuclear-operators.

Monamie Bhadra is a research assistant at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University (ASU), and a junior fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies at the University of Chicago.

Drone Wars

Warfare is partly defined by the images of its weapons, from medieval knights in armor clashing on the battlefield to the mushroom clouds of modern nuclear weapons. For warfare in the twenty-first century, consider the image of a video screen. In September 2000, the counter-terrorism advisor in the White House, Richard A. Clarke, watched a video of a tall man in white robes. The man was probably Osama Bin Laden, who by that time had organized the attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The man’s location was a compound outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. The videographer was a robot, an RQ-1 Predator drone aircraft.

Clarke, along with two senior Central Intelligence Agency officials who were also present, Cofer Black and Charles E. Allen, recognized the Predator’s potential to revolutionize national security by providing real-time intelligence for precision missile strikes—using manned or unmanned weapons—on enemy targets. Then they put the idea aside, waiting for an opportunity when a drone mission might be the best weapon for a job. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, armed drones were targeting terrorists as well as providing air support for Special Forces troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. One decade later, the armed Predator is a key instrument of American statecraft. Missiles launched by the drones rain down over the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, killing figures linked to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Baitullah Mehsud, and Badar Mansoor, as well as thousands of foot soldiers and a significant number of civilians.

All of this is happening without very much awareness in the United States. The Pakistani government, the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Amnesty International—among others—have condemned the ethics and legality of America’s Drone Wars. The strikes are deemed violations of national sovereignty and a tool of war that inevitably leads to the deaths of innocent civilians. These moral and legal arguments are important, but they have failed to stop the Drone Wars, or even initiate serious public debate on the uses, merits, and limitations of this kind of warfare. Perhaps before asking questions like “Is the Predator drone an ethical weapon?” or “Is its use in this particular conflict within the boundaries of international law?”, it is important to understand what the Predator drone is, how it came to be armed, how the armed drone changes military capabilities, and—most important­—how the drone program evades democratic accountability.

The Predator drone has become a durable socio-technical object. Such technological artifacts are shaped by social and political forces. They channel information, energy, and power. The Predator drone is more than just a machine; it is the most visible node in a network that binds together pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, mechanics in air bases scattered across the globe, soldiers in combat zones, analysts that draw up lists of targets, and operators who decide that an image on the screen corresponds to an intended target. The Predator drone has created new institutions of state power, which formulate missions and in turn demand the continued existence and use of the Predator drone. The Predator is very effective at surveying battlefields and killing terrorists–and this effectiveness has forestalled a deeper consideration of American objectives in the War on Terror.

A Pilot’s Story

The Predator is a creature born of the War on Terror, a combination of pre-existing technologies that was initially deemed useless by the U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA, and only became an accepted implement of war after missions against terrorists were carried out. The Drone Wars are shrouded in secrecy. Strikes in Pakistan are usually disavowed by both the American and Pakistani governments, although it is an open secret that Predators are routinely flown into Pakistan across the border from Afghanistan. In addition, the CIA has operated drones from bases inside Pakistan itself. Many of the operational details of the drone program are classified. Nonetheless, enough literature is available on the features of drone warfare to analyze its effects on the exercise of state power. There are a growing number of media accounts of drone strikes and investigative reports on the decision-making behind the attacks. Debates in Air & Space Power Journal, the professional journal of the Air Force, chronicle the history and theory of drone warfare. The New America Foundation in Washington, DC, keeps a record of drone strikes in Pakistan. Lt. Col. Matt J. Martin of the United States Air Force presents a considered, first-hand account of drone operations in his 2010 book,Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story.

The Predator drone refers to a family of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) aircraft constructed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., including the unarmed RQ-1 Predator; the multirole MQ-1; the improved Army MQ-1C Grey Eagle; and the larger, technologically related MQ-9 Reaper. These systems share salient characteristics: high endurance, powerful sensors, high-bandwidth satellite links that connect those sensors with human operators in the United States—a single Predator uses bandwidth equivalent to the entire U.S. Army circa the first Gulf War—and the ability to carry and fire missiles. General Atomics is based in San Diego, and is the dominant player in drone development. General Atomics has five thousand employees and more than twenty-five years of experience, stretching back to Abraham Karem, an Israeli-born engineer who developed the basic technology of the Predator drone in the mid 1980s for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The Predator is an ungainly looking aircraft, with a blind, bulbous nose, flimsy-looking fuselage, thin straight wings spanning fifty-five feet, and three downward-pointing tail surfaces. The engine, a 115 horsepower Rotax 914, which is also used in civilian hobby aircraft, propels the drone at a top speed of 135 mph. The RQ-1 has a range of 770 miles and can remain in the air for up to forty hours, cruising at altitudes up to twenty-five thousand feet. It carries a payload of 450 pounds, including telescopic visual and infrared television cameras, and a ground-scanning Synthetic Aperture Radar. The MQ-1 variant is armed with a pair of AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missiles, while the MQ-9 can carry up to fourteen Hellfires along with five-hundred-pound JDAM GPS guided bombs and Stinger air-to-air missiles. The Predator can be flown by satellite link but must take off and land under line-of-sight control from a ground station.

Flying the Predator is a complex task, in some ways harder than flying a conventional plane, and certainly harder than the videogames it is typically compared to. As Martin explains in his book, ordinary pilots rely on the motion of the plane to maintain their orientation in the air, literally flying by the seat of their pants in a tradition that reaches back to the Wright brothers. The Predator pilot has no such connection to his plane. Controls operate through a computer system—with a lag that could reach several seconds when using the satellite link. And worse, its long wingspan bestows glider-like flying characteristics, making it extremely sensitive to wind and turbulence. The pilot’s view is limited to a thirty-degree camera fixed to the nose, which makes landing and taxiing particularly fraught. As Martin summates, “It was like trying to fly while looking through a soda straw. Like riding a roller coaster without being able to turn your head or look up or down.” During a single mission, a pilot could be flying the plane, coordinating with his or her observer to monitor conditions on the ground, communicating with friendly troops via a satellite radio system, sending notes and images to intelligence analysts through Internet chat software, and firing missiles at targets—frequently all at the same time.

Growing Inventory

The genesis of the Predator lies in the realignment of America’s national defense apparatus after the Cold War. During the Cold War, American strategic intelligence was focused on the Soviet threat; cataloging nuclear missile silos and bombers, and tracing the movement of armored divisions and submarines. Spy satellites able to cross Soviet territory without the risk of interception were the premier source of images and generated decades of records tracking the expansion of the Soviet military infrastructure. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, strategic planners studied the emergence of a more complex and fluid geopolitical environment. Threats could now originate in any corner of the world and for reasons stretching beyond the bipolar conflict of the Cold War. Satellite imaging was expensive and slow and images were dependent on the vagaries of orbital dynamics. Orbits that had previously swept Soviet missile fields at regular intervals could not be diverted to new trouble spots in time to generate useful images, and even if images were available, these new threats of insurgencies, terrorists, and criminal groups did not generate the same kind of large, highly visible footprints as missile silo construction or bomber runways.

One solution was a new spy plane, which could be easily shifted from theater to theater, loiter over trouble spots, and take high-quality images from a low altitude. This kind of reconnaissance aircraft faced several competing design priorities: survivability, cost, and technological capability. The competition was resolved in the mid-1990s by the first generation Predator drone.

Survivability is the foremost concern of the Air Force; every reconnaissance aircraft has to live with the legacy of the U-2 and the 1960 shoot-down and capture of Gary Powers and his aircraft over the Soviet Union, which became a diplomatic fiasco for the United States. A manned reconnaissance aircraft can be made more survivable by making it stealthy or difficult to intercept, a trend which reached its ultimate expression in the SR-71 Blackbird. However both these measures increase the cost and complexity of the aircraft—the SR-71 cost $33 million per airframe in 1964, over $200 million today and more than ten times the cost of a four-drone Predator unit—and with its Mach 3 speed and eighty-thousand-feet cruising altitude, the footage is less detailed than from a Predator. The need to protect the lives of pilots increases the cost of a program and decreases the quality of imagery gathered, making it less useful to military commanders and intelligence analysts.

With no pilots to protect, drones can fly slowly and without the need for powerful engines or expensive stealth materials. Because they are slow, they provide a steady platform for observation. And separating the pilot from the plane allows missions to continue beyond human endurance; fresh pilots can be swapped mid-mission without having to land the aircraft. The geopolitical benefits of unmanned aircraft were demonstrated in 2011 with the loss of an American RQ-170 Sentinel over Iran. It is unclear if the drone was shot down or suffered equipment failure, but no one was killed, and Iran was unable to exact concessions, as it could have done if a pilot had been captured.

While building the Predator presented no major technical challenge to the engineers at General Atomics, unexpected problems arose. The Air Force is an organization of pilots, and this new technology posed an institutional threat to their prestige and careers. In commentaries in Air Force publications, pilots challenged General Atomics’ claims about the potential of drone warfare, pointing out that UAVs had performed poorly in previous wars. Five of the six Pioneer UAVs deployed during Operation Desert Storm in 1990–91 had crashed; an unacceptably high loss rate even without human casualties. Plus, UAVs require an electronic tether to a command station, making them vulnerable to jamming. Finally, drawing on the experience of missile-armed fighters in the Vietnam War, Air Force commentators argued that no technological system could be as flexible as a pilot in the cockpit.

Even after 9/11, with Predators serving in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, pilots were reluctant to transfer into UAV operations. Promotions in the Air Force require a certain number of flight hours for each rank, and time ‘flying’ the Predator from a trailer in Nevada did not count, at least initially. The training of non-pilots to fly drones was considered but rejected, for reasons of tradition and politics. In the words of Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, “I wanted to have pilots fly the Predator. If you try to stand up people who are not pilots, it is like an organ transplant, and I’m afraid the body might reject them.” So the Air Force changed its policy in 2002 and began counting Predator hours toward flight time. Personal messages of congratulations from senior defense officials to Predator operators assuaged some of the concerns pilots had about the potentially negative effects of the program on career development. From 2003 to 2010, the number of drones in U.S. inventory expanded from 162 to 7,454—including 241 Predators—compared to a total of 10,767 manned aircraft. According to defense analyst John Robb, half the pilots graduating from the Air Force undergraduate pilot training course in 2011 were assigned to drones rather than conventional aircraft. Clearly, drones are now thoroughly integrated into the Air Force.

Israel has long been a leader in the field of remotely operated aircraft but other nations are showing interest. During the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization military intervention in Libya, French and Italian forces were reliant on American Predators for real-time intelligence. Those governments are now working to acquire their own drone capabilities. China has a number of drones, and Pakistan has asked the Obama administration for drones so that Pakistan can carry out its own drone attacks on terrorists.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq

As Air Force pilots were reconciling themselves to the drone program, the CIA began working on a covert project to survey terrorist leaders. In 2000, Predator drones conducted fifteen missions over Afghanistan, observing Osama Bin Laden at least once. At that time, the drones were not yet armed. Defense planners saw the Predator as the eyes of a larger strike mission, guiding bombs and missiles from conventional, manned aircraft. In the case of the Predator-sighting of Bin Laden, the target had moved on by the time the necessary attack plans could be coordinated. Predator video alone is a perishable source of intelligence, and often has to be acted upon immediately.

While General Atomics had not initially designed the Predator to carry weapons—to avoid the thicket of political and legal issues surrounding armed drones and to reduce the risk of technical complications—the Predator was designed with an excess payload capacity that could be used to carry weapons. The Air Force conducted armed drone tests with Hellfire missiles in May and June of 2001, and the missiles struck their targets with the accuracy expected from a laser-guided weapon. In the summer of 2001, however, there was no urgent need for this new capability and armed Predator development stalled in bureaucratic red tape. The Air Force and CIA were squabbling over who had responsibility for the operational, legal, and financial aspects of the program. Pakistan was willing to provide bases for these early surveillance missions into Afghanistan but did not approve the use of armed drones.

The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. changed everything. Suddenly, arguments over costs seemed to be unnecessary quibbles to a nation at war, and legal and diplomatic protocols took a back seat in the hunt for those responsible for the killing of thousands of Americans. The 9/11 tragedy created instant support for the armed Predator program in every quarter of government, from the White House to the Green Berets working with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Armed drones were soon roaming the skies over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

In many respects, Iraq became the proving ground for drone operations. A mission added to the Predator’s responsibility was defending U.S. troops from roadside bombs and tracking down the networks responsible for planting them. The rapid tempo of coordinated operations provided intense experience for Predator pilots, ground crews, and infantry in a new kind of networked war orchestrated across the world in encrypted chat rooms. Immediate surveillance of the battlefield morphed into a larger strategic mission.

Iraqi insurgents used roadside bombs in their asymmetrical operations. Cheap to build and easy to emplace, the bombs allowed insurgents to strike at American soldiers without exposing themselves to retaliation. Skilled bomb-makers were shielded by an impenetrable network of operatives that could elude American firepower. Unable to find and confront this elusive enemy, American commanders protected their troops by retreating to heavily fortified bases and fast-moving armored patrols, effectively ceding control of the streets to the insurgency. But the Predator drone presented an opportunity to turn the tables. In his book Martin describes his time flying a Predator over the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. He tracked groups of armed men and vehicles from suspected safe houses to bomb-making factories to holes by the side of the roads, creating a map of insurgent activity within the city.

As I panned cameras across the target house and into the neighborhood, I noticed several men acting suspiciously in the parking lot of a little greasy spoon café across the street. Defining suspicious wasn’t always easy. It was like a cop who had a sixth sense that somebody or something was out of place, a sense that allowed him to distinguish criminal activity from the normal day- to-day routine.

As I turned for another look, the men began loading boxes into the trunk of a faded-red compact car. I couldn’t tell what they were handling, but I doubted it was a shipment of olives. They finished what they were doing. All but the driver went back into the café. The driver slammed the trunk lid and looked all around. That was a dead giveaway for suspicious. People with nothing to hide didn’t care if other people were watching them.

Martin followed the car to several safe houses, and then to the outskirts of the city where troops from a helicopter squad and an M1 Abrams tank captured the driver and recovered a load of ammunition.

The Predator Doctrine?

Technologies are political. They are not value neutral. The features of a technology make certain courses of action easier or more difficult. They allow the exercise of power, and changes in tools are mirrored by changes in the individuals and groups that use them. As technology writer Langdon Winner said, “[A] given technical system actually requires the creation and maintenance of a particular set of social conditions as the operating environment of that system.” It is therefore necessary to consider the historical nature of warfare, a state’s use of force, and how the capabilities of the Predator drones have changed the face of war.

War demands the highest attentions of the state because there is always the potential to lose. Historically, warfare was defined as the aim of destroying an enemy’s will to resist by defeating his armed forces, occupying his territory, and subjugating his citizenry. However, firepower alone cannot achieve this end. As the United States learned in Vietnam, deploying the Marines without a plan for victory or at least a plan for a reasonable withdrawal ends in military disaster. This lesson was codified in the Powell Doctrine: military action should be undertaken only as an option of last resort, in support of clear national objectives, and with overwhelming force.

Despite the success of bombers in World War II, the results hardly validated the doctrine of strategic airpower that promised war with minimal casualties. In contrast to its usefulness in total war, airpower proved of only limited benefit in guerilla conflicts. This limitation is intrinsic to the nature of the bomber, and of indirect firepower in general: it attacks a time and place, and it is up to fate and military intelligence to determine if that time and place is occupied by a target worth destroying. Airpower proved somewhat effective against fixed targets like factories, bridges, and command centers, or, if deployed under the direction of a forward air controller, against enemy troops out in the open. Against mobile targets, it is far less effective. In Operation Desert Storm, hundreds of deep interdiction sorties destroyed a bare handful of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile launchers. Tomahawk cruise missiles dispatched against both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein failed to hit their targets. Strategic airpower also carries a political cost; a war must be declared before these massive instruments of destruction can be used, and there is no way to limit the extent of the devastation. If the targeted individual remains in a city or town, he can effectively use the civilian population as a shield against air strikes, given the political cost of civilian casualties. A combination of imprecision, and the delay between targeting and effect, made strategic airpower a poor instrument for fighting the War on Terror.

One problem with the Powell Doctrine and strategic airpower after 9/11 is that America’s enemies are dispersed networks of individuals operating from regions with weak or no governments. Invading Afghanistan was a major strategic commitment; following that invasion, extending ground operations into the Pakistani border region, Yemen, and Somalia, along with Iraq, would have been militarily and politically impossible. Even in theaters with boots on the ground, terrorists and insurgents use guerilla tactics, blending with the population or crossing inviolable borders. During the most fraught periods of the Iraq war, American forces controlled little more than their own base areas and the major roads linking them. Aside from some initial high-profile successes, like the Special Forces raid that captured Saddam Hussein, insurgent forces were able to largely avoid major battles. Fighting on these terms played directly into Al-Qaeda’s strategy: drawing America into a war of attrition that would drain its morale and treasury while U.S. violence inflicted against Arab populations would draw more recruits to Al-Qaeda’s cause.

The alternative to a massive invasion is covert operations, yet the tension between the need for secrecy and the demand for democratic transparency pulls covert operations in contradictory directions. Spies work in secret and resist oversight, which might compromise their operations. The 1974 Hughes-Ryan Act aimed to curtail secret intelligence activities by forcing the CIA to notify Congress of any covert action, and specifically prohibited the CIA from conducting assassinations.

Politically, the structures of government require that there be consensus when the state takes a life. In the case of terrorism, intelligence agents, the military, and democratically accountable political leadership must all agree that there is a clear and present danger. However, the inherent delay of this consensus cycle makes military power a blind and blunt instrument—ineffective and unpalatable when hunting down small, dispersed networks. A government that kills without consensus is a rogue government.

The armed Predator drone reduces the number of people required to form this consensus to kill by an order of magnitude. With satellite links, the Predator reduces the lag between Afghanistan and the United States to a matter of seconds. The drone gathers intelligence and carries out strikes as a single unit: all that is required to carry out a strike is the standing go-order from the National Security Council and the drone operator. While the Predator is theoretically amenable to direct political control at the highest levels, in practice it is unrealistic, as an example from the opening days of the Afghan war illustrates. On October 7, 2001, a large Taliban convoy was spotted moving through Kandahar. Intelligence assets/operatives suspected the convoy contained Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Permission to strike such a sensitive target—in an area where civilian casualties were likely—required not only the approval of U.S. Central Command Commander General Tommy Franks, but also the agreement of senior officials in Washington. Field commanders put in calls to Central Command’s sophisticated operations center near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Franks’ command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, and to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington, DC. Rumsfeld eventually gave an order to attack, but it was too late. The convoy had driven off.

Kill Lists

The policy of requiring approval through a chain of command extending to Congressional oversight committees proved too time consuming and was deemed too clumsy for actual combat. Instead, in the Predator Drone program the process of deciding when and where to strike has been delegated to a group of principles comprised of members of the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and various intelligence agencies. While the White House refuses to divulge details of this classified program, a January 31, 2012 statement by President Barack Obama acknowledged the existence of the program but rejected claims that it represents a threat to civilians and the international order. However, an in-depth investigation by Greg Miller of the Washington Post claims that, “[t]he convergence of military and intelligence resources has created blind spots in congressional oversight. Intelligence committees are briefed on CIA operations, and JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] reports to armed services panels. As a result, no committee has a complete, unobstructed view.” Targets are added to a set of CIA and JSOC ‘kill lists’ that contain three hundred to four hundred names, ranging from Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders to an international group of warlords and drug dealers connected to the financial and logistical side of the war. Although CIA and JSOC programs share aircraft, and possibly key operational personnel, they operate under different sections of the law, and are overseen by different Congressional committees.

Even more alarming is the way the drone program seems to obliterate what should be important distinctions about what counts as aiding and abetting terrorism. Anwar Al-Awlaki was the U.S. citizen and jihadist cleric killed in a drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011. While he undoubtedly played a role in Al-Qaeda’s propaganda, and his lectures and blog posts were cited as radicalizing factors for several known terrorist plots, decisive evidence linking him to operational details of any attack has not been uncovered.

In order to kill high value targets, the drone program has resorted to ploys that stretch the limits of morality. A May 19, 2012 attack on a Taliban safe house at Khaisur village in North Waziristan was followed by a second strike on rescuers combing through the rubble, in contravention of Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention, which prohibits the targeting of medical workers and protects wounded enemy soldiers. Similarly, an operation against the senior Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud involved luring him into the open at the funeral of a lower-ranking Taliban officer. The strike, on June 23, 2009, was botched, killing eighty-three of the thousands of mourners attending the funeral but not Mehsud.

The Predator drone program raises disturbing questions about how technology has facilitated the development of a significant new policy for the conduct of war that is able to evade democratic accountability. Citizens in a democracy work collaboratively to define national goals and the proper means to achieve them. The Predator program, given its covert nature and technological dominance of the intelligence system, has not been subject to this process of public negotiation. Because it kills bad people, it is assumed to be good. The technology of the Predator drone enables a seductive vision: anyone who intends to harm America simply dies—without the need for invasion or public debate. Yet, there is no way to cross every name off the list. The intelligence apparatus will always be able to find new enemies, valid or not. Rather than ending the War on Terror, the Predator drone has crystalized it. It has also crystalized the anger and resentment of the people who live under the cameras and missiles of Predator drones. The Predator has insinuated itself into the execution of American statecraft. It is unlikely that political leaders will end a program exploiting Predator drone technology that significant parts of the American government have come to rely on.

Michael Burnam-Fink is a doctoral student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology Program of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He was a 2011 Breakthrough Generation Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, and served as a science policy intern in 2008 in the office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. He writes for the online journal Science Progress.