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September 13, 2010
Volume 88, Number 37
p. 38
Article Appeared Online September 3, 2010

Jordan Conference Stirs Controversy

International: Nobel Laureates suspect sinister motives in absence of Israeli scientists; many others disagree

William G. Schulz

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Hoffmann Cornell University Photography

A call to boycott an upcoming international chemistry conference in Jordan has been issued by Chemistry Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, who was to be an invited speaker. He says that no chemists in neighboring Israel were invited to speak at the meeting—the 11th Eurasia Conference on Chemical Sciences (ECC)—a situation he finds unacceptable given the stature of many Israeli chemists, including three Nobel Laureates.

Hoffmann says he suspects personal or political motives are behind the failure to invite Israelis to the conference, which will be held on Oct. 6–10 at the Dead Sea. He has requested that the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) drop its cosponsorship and has made his concerns about the meeting known to the press.

Some Israeli officials share Hoffmann's concerns about the absence of Israeli scientists invited to speak at the meeting. Bob Lapidot, director of the international division of the Israel Academy of Sciences & Humanities, wrote to IUPAC that "this situation is distressing." He called on the organization to guarantee Israeli representation at the meeting as a condition of its cosponsorship.

An Israeli Nobel Laureate, Aaron Ciechanover of Technion—Israel Institute of Technology, says: "I suspect that the organizers surrendered to pressure from the government, and it may not have been their own intention, as I met the chairman of the meeting in Manila in the previous Eurasia meeting, and he promised me explicitly to invite me. No doubt in my mind that the Israelis were boycotted and excluded politically."

But Amal Al-Aboudi, secretary of ECC and a professor of chemistry at the University of Jordan, counters: "We did not start from a preset closed list formulated on our own. We also considered the request of chemists who expressed interest in contributing to the conference and showed readiness to help young chemists and graduate students. The criteria also took into consideration the objectives of the conference and the readiness of participants to build links with researchers and graduate students from developing countries in the region. All nominated scientists have been contacted, and those who expressed interest were invited. We have not excluded any nominated chemist. If the list of nominated potential invitees included a prominent Israeli chemist, we would have considered inviting him."

IUPAC officials say the conference meets all of their requirements for inclusiveness and thus no grounds exist to justify a withdrawal of sponsorship. "IUPAC sponsorship is not in any way conditional on selection of plenary or invited speakers," says David StC. Black, secretary general of IUPAC and a professor of chemistry at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. "It is conditional on allowing free access of all bona fide chemists to attend and participate. Professor Hoffmann's complaint relates only to the absence of Israeli plenary and invited speakers."

What's more, conference organizers say they did invite an Israeli chemist, Yizhak Marcus of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, but he was unable to attend. Marcus sits on the international advisory committee for the conference. Marcus, however, says he has not been invited to the conference.

In a letter to Hoffmann, Black wrote, "I am sorry that you have been offended by this issue, and fully accept your right to withdraw your own attendance. However, I am disappointed that you will thereby lose an opportunity to help create some goodwill."

The president of IUPAC, Nicole J. Moreau of the Comitê National de la Chimie, in Paris, wrote to Hoffmann: "I do not intend to ask the organizers why they did not invite speakers from Israel. I trust you understand that this is not a personal decision, but that this is because it is not the role of IUPAC to interfere with the organizers' choices and decisions. I am sorry that we do not agree on this matter."

Interviews with many people who are affiliated with or planning to attend the conference make clear that, so far, Hoffmann's campaign against the conference has led only to confusion, hurt feelings, and a sense of alienation. Conference organizers say they have felt threatened by Hoffmann, and they do not understand his ire over what is, at worst, an unfortunate oversight, not a deliberate act. They wish he would reconsider and attend the meeting, where he could discuss the situation openly as other invited speakers plan to do in a session that has been added to the meeting program because of Hoffmann's concerns.

But Hoffmann is sticking to his guns. In a letter to fellow speakers—some 100 scientists from around the world—he wrote, "My personal feeling is that an international conference held in Jordan in fact should have gone out of the way to bring Israeli speakers and scientists there, so that their chemists should get to know each other. The opposite has happened. I have decided not to attend the conference. I would urge you to reconsider your attendance as well."

Herschbach Linda Wang/C&EN

At C&EN's press time, only one other invited speaker, Chemistry Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach of Harvard University, had also decided not to attend the meeting. He insists, however, that his decision is not part of any boycott, although he says he is in complete agreement with Hoffmann's concerns. If he attended the meeting, Herschbach says, "I would feel I am taking part in a sham."

Hoffmann says the controversy began in 2009, when he was invited to the conference and when the Middle East Science Fund, an organization to promote scientific cooperation in the region, asked him to organize an auxiliary program for young people at the conference. He says he accepted the invitations at the urging of Herschbach. "I have a track record of doing things for young people," Hoffmann says.

Next, Hoffmann says, he asked to see a list of the countries of participating students. He noted that there were no Israeli or Iranian students on the list and, with Herschbach, sent a letter to the fund pointing this out. "Dudley and I then got a letter that the program for young people was canceled," Hoffmann says. "I became suspicious at that point. I suspect it was canceled because Israelis were not invited."

Hoffmann then turned his attention to the list of invited speakers for the Eurasia Conference. "There was not a single Israeli," he says. "It just didn't pass the smell test." He began his campaign to have Israelis included at the conference in 2010 and issued his call for a boycott in August.

After news of Hoffmann's actions became public in a Science magazine article last month (2010, 329, 1006), Herschbach issued the following statement: "I do not advocate a boycott, but have withdrawn from the Eurasia Chemistry Conference to express my personal disapproval. The unexplained cancellation of an auxiliary program for students, followed by failure to ask any among the many outstanding Israeli chemists, even three Nobel Laureates, to come as invited speakers, contradicts the basic purpose of ECC 'to expose students and young scientists in developing countries to top-level chemistry researchers.' It also violates the long-honored principle that 'science knows no borders,' a principle that should be affirmed in the conduct of any international meeting."

Other invited speakers to the conference disagree with Hoffmann and Herschbach's assessment and Hoffmann's call for a boycott. They say that scientists from other countries were also not invited as speakers and that no one is raising an outcry over those situations. Says one chemist, if a boycott happens, no one will remember the meeting and all the goodwill it will have fostered. What they will remember is the boycott.

Hoffmann acknowledges the disagreements and even points to a letter he received from noted science educator Zafra Lerman, who is from Israel and is now a U.S. citizen. She has devoted most of her professional life to building relationships among people, through science, as a bridge to peace.

Lerman wrote to Hoffmann, "I agree with you 100% that somebody from Israel should have been invited, and we should continue to fight for that. But the question is what is the best way?"

Rather than a boycott, Lerman says, Israelis should be invited to submit abstracts for the meeting to participate in that way. She notes that although the meeting has been well publicized around the world for nearly three years, no Israelis have submitted abstracts or even registered for the meeting.

American Chemical Society President-Elect Nancy B. Jackson says: "I was stunned when I got the e-mail from Hoffmann. I am really, really sorry this is going on. You change the world by making relationships." Jackson plans to attend the conference.

The chairman of the conference's international organizing committee, Bernd Rode, a chemistry professor at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria, says he wrote to Hoffmann trying to defuse the situation. He says he tried to negotiate a solution to the controversy between Hoffmann and conference organizers in Jordan before Hoffmann's call for a boycott was issued but that meeting plans were mostly in place.

"Why did he wait until the last minute?" asks Rode. He says he regrets that there will be no Israelis at the conference, "but Hoffmann should not have started with a threat two months before the conference."

In his letter to Hoffmann, Rode wrote: "to act by letters to all invited speakers trying to prevent them from participation in an event which is one of the very few chances for junior scientists from developing countries to meet world-class researchers and academic teachers is definitely not the approach one would expect from an academic person. The same is true for your announcement to involve scientific journals and the press in your campaign. All of these give us the impression that it is rather you who puts politics above science and not the organizers in Jordan."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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