Scientists in Danger in Afghanistan, Their Research in Jeopardy
Sept. 3, 2021 -- Scientific research is becoming one of the casualties as the Taliban again take control of Afghanistan, say experts who have lived and worked in the region.
Kenneth Holland PhD is the dean of academics and research at O.P. Jindal Global University, India was the president of American University of Afghanistan (Kabul) from 2017 through 2019.
WebMD told him that Afghanistan is losing the "scientific mind", which is one of its most precious national assets.
Holland said that scientists, who were funded by the United States government as well as grants from Western organisations, are now "in danger" because the Taliban regard anyone who works for the U.S. and its allies to be a 'traitors'.
Holland states that over the past 10 years, Afghanistan has seen a marked increase in quality and quantity of scientific research.
He points out that the Ministry of Higher Education changed academic promotion criteria five years ago, at the request of the World Bank.
"Faculty were for the first times required to publish articles at peer-reviewed international journal journals in order to get promoted to full professor," says he.
A World Bank-funded Higher Education Development Project awarded grants to faculty that submitted strong research proposals for the Ministry of Higher Education.
Through the higher education project and United States Agency for International Development’s University Support and Workforce Development Project, upgrades were made to laboratories and provided training for technicians and lab assistants.
Holland states that the Taliban have a suspicion of scientific research and science generally, as they consider Western science to be 'anti-Islamic'. The West has many funding sources that are suspicious, including those outside of the West. There is no funding from within for scientific research.
In an article in Nature, Hamidullah Waizy, a researcher at Kabul Polytechnic University, said across Kabul, most universities and public offices remain closed.
The Taliban say they want officials to continue working, the article explains, but it is not clear what that means.
"The future is very uncertain," Waizy told Nature, adding that he has been seeking safety at home.
For help, academics reached out to their colleagues from other countries.
Shakardokht jafari (PhD) was born in Afghanistan and was forced to leave her home to seek refuge in Iran by the war that broke out at six years of age.
She tells WebMD she has worked in Surrey in the United Kingdom for the last decade, and is a visiting researcher at the University of Surrey, but she has returned, now and then, to work as a medical physicist and lecturer in Kabul.
"Because I was among the minority scientists [in Afghanistan], I felt unsafe and my family was unsafe," she says.
Jafari states that her business was only possible if she had the technology and safety available in the UK.
She has become well-known to her international colleagues for starting her own research company, TRUEInvivo, which is developing radiation-detecting technology to track the amount and spread of radiation therapy in cancer patients to help doctors with more accurate dosing.
She says that in the last week alone, she has heard from more than 1,000 researchers asking her for help and advice on continuing their work.
They are confused. They seem terrified. She says they are hiding.
Jafari said she was looking for outside assistance to help her fellow scientists continue their work in Afghanistan.
She says that scientists must be transported to safe places and assisted to incorporate their knowledge into professional work so they don't become taxi drivers.
Although she is accused of contributing to Afghanistan's brain-drain, once they are safe "these researchers will be nationalist enough" to return to Afghanistan.
She says, "I request the scientific community of other countries to not forget about the scientists from Afghanistan."
An editorial in Nature on Wednesday made a similar plea.
Pleas for Help
"Researchers at risk must be able to leave and to resume their lives in countries that can provide them with safety and security," the editorial said. Researchers in Afghanistan must support Afghans staying put, but they must also work hard to help their neighbors and others further afield.
The Scholars at Risk organization has issued an urgent plea for help.
European Union and European government institutions are asked to waive any home and intent-to return requirements which may be applicable to visa applications for Afghan researchers and scholars in the near future.
Scholars at Risk claims that many European universities are willing to house scholars for a temporary period. It asks governments to seize this opportunity and expedite the process of those who are available to do so, as well as providing support logistically.